Movie Fan Man: Cinema Connoisseur

Traditional, Artsy, Genre-Within-Genre: A Little Something for Everyone

Going Straight Was Never This Tough

by Tony Nash

(A Part of Yakuza & Crime)

(All Opinions are of the author alone)

(Spoiler Free)

Image result for rusty knife 1958

Sabita Naifu (Rusty Knife) (1958) PG-13 ****1/2

Yujiro Ishihara: Yukihiko Tachibana

Mie Kitahara: Keiko Nishida

Akira Kobayashi: Makoto Terada

Shoji Yasui: Prosecutor Karita

Naoki Sugiura Seiji Katsumata

Mari Shiraki: Yuri

Jo Shishido: Shimabara (as Joe Shishido)

Masao Shimizu: Shingo Mano

Nobuo Kawakami: Detective Kano

Saburo Hiromatsu: Akira Mano

Written by: Shintaro Ishihara & Toshio Masuda

Directed by: Toshio Masuda

Synopsis: Former Yakuza thugs Tachibana and Terada, just recently paroled after serving time for murder, are being sought by the police for knowledge they might have on a politician’s death. Wanting desperately to finger a smug Yakuza chieftain for the crime, the police hound the duo for answers. The duo, wanting to be left alone to start afresh, begin their own investigation which reveals someone in the government may have hired the Yakuza to kill the politician.

Related image

In 1957 Nikkatsu Studios, Japan’s oldest film company, began to rebuild its empire in the post war period with a series of Crime Drama’s in the style of Hollywood Noir’s. 1958’s Sabita Naifu proved to be one of best early period examples of the Hollywood influence on World Cinema, well recreating the classic light and dark contrasts in cinematography and lighting, and of course the tragic, broken characters trying to survive in a world they’re finding harder and harder to understand. Former hoodlums desperately trying to prove they’ve reformed as the police try to insinuate they’re a threat to their ex colleagues is one of the classic themes of the Noir genre, and has the film feeling very real as the characters involved seem like real people trying to reach for the ideal dream the Japanese were going for as hope was reviving in the post war period. When the thugs begin to realize they’re scapegoats for a mysterious government official who’s the real brains behind the Yakuza crime wave, they quickly look to clear their names before the official silences them forever. Taking another of the classic themes of the reformed bad men trying to stay straight and setting it in the post war period as the government of Japan were fighting corrupt officials and gangsters trying to undermine the recent economic boom makes for an interesting story and journey.

Image result for rusty knife 1958

Yujiro Ishihara, the Japanese equivalent of Elvis Presley, successfully made a second image for himself as the world-weary gangster Tachibana. Both tired of having to prove he’s a changed man to the police, and proving to his ex-colleague’s he doesn’t have any intention of reprisals or comebacks, Tachibana tries to navigate his new life in the wake of public opinion and pre-conceptions regarding his past. At first he looks to discover the truth simply to get both the police and former cohorts off his back, but when it looks like he and his close friend are being set up as patsies by a corrupt government official and an ambitious Yakuza leader looking to make a fortune and gain prestige in the new Democratic Japan, Tachibana decides to take on both the official and the Yakuza doing his dirty work. Ishihara, who was primarily a matinee idol and singer of the period, showed he was more than just a smooth voice and unique face with a good set of acting skills as he gives depth and personality to a character not far off from many true-life people in the post war period. Another interesting aspect is that this is one of the few times Ishihara doesn’t sing on camera. Even when he was doing non-musical roles, the filmmakers would often try to include a song for Ishihara to sing, since he was often promoting new albums and new song writers while making movies. He does sing the opening song of the film credits, but off camera, making this a pre-Elvis Charo! type of role.

(Interesting note: Ishihara’s brother Shintaro, now a controversial senator in Japan, co-authored the film’s script when he had dreams of becoming a successful writer.)

Image result for rusty knife 1958

Mie Kitahara, a popular actress of the 50’s and 60’s and the wife of Yujiro Ishihara, also shines bright in the role of Keiko. While not seen too much in the film, her character’s affiliation to another character provides a crucial piece of evidence in the politician’s death. An orphan raised by s kindly court official, Keiko too is world-weary because the role of women in the new Japan seem to be hovering in a kind of limbo, having both a kind of new independent freedom and yet still tied to the formal traditions of their ancestors. While not the typical Film-Noir female character in that she’s neither a femme fatale or a lost soul having difficulty finding her place in the world, Keiko is still a woman who feels she has a place she hasn’t found yet, and soon finds herself falling for the ex-gangster Tachibana, sure she can help him in the new life he wants to live. When it looks like she could hold the key to solving the crime her boyfriend is being hounded for, Tachibana and his buddy find themselves having to protect her as well as themselves.

Image result for rusty knife 1958

Akira Kobayashi, Ishihara’s compatriot in the singing industry and another aspiring actor, got his big break in the role of Terada. A friend of Tachibana who took the rap along with him for a murder charge, Terada is thinking of a similar quiet life for himself as he goes through closure in his old life. When he and Tachibana are fingered as involved in a politician’s death, he helps his friend in figuring out how a second rate, arrogant soldier in their former clan rose to the rank of boss. Kobayashi shows early on he would be a good actor, having a look alike face to Elvis, and a natural charisma that allowed him to well portray a man wanting a new life, but at the time has a time of breaking old friendships despite the risk continued association with said people would mean for him.

Image result for rusty knife 1958

In an early acting role, Joe Shishido, who’d later become one of Nikkatsu’s popular stars, has a brief, but important role as Shimabara. Shimabara is a small-time hoodlum who discovers the identity of the man who’s behind the rise of the local Yakuza boss. When he decides to go to the authorities after his blackmail attempts fail, Shimabara is conveniently thrown from a moving train bound for Tokyo. His death, and the cops’ loss of their only lead, is what catapults their hounding of Tachibana and Terada in what they may or may not know regarding the info Shimabara was about to give the authorities.

Image result for rusty knife 1958

Mixing both commentary on the growing economic prosperity and the corruption that followed in its wake, and pure entertaining mystery and suspense, Sabita Naifu makes for quite the complex and interesting film. Two hoodlums fighting for their lives and their chances to go straight are being thwarted by greedy opportunists and seriously hampered by obsessed police investigators make for exciting entertainment and a lovely homage to the classics of 1940’s Film Noir. Good performances, solid story, and fine use of cinematography and lighting help evoke a mix of new style and classic style.

(I highly recommend this one for its flawless mixture of entertainment value and keeping with showcasing the relevant issues of the period without sounding overtly intellectual or preachy. Yujiro Ishihara and Akira Kobayashi were able to prove to critics and producers alike they were more than just pretty faces and had some serious talent under their belts that would lead to better and better roles for them. The Criterion Collection’s showcasing the of the film in their Eclipse series Nikkatsu Noir set allows it to rise above obscurity and lets new audiences discover it. The audio is fine as always and while the picture shows clear age as the Eclipse series doesn’t do full on restoration, is still clear and fresh enough to not have the problems nearly forgotten prints have)

All images courtesy of Images and their respective owners

for more information

IMDB/Rusty Knife

Wikipedia/Rusty Knife

The Criterion Collection/Rusty Knife

(Please see my write up of A Colt is My Passport for the link to the Nikkatsu Noir Amazon page)


Filed under: Film: Analysis/Overview, Film: Special Topics

%d bloggers like this: