vt The Proud Challenge
Japan / 89 minutes / bw / Toei Dir: Kinji Fukasaku Scr: Susumu Saji Cine: Ichirô Hoshijima Cast: Kôji Tsuruta, Tatsuo Umemiya, Mayumi Ozora, Hitomi Nakahara, Yuko Kuzunoki, Eitarô Ozawa, Tetsurô Tanba.
A first-rate piece of Japanese film noir that’s become unaccountably obscure. I’ve been able to find very little documentation of it online outside IMDB (whose page on the movie is very incomplete and has errors), TV Multiversity (which doesn’t have much) and some sites in Japanese (which language I don’t read, although GoogleTranslate has been helpful). So a lot of the information here, notably in terms of casting, is pretty goddam tentative, based on viewing the movie itself and a heck of a lot of image searching on Bing. That goes for the screengrab captions too.
Kôji Tsuruta as Kuroki.
Investigative journalist Kuroki (Tsuruta) today works for the minor newspaper Tekko Shinpo, but back in the day he was a hotshot at the far more prestigious Maicho. That was before he was fired ten years ago for refusing to give up on his stories about the murder of a young woman called Yamaguchi Natsuko (uncredited; appears only in stills) during the time of the Korean War and the Allied occupation of Japan.
The Allies were quick to depict the dead woman as a prostitute, so people would quickly lose interest in her fate. In fact, she worked for the Japanese–Russian League, and Special Ops killed her after her refusal to become a mole for them.
Working in collaboration with the Americans was Takayama Hiroshi (Tanba), and he played a leading role in their attempt to torture Kuroki into silence.
Tetsurô Tanba as Takayama.
Now Kuroki and his photographer sidekick Hatano (Umemiya) are investigating the illegal sale of MS machine guns by Mihara Industries to wealthy rightist counter-revolutionaries in some unspecified Southeast Asian nation. A group of those counter-revolutionaries is currently in Japan to finalize the sale, as a supposedly cultural delegation under the auspices of the Toyo (not Tokyo) Arts Society—a front organization whose head, Kuroki learns, is the loathed Takayama Hiroshi, his onetime torturer.
Tatsuo Umemiya as Hatano.
Kuroki learns that an old acquaintance of his, Hiromi (Nakahara), has a job in Mihara Industries. Now married to a disabled American GI, she recalls how Kuroki helped her and her father out when the latter was a street bootblack and she the waif he worked to support. But Kuroki’s generous like that, as we learn: it proves he’s also been helping the murdered woman’s kid sister (Ozora) all these years, even putting her through college and continuing to take an interest in her welfare.
Hitomi Nakahara as Hiromi.
Mayumi Ozora as Natsuko’s sister.
A prime figure in the “cultural delegation”—certainly the individual the press most focus on—is the beautiful Marin (Kuzunoki). In reality this magnetic femme fatale is using her allure to help her play a double game—a double game that becomes a triple game when Takayama, who’s always ready to sell out his masters if he senses a better prospect elsewhere, seduces her into working for him instead.
Yuko Kuzunoki as Marin.
There’s lots more story; Hokori Takaki Chosen packs a tremendous amount of plot into its relatively modest running time, and as a result never really has the time to be dull. The overarching story’s concern is, of course, whether or not Kuroki will survive to expose not just the obvious criminals but also the cesspit of Japan’s collusion with the Allied occupiers—arrogant in the power they still wield in the defeated country—and the corrupt pusillanimity of the Japanese press.
Kuroki’s survival isn’t merely a matter of keeping the organism alive. For years he’s worn impenetrable sunglasses to shield himself from the emotional tempests of the world. As Ozora’s (infuriatingly unnamed) character points out to him, if he wants to become a fully alive human being again he needs to learn how to do without the shades.
Hoshijima’s cinematography is full of slants and shadows.
Hokori Takaki Chosen is very conscious of its roots in classic film noir (ironic, when you consider its anti-American sentiments), and nowhere is this more evident than in Ichirô Hoshijima’s cinematography, which makes major play with high- and low-angle shots, odd perspectives, shadows and artfully created patterns of starkness, whether black or white. Yuko Kuzunoki offers us, in Marin, a femme fatale for the ages, and I guess you could say that Tetsurô Tanba matches her as an homme fatal. In fact, I gather the movie has been criticized on the grounds that Tanba’s portrayal of the villain pales Kôji Tsuruta’s portrayal of the hero into insignificance, although personally I don’t find that to be true.
The movie’s theme song, brashly American in imitation of contemporary US movies, is paradoxically played over documentary footage of Japanese student demonstrations against the oppressor. I assumed at first that the fact it’s so bloody dire (the vocals sound like someone learning the hard way she should include more fiber in her diet) was to make a deliberate political point, but we get a performance of it later in a nightclub where it seems we’re meant to tap our toes appreciatively, and it’s still every bit as godawful. I suppose it’s what passed for Japanese hard rock back in the 1960s.
There was a subtitled copy of Hokori Takaki Chosen briefly on YouTube but it seems to have vanished again. Here’s hoping some enlightened DVD company will see fit to rescue this gem from its undeserved obscurity.