No Borders, No Limits: Nikkatsu Action Cinema
by Tom Mes
When we originally reviewed Mark Schilling's book No Borders, No Limits, its publisher, the Udine Far East Film Festival, had forgotten that publishing meant making books available. After selling the gap-filling tome at its 2005 edition to coincide with a groundbreaking tribute to Nikkatsu's action films, once the festivities were over the festival no longer offered it for sale. This very valuable work on a hitherto obscure but important chapter in Japanese film history, we felt, deserved better, much like the films it covered.
Well, it does appear that things have changed, for both the book and the films. FAB Press brings us a fully revised and redesigned edition, while the films themselves are touring North American theaters and a U.S. distribution deal for a large cross-section of the Nikkatsu back catalogue is in the works.
Mention the words Nikkatsu Action to a Japanese film fan and the first name that will spring to mind is Seijun Suzuki. Known for his daring visual shenanigans - fighting detectives swinging off chandeliers, raging yellow sand storms, frame-filling one-way mirrors, and theatrical sets bathed in primary colours - Suzuki's myth rests on the assumption that he was the rebellious odd one out in a landscape otherwise filled with well-behaved anonymous taskmasters who duly made their films to order.
Mark Schilling's No Borders, No Limits, however, clears up that misunderstanding by finally giving us the big picture of the studio and environment that nurtured a style of filmmaking that was a radical break with genre movie conventions to begin with. Nikkatsu was one of Japan's oldest film studios when it was absorbed by Daiei on the eve of World War II, as the film industry was forced to pool its resources into three filmmaking conglomerates in an effort to both economise raw materials and facilitate cinema's support for the war effort. In the early 1950s, it essentially had to start from scratch, what with all its production facilities still owned by Daiei, which continued to exist after the war had ended. When Nikkatsu finally resumed production, with the fortunes it had gathered by distributing foreign films to a hungry audience of city dwellers eager to escape their impoverished lives, it chose to bet not on Japan's indigenous genres like the jidai geki or the yakuza film, but on a new kind of dramatic action template modelled after the American and French films it had been bringing to cinemas in the previous years.
Modelled on westerns, youth films, action comedies, and film noir, Nikkatsu's mukokuseki akushon ('no-nationality' or 'borderless' action) spawned more than a decade's worth of quickly-made, but for the most part imaginative and vivacious genre potboilers, tailored around fledgling, fresh-faced stars like Yujiro Ishihara, Koji Wada, Akira Kobayashi, Jo Shishido, and Tetsuya Watari, and served up in weekly, double-bill doses (i.e. a production of roughly 100 films per year).
Schilling's book starts with a fascinating, in-depth account of the post-war Nikkatsu story, going on to profile the studio's leading stars and directors (including Suzuki and Yasuharu Hasebe, the sole other Nikkatsu action proponent to have found some notoriety in the West), and rounding things off with candid interviews with director Toshio Masuda and star Jo Shishido, both of whom were guests in Udine.
The focus is rightly on the actors here. Seijun Suzuki again proves to have been misrepresented, because Nikkatsu's production system was one tailored around its stars, not its directors. Starting out with their much-hyped Diamond Line, its first quartet of leading men spearheaded by seishun eiga star Yujiro Ishihara, Nikkatsu added new faces to the roster as the old ones either lost their appeal, were incapacitated, or, in the case of Keiichiro Akagi, died an early death. This way, the studio nurtured several generations of movie stars, ending with Meiko Kaji and Tatsuya Fuji in its late 1960s/early 70s Stray Cat Rock series before Nikkatsu made a radical about-face and switched to Roman Porno erotica.
Schilling's book forms an excellent introduction to a vastly overlooked but crucial chapter in the history of Japanese film. It offers crucial information about the workings of the studio system that you won't find in any existing English-language volume on Japanese film history. The author takes a level-headed view, making no attempt to hide the fact that Nikkatsu's conveyor-belt mentality produced more than its share of camera fodder (Shishido readily acknowledges this in a very entertaining interview, in which the formerly hamster-faced star manages to be both self-deprecating and self-aggrandizing), but at the same time Schilling praises the gems and the talents that honed them.
All the problems that marred the original Udine version of No Borders, No Limits have been ironed out for the FAB Press edition: here now are tons of large stills and poster reproductions in both black and white and full colour, a snazzy lay-out, and a text that has been thoroughly revised. In short, this new edition stands as a key volume in the rapidly expanding field of Japanese film books.