Japanese Film Noir: Meteor 流星 (1949), and Kachidoki-bashi 勝鬨橋 drawbridge

Meteor 流星  (1949) (82分・35mm・白黒)

This meteor falls to earth.

But first, some background:

A visit to Tokyo’s National Film Center 東京国立近代美術館フィルムセンター clued me in on the key developments in Japanese film history.  The story begins with “magic lanterns” in the 19th century, known as Utsushi-e  写し絵 in Japan (phantasmagoria in the West); this form of art is like a slide projector with elements of movement (see a Dutch demonstration).  Magic lanterns yielded to film, with interesting results – unlike Europe or the United States, where silent films were “narrated” with title cards describing the dialogue or plot points, silent films in Japan were narrated by a live performers called benshi 弁士, katsudō-benshi 活動弁士 or katsuben 活弁.  Benshi would be replaced by the advent of talkies, after which Japanese cinema would begin to emulate many Western film techniques and  technologies.  Among stylistic influences, the dominant and durable influence of film noir would have a deep and lasting impact on Japanese filmmakers.  The best Japanese noir can stand toe to toe with any American or European entries.  Meteor cannot.

NOT from Meteor:

A minor film, Meteor displays trappings of American film noir but is poorly directed by Yutaka Abe 阿部 豊, or perhaps just poorly edited.  Many scenes drag on long after their purpose has been served, and some scenes just seconds long feel superfluous.  A dancing scene littered with quick cuts intended to provide a sense of motion instead provides motion sickness.  Characters and extras occasionally drift in and out of frame for no discernible reason.  The editor makes liberal use of the chemical dissolve, with distracting results (I recall a half-dozen dissolves in less than a minute).

So what’s it about?  The plot went something like this:

A steel mill or some sort of factory is robbed, or maybe someone is killed.  The police and the newspapers converge on the scene and soon a manhunt is underway for the killer.  The killer takes refuge in the 2nd apartment of his prostitute friend.  The police canvass the crowded streets looking for leads.  Meanwhile a young man wooing his girl brings her to a nightclub, a location we will become very familiar with.  The night club performer played by Shirley Yamaguchi pays special attention to guest (M. Wakahara  若原雅夫) at the request of her husband/boyfriend/boss in an attempt to blackmail him (maybe).  The singer and the man fall love, which complicates the plans of a crime boss.  Meanwhile other characters pass through this film without leaving much of an impression.

M. Wakahara 若原雅夫 from First Kiss:

[A note re: Shirley Yamaguchi: will need to spend more time researching her, she sounds fascinating.  Born in China to Japanese parents as Yoshiko Yamaguchi 山口 淑子, she started her film career in China ion 1938, performing under the name Li Xianglan 李香蘭.  These early years were heavily influenced by the politics of the era.  After WWII the Chinese government arrested her for treason and collaboration with the Japanese.  She relocated to Japan, performing as Yoshiko Yamaguchi, and as Shirley Yamaguchi in the United States, followed by Hong Kong under the name Li Xianglan, and has been known as Yoshiko Ōtaka 大鷹 淑子 due to her marriage with Hiroshi Otaka.]

Meteor was tantalizingly close to a decent film.  It bore familiar film noir trappings: the nightclub with femme fatale singer, the dark streets, the showdowns in run-down alleys, the docks at night, the montage of neon lights as to indicate the razzle-dazzle of a night on the town (rather poorly done), and the rapid-fire interviews of shopkeepers and other potential witnesses.  These pieces just didn’t add up.

But wait for the ending.

The singer and her lover are taken hostage by the crime boss 山村聡 and threatens to disfigure her with sulfuric acid.  The police find the hide-out and the ringleader escapes on foot, shooting his way to freedom until his progress is stopped by the opening drawbridge of the Kachidoki-bashi bridge 勝鬨橋 (a landmark in Tokyo that no longer operates as a drawbridge).  The crime boss climbs to the top of the bridge and is eventually shot and killed by the police.  Not a classic standoff, but the historic location made amends for some of the film’s shortcomings.

For more information about Kachidoki Bashi bridge:

A view from the top of Kachidoki bridge when the draw-bridge was in the open position (source):

Images of the bridge: (1) Godzilla wading through the river; (2) a woodblock print; (3) Sign for the Kachidoki Bridge Museum かちどき橋の資料館

And finally, Kachidoki bashi in the forgreound, followed by Tsukiji fish market, and Tokyo Tower in the background (source):

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4 comments

  1. All the way until the end of this post, I was hoping that a real meteor would be a shocking surprise at some random point of the film… I made up for this disappointment by thinking of Eric’s version of this movie. “It’s that movie with the acid and that Chinese turned Japanese actress…(etc.) “

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