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Black Tight Killers

Black Tight Killers

Written by Richard Durrance on 05 Mar 2024

Distributor Radiance • Certificate 15 • Price £17.99

What happens when you take the assistant director (Yasuharu Hasebe) to Seijun Suzuki and one of the same stars as Suzuki's film of the same year, 1966, Tokyo Drifter? Black Tight Killers, that's what.

Hondo (Akira Kobayashi) is back from Saigon, a photographer heedless of the violence around him. Good thing, too, because on the flight back he likes the look of the stewardess, Yuriko (Chieko Matsubara) and once back in Tokyo invites her out for dinner. As first dates go this is a doozy, Yuriko disappears, Hondo is attacked by go-go girl dancer ninjas, arrested by the police for murder then finds himself in the midst of opposing forces all after some missing money.

Black Tight Killers is truly bonkers, and like Hasebe’s mentor Suzuki’s earlier film The Flowers and the Angry Waves (which coincidentally stars Kobayashi and Matsubara) it’s one where, after a while, it’s best to allow your brain to turn off.

Not that this is a brainless film, but aspects of the plot may fry said grey matter if you try too hard to follow it. Best to just allow the visuals and the action on screen to wash over you. Visually this is very, very influenced by Suzuki in its use of colour and style, often brandishing bold sways of colour, scenes or shots using a single colour palette, even down to one scene where Yuriko falls through paper into room dowsed in red, then then into another that’s blue. Arguably, too, it’s very 1960s in this sensibility, very much getting into the swinging 60's feel, but what interested me was outside Suzuki it feels most influenced by Stanley Donen – yes, the director of Singin' in the Rain though not that film per se but his sixties thriller Charade. So Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn meet Seijun Suzuki synthetised by Yasuharu Hasebe? Not exactly. Watching Black Tight Killers unfold it seemed that the story was influenced greatly by Donen’s arguable masterpiece (really, it’s an utter joy to watch) as are some of that film’s character dress: the two men early on that finger Hondo as a murderer, visually BAM! straight out of Charade. This is no bad thing, not at all, because Black Tight Killers feels like a director taking a load of different influences and crafting a joyous film all of their own yet also begging, borrowing and stealing freely from the absolute best while always layering it with Hasabe’s own vision.  

The opening scene says this best of all in a way because it’s a war scene (sort of) because all the gunshots are fireworks. As an audience we get what we are seeing is meant to be violence but it’s an explosion of colour and visual panache. All of it totally unreal and do we care? Of course not because it’s wonderful to see. More treats are in store just minutes later, as Hondo is in the city, searching for Yoriko in the dark night and in the background the neon lights seem to hover in inky darkness, a garish noir backdrop that's a delight to behold. This is pure cinematic excess and also pure cinematic joy. It's wonderfully artificial, but without the niggling irritation of, say, Hitchcock when his back projections are so lazily done. In contrast, Hasabe goes full "Fuck It" and layers filters over his back projections: pure yellow for tunnels as artificial light  is made more artificial still, and blue once out. It reminds one of silent cinema, late 1910s to early 20s where filters were so often used to suggest times of day or moods. It’s unreal to the point of absurdity but we’re meant to revel in it, and I’d defy anyone not to.

OK, so the story is nuttier than the most luxurious fruitcake but that never for a moment matters because the film is so thoroughly entertaining. What other films has go-go girl ninjas that use unique ninitsu techniques like spitting bubble-gum into the eyes to blind their foes or use records like shirukens? This is so in keeping with the spirit of the film, as is how Hondo himself seems to live with an elderly ninja, in a ninja house. What? Why? Who cares? Hasabe keeps the film running along at speed, sensibly so, and at a mere 85-minutes it’s the perfect running time as we sprint to keep up with him, almost breathlessly enjoying the visual splendour and crazed entertainment around us.

As you can imagine the film is rich in humour and it’s nice to see Chieko Matsubara get in the last laugh of the film. Her role is often absent but key to the story and never just some drab addition. Then again this is a film without an ounce of fat.

Ultimately Black Tight Killers is one of those breeds of film that exist in what is to me an intriguing space of cinema. At risk of sounding like a worse wanker than I normally do, it’s because it is an easy film to overlook and also not release, when say most of Keisuke Kinoshita’s films are totally absent in the UK (I use that example having watched one during the recent Japan Foundation film series) and you can say: why are we not focusing on these missing (to us) auteurs? But a film like Black Tight Killers is just as relevant. These days I rarely watch contemporary films because I feel like there is so much rich cinematic history to absorb, of all kinds, if, ironically perhaps, I’ve seen more of Hasabe’s films than Kinoshita’s. More to the point Radiance is again really picking up such a rich vein of films, to the point where it feels like I am repeating myself and at risk of being asked if I am being paid backhanders to be nice about them (chance would be a fine thing) but it’s true, 2024 so far has been an absolute stunner for Japanese films from them and I’ve only watched the first three.  

That this was so different to I, the Executioner and The Sting of Death is also the point, all were wonderful in their own ways, and Black Tight Killers arguably the most absurdly, colourfully joyous. Kickback, have fun, how can you not?

[Addendum, as we're talking about uniquely odd films, we can only hope Radiance, or anyone, give us a blu-ray of Suzuki’s penultimate film, Pistol Opera...]

Stylish madness 1960s style: Tokyo Drifter with its hair down and dancing non-stop with go-go girl ninjas

Richard Durrance
About Richard Durrance

Long-time anime dilettante and general lover of cinema. Obsessive re-watcher of 'stuff'. Has issues with dubs. Will go off on tangents about other things that no one else cares about but is sadly passionate about. (Also, parentheses come as standard.) Looks curiously like Jo Shishido, hamster cheeks and all.


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