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Tokyo underground
A UK region 2 DVD review of HOUSE OF BAMBOO by Slarek
 

Sometimes I get the feeling that a portion of the critical fraternity only grudgingly accepts Sam Fuller as a director of note, swayed by the acclaim from filmmakers whose opinion they value (Martin Scorsese, Wim Wenders, Bertrand Tavernier, Jonathan Demme, Quentin Tarantino, et al) but actually not that keen on many of Fuller's films. Fuller is seen a workmanlike teller of B-movie style yarns who occasionally made something special that it's genuinely OK to admire, as with Shock Corridor, Naked Kiss or The Big Red One.

House of Bamboo generally doesn't make that list and as a result often gets unfairly dismissed. The detractors tend to have the same complaints, that the setting is irrelevant, that indigenous gangsters the Yakuza don't even get a mention, and that the concept of a group of ex-American servicemen running rackets on Japanese soil behind a front of pachinko arcade management is impossibly far-fetched. These factors, they infer, render any other qualities largely irrelevant. I beg to differ. An involving hard-boiled thriller in its own right, House of Bamboo is also a fascinating barometer of western attitudes to Japan in the post-war years and one whose plot and characters are neither as fanciful nor out-of-date as some have suggested.

In mid-50s Tokyo, a train is hijacked and a consignment of arms stolen, a robbery that leaves one of the gang – an American ex-soldier – shot by his own colleagues and left for dead. He's questioned by the American military but dies without revealing anything. Enter Eddie Kenner, an ex-soldier with a criminal record and a bad attitude who tries his luck squeezing protection money out of pachinko parlour managers. He doesn't get far. He's only on his second such threat when he is thrown at the feet of Sandy Dawson, the head of a gang made up of former American servicemen who run a sizeable number of the city's pachinko arcades, which serve as a front for their criminal activities. Impressed by Eddie's shady history, Sandy recruits and takes quite a liking to him, not realising that his criminal record has been carefully falsified and that Eddie is working undercover for the US military.

The first American feature to be shot completely in Japan, House of Bamboo takes an inevitably tourists-eye view of Tokyo, to the degree that reality has been doctored to conform to a 1950s American view of how Japan should look. Thus almost every woman you see is dressed in a kimono, Fuji mountain and Kamakura's Daibutsu (giant Buddha) are prominently featured, and walls and shops are plastered with signs that sometimes make no literary sense, kanji characters selected for their visual appeal rather than meaning. But the location shooting also captures detail that would simply not have been present in a US-based production, such as the western hairstyles sported by women already developing a taste for all things American, and signs of the early stages of economic and industrial recovery that see main streets startlingly light on traffic, particularly when compared to modern day Japan. And its always good to hear actual Japanese spoken instead of comically accented English, even if it is confined to the background characters.

Made just ten years after the end of World War 2 and only three years after official US occupation ended, the film also reflects America's changing but still uncertain attitudes to the issue of mixed race relationships. Eddie's romantic and (we presume) sexual involvement with Mariko had its real-life equivalent in the GIs stationed in Japan who became involved with and in many cases married local girls, but this was still largely uncharted territory in American movies (Joshua Logan's prejudice-busting Sayonara was still two-years off), something actress Shirley Yamaguchi's slightly western looks and accent and word-perfect English were no doubt a concession to. The film also captures the local hostility to such relationships, with Mariko subsequently shunned by her immediate neighbours, a prejudice you'll still find distinct traces of in present-day Japan.

The concept of a group of American gangsters running pachinko parlours has come in for particular ridicule, but in post-war Japan the pachinko arcades were largely under Chinese or Korean ownership and their links to organised crime are legendary. I'm not aware of evidence that gangland America had a stake in the post-war pachinko business, but in the 'what if' stakes, this is not as far fetched as some have suggested.

Not all of the elements are specific to the time the film was made. Eddie's embarrassment at the whole Japanese bathing experience is something I've observed more than once as westerners encounter their first on-sen bath, and his attempts to communicate by speaking English slowly and loudly at the locals remains depressingly common amongst the lazier western tourists. And in the present world situation you can read what you like into the concept of ex-members of an occupying army exploiting the local population in the pursuit of unprincipled profit.

But in the end, House of Bamboo lives or dies not by its social subtext but its effectiveness as a crime thriller, and although short on plot complexity and originality (the film is a partial remake of William Keighley's 1948 The Street with No Name), Fuller's brisk, no-nonsense handling, Joe MacDonald's scope cinematography and Robert Ryan's deliciously judged turn as the cool but deadly Sandy Dawson invigorate the story, charging it with the sort of fat-free energy that gave so many of Fuller's movies the edge over their bigger-budgeted brethren. There's little of the lively character interplay that distinguished several of the director's early films, but his distinctive stamp is still evident throughout, from the unflinching brutality of Dawson's justice to the thrillingly executed tracking shot as the gang flee a robbery and an audacious climactic high-rise funfair shoot-out. House of Bamboo may not be top drawer Fuller, but it's still a worthy, enjoyable and smartly executed work that deserves more than the casual dismissal it too often receives.

sound and vision

Framed in its original 2.55:1 CinemaScope ratio and anamorphically enhanced, it's hard to believe from the transfer here that House of Bamboo is over 50 years old. The picture quality is consistently excellent for a film of this vintage, with colour, contrast and sharpness all very impressive, the slightly unnatural hues familiar to colour films of the period. There's hardly a dust spot here and no sign of scratches or other damage. Nice one.

The second surprise is the stereo soundtrack, which is true to the 4-track stereo original, including its distinct separation. Designed for speakers positioned behind the scope screen, it can seem a little over-sensitive on home systems with widely spread front speakers. This is never a problem, though, and sound quality is otherwise clean and clear.

extra features

Trailer (2:16)
A none too subtle sell that likes the word 'sensational'.

summary

A sometimes unfairly maligned gangster thriller that uses its Japanese locations well and whose relaxed multiculturalism is typical of the director's early works. There's plenty here to whet the appetite of Fuller devotees, in the hard-boiled action, in Robert Ryan's delicious bad guy and in the ruthless nature of gang justice. It looks terrific on Optimum's DVD, though loses out slightly to Fox's US release, which includes a James Ursini and Alain Silver commentary, behind-the-scenes and Movietone news footage.

House of Bamboo

USA 1955
98 mins
director
Samuel Fuller
starring
Robert Ryan
Robert Stack
Shirley Yamaguchi
Cameron Mitchell
Brad Dexter

DVD details
region 2
video
2.55:1 anamorphic
sound
Dolby 2.0 stereo
languages

English / Japanese

subtitles .
none
extras
Trailer
distributor
Optimum
release date
3 September 2007
review posted
2 September 2007

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