Sunday, February 07, 2021

The Films of Yasuzô Masumura

Black Test Car (1962, Japan)
Black Report / Black Statement Book (1963, Japan)

Over the last year, streaming and online movie viewing has become a lot more common for a lot of people around the world. However, many of these streaming options only show new content, including movies which were planned to show in a physical cinema but transitioned online (VOD, virtual film festivals) due to cinema closures. There are few legal streaming options for older cinema and black and white movies,   many of which could have been rented from independent video stores back in the day. Unfortunately a decade ago, these independent video shops disappeared along with the entire video rental industry. Only a few lamented the loss of physical video stores because a majority of the people only cared to see new movies which were readily available online. Yet, it still remains true that many films I could have rented from a video store back in the day can’t be seen via legal streaming options.

This was again emphasized recently when I went searching for older films of Yasuzô Masumura. A few decades ago, I could rent a few of his movies from a local video store including his 1966 movie Irezumi. Yet, that film and others aren’t available to see legally online. I thought of Yasuzô Masumura’s films recently when I came across two new Arrow editions of Black Test Car and Black Report, films I had not seen previously.

Black Test Car is a brilliant film about industrial spying, morality/ethics and boundaries people are willing to cross. The film’s content is utterly relevant to our current times when industrial espionage has increased substantially as has the pressure to be the first to the market with one’s product regardless of the ethics or product’s quality.

There are a lot of memorable lines from the film including:
"You can’t get hung up on morals, you’ll just feel remorse”

The words regarding the car being developed are simple but perfect:

That car’s dirty.
It’s as pitch

The words convey the dirty dealings in the development of the car, the marketing which includes sabotage and stealing data from competitors and the bribing of people involved. The usage of the word 'dirty' to describe the car made me think of
Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive when Driver and Bernie have their meeting:

Driver: my hands are a little dirty

To which Bernie replies: so are mine


Black Report (or Black Statement Book, 1963) is a riveting murder mystery that shares some aspects with Kurosawa’s High and Low, a film that also came out in 1963.

If I had seen Black Test Car and Black Report without knowing the director’s name, I wouldn’t have been able to guess they were from Masumura as they are different from his later films. Although, some aspects of the marketing competition shown in  Black Test Car were first covered in his Giants and Toys (1958). This clip from Giants and Toys echoes our world today, how products are marketed and the discussion of morality.


Relevant reading:

1. Jonathan Rosenbaum: What Masumura Does with Our Madness

2. Rosenbaum again: Discovery Yasuzô Masumura

3. Frédéric St-Hilaire: Individualism in the Land of the Rising Sun: Youth and Rebellion on the Cusp of the Japanese New Wave