Cinema’s canon is well known. If I were to say, “We’ll always have Paris,” or, “No, I am your father,” you’d know exactly what films I was talking about. Not every film that deserves to be alongside those makes it up there, though. Some have even been nearly forgotten, passed over, or practically erased from movie history. This is a column about those films, the ones that exist on dubbed-over VHS tapes and pirated PAL laserdiscs. They are the missing reels from cinema’s history, the empty spaces in its canon.
THE RAMBLING GUITARIST (1959)
directed by BUICHI SAITO
To many, Japan has only one director, and his name is Akira Kurosawa. It’s not their fault that they think that, though. He is regularly the only Japanese filmmaker mentioned on any “best of” list that has to do with film, the director with the most films released by the Criterion Collection, and has inspired countless films, from Star Wars to A Bug’s Life (that is a theory that is backed up by nothing, by the way. But seriously, watch it again; it’s Seven Samurai with a caterpillar). However, looking at only Kurosawa would be like looking only at Steven Spielberg in the realm of American films: they are the biggest names out there. And, you know, Spielberg doesn’t do much for me and Kurosawa isn’t my favorite Japanese director. He’d crack my top ten, though (Ikiru is a pretty perfect film, so just based on that he makes it).
Personally, I much prefer the other face of Japanese cinema, the face that emerged just as Kurosawa was starting to slow down in late 50s and early 60s. During that time, a Japanese studio called Nikkatsu Corporation starting producing strange, low-budget films brimming with violence and sex. These films starred young actors portraying criminals, musicians, vagabonds, sexpots, and anything else that embodied “cool.” It works for me and it certainly worked for Nikkatsu, seeing as their early films heralded in the Japanese New Wave and a torrent of success and money. Forget the days of the honorable samurai protecting the villagers; these films were all about kids beating the hell out of each other, sleeping around with multiple partners, dancing in seedy jazz clubs, and spitting in authority’s face. Not only was the subject matter innovative, but so was the filmmaking itself. Directors like Seijun Suzuki and Ko Nakahira used their tight budgets to create new and stylish cost-saving techniques, which included, among other things, juicing the hell out of their scope lenses (seriously, watch practically any film from the 1960s produced by Nikkatsu. They’re all in the widest of widest widescreen there is, with the sides of the frame squeezing tightly and everything in the middle looking sort of elongated and bloated. I love it).
1960s Nikkatsu films were all about being young, cool, violent, and the exact opposite of the Japan portrayed in Kurosawa’s films. Nothing exemplified this better than the Wataridori series, and especially the installment The Rambling Guitarist, directed by Buichi Saito.
The concept for the Wataridori series is so ridiculous that it loops back around and becomes cool again: a young man named Taki travels around Japan wearing a leather jacket (sometimes with fringes, but sadly not in Rambling Guitarist) while strumming his acoustic guitar, crooning country-and-western songs. He stops in random cities, falls in love with a girl (that girl is usually, inexplicably, played by actress Ruriko Asaoka, who portrays a litany of different women in these films), beats up some gangsters, and pals around with classic Nikkatsu tough-guy Jo Shishido (whose implanted chipmunk-looking cheeks don’t appear as strange in The Rambling Guitarist as they usually do). The series is B-movie madness, with one of the installments even being a Western, Native Americans played by Japanese and all. What keeps it all together and from ever feeling slight or stupid is the artful cinematography and Akira Kobayashi as the wanderer, Taki. He exudes cool (count how many times I say that word in here), control, and effortless style. I wouldn’t be surprised if Jim Jarmusch had seen a number of the Wataridori films—The Rambling Guitarist in particular—and took inspiration from Taki for the character Jun in his film Mystery Train. All in all, Taki is the violent loner with a heart of gold, and who doesn’t want to be that?
Before I get to the meat of the film, I have to share something. Like any fan of strange, foreign films knows, sometimes it’s really difficult to get your hand on a copy of certain films, let alone a good copy. You see, The Rambling Guitarist has never been released in the United States, and I doubt it ever will be. So, with that being said, my copy is sans subtitles. I had no idea what anyone was saying during the course of the film, besides the small phrases I’ve picked up from watching movies (and knowing things like “I see” or “Hello” doesn’t really help with viewing comprehension).
But this isn’t a highfalutin film. This isn’t an existential gaze into the void. This is a movie with upwards of five bar fights, a shoot-out on a ship—wait, two shoot-outs on a ship, tough-guy stare-downs, and cabaret girls baring copious amounts of leg. Clearly story is the least of this film’s concerns, and the story is incredibly easy to follow, anyway. “Why did those men highjack that boat?” you might ask. The exact answer doesn’t really matter; all that matters is that they did it because they are villains and were paid to. In a movie where a character stops mid-fight to punch out a row of windows for no discernable reason, story is not king.
The very first shot of Guitarist is something out of John Ford: dry plants grow over gravel, a mountain rests in the background, and a hopping wagon carrying our hero is pulled by horse over a dirt path. There is no way we can be in Japan. And yet, immediately after the opening credits play over the films fantastic theme, we are taken to a very urban setting: neon signs, cramped streets, steam rising from the gutters. What exactly happened here? What happened is Nikkatsu’s obsession with American pulp and matinee double features: while Yasujiro Ozu and Mikio Naruse dissected and displayed Japanese life with the same authenticity as Vittorio De Sica and Roberto Rossellini did for Italy, Saito and the rest of the Japanese New Wave crew were all about destroying that authenticity. This is the key difference between the French New Wave and the Japanese New Wave: the French were about demolishing and reassembling film. The Japanese were about demolishing and reassembling everyday life. While not affiliated with Nikkatsu, Japanese New Wave directors like Nagisa Oshima and Hiroshi Teshigahara created fantastical films that critiqued and exploded societal expectations. Teshigahara’s Woman in the Dunes (based on the amazing novel by Kobo Abe) doesn’t mirror real life, but rather comments on it and then dismantles it.
How does this connect with the juxtaposition of environments, moods, violence, and sex found in Guitarist? 1960s Nikkatsu films were concerned with lashing out in a society that rarely lashes out. If a film wanted to have a Japanese man singing country-and-western songs while beating up gangsters on a fishing boat, it could. It didn’t matter if it made little sense or any sense at all. That wasn’t the point. Japanese society at that time found itself artistically stiff, stuck in the same ghost stories and Ozuian family dramas it had been telling for years. Nikkatsu came along and essentially said, “Enough of that. Lets blow the whole thing up.”
Rambling Guitarist finds itself blowing up, literally, a mere three minutes in. While sitting alone in a bar, Taki notices two American sailors beating up some street musicians (for whatever reason, the sailor’s dialogue has been dubbed over by Japanese actors speaking in fragmented English). As the rule of the wandering badass goes, Taki intervenes and proceeds to beat the living hell out of the sailors in a spectacular bar room brawl (which includes Taki doing the odd window-smashing bit). The American sailors are thrown through what seems like upwards of seven sheets of glass, beaten by practically every bar stool in the place, and punched by Taki too many times to try to count. It’s a fantastically unafraid and visceral sequence: there is no way an American director could have gotten away with this scene with the Hays Code in place.
Taki runs from the cops after basically destroying the bar and finds himself in the home of a beautiful woman who takes him to a Japanese crime boss who runs a nightclub. There he runs into the musicians he saved from the sailors—who work for the crime boss—and is offered a job by him. Since he is a rambler, a wanderer, a vagabond, Taki declines and leaves. That is, of course, until he meets the boss’ daughter, whom he quickly falls for.
As you can see, lots of other films take credit for what Guitarist and similar Japanese New Wave films did. The Japanese New Wave is a movement that is rarely mentioned, and if so, never mentioned in the same league as Italian Neorealism or German Expressionism. It was overshadowed by France’s version, and all of its hard work was just seen as more of the same. This isn’t the case. It’s a radical, revolutionary movement, and one that deserves to be embraced like French New Wave has been. It’s a vital part of Japanese film history, and a vital part of film history as a whole.
Yet, even without all the context, Rambling Guitarist is still a hell of a film. It’s incredibly watchable, filmed exceptionally (I cannot stress how amazing the colors look), and creates a world that is alive and vibrant. It’s abundantly clear that this was a film created with a huge heart behind it. Saito has crafted a strange, violent, and rich world populated with crooks, beautiful women, and a badass who breaks as many hearts as bones in his opponent’s bodies.
So, yeah, I guess you could go watch Seven Samurai again if you want.
The Rambling Guitarist is not available in the United States.
Evan Salazar is an undergraduate student of Creative Writing at the University of Arizona. He wonders if Jo Shishido ever regretted those cheek implants. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.