Entertainment » Movies

House of Bamboo

by Jake Mulligan
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Saturday Aug 29, 2015
House of Bamboo

Samuel Fuller's reputation as a filmmaker is probably best exemplified by the close-up knock-out punch that opens "The Naked Kiss" -- it was Godard who famously referred to his aesthetic as the "cine-fist." But there's a composition in "House of Bamboo," which is out now via a limited edition Blu-ray from Twilight Time, that represents the depths of the director's talents more honestly. Eddie (Robert Stack) is roaming the streets of postwar Japan, shaking down the managers of pachinko parlors as a one-man protection racket. But his steps across Tokyo ring out too loudly, so during one stop he's ambushed and thrown right through a wall. Sandy (Robert Ryan) is waiting behind it, along with his gang of train-robbing ex-GIs-resting on an elevated ledge, like sophisticate vultures.

That's as accurate a rendering of the Sam Fuller cinema as you're likely to find: A man being driven headfirst through the planes that separate one social class and professional milieu from all others. Eddie's lower-class gangsterism sets him apart from Sandy's economical operation -- the gang steals ruthlessly and has an agreed-upon pact to kill their own if anyone can't keep pace during the getaway. But the tough ringleader sees something in this young upstart, and so he catches him up to that pace: He brings him in on the take, makes him a right-hand man in the heists, and even accommodates the man's relationship with Mariko (Shirley Yamaguchi). Sandy's attracted to the kid. But he shouldn't be -- and the film's kaleidoscopic treatment of dialectic thoughts spins wildly once he realizes that.

We won't let the spoilers loose, but once Eddie's background is revealed (first to us, and then to his peers), every relationship is recolored in new sociopolitical terms. Fuller, a former reporter, catalogues them through cycling scenes of one-on-one dialogue, all blocked to illustrate shifting power dynamics: There's the plight of the foreigner in the nation his country ravished. There's the struggle of the native Japanese to try and accommodate their carved-in identities. Then postwar cynicism butts heads with battle-tested patriotism, with each ex-GI carrying their own beef into the narrative's anti-American heists.

Even the group dynamics, with the new kid moving quickly up the ranks much to the chagrin of left-behind veterans, expands in nuance and complexity. And the relationship between Eddie and Mariko reflects them all: The two are constantly negotiating, literally and otherwise, to ascertain how much of their relationship is true emotion, and how much of it is a professional necessity. The final battle plays out on a circular frame with a mock-globe hanging over it. That's another visualization of Fuller's artistic voice: His allegories made the struggle of people and the struggle of nations into inextricable pairs.

Twilight Time's Blu-ray release of the film includes an isolated score track (the score is by Leigh Harline), two newsreel clips sourced from the original release, and a booklet featuring an essay by Julie Kirgo (she profiles the crew and explores and oft-noted interpretation of the film: That Sandy's dedication to Eddie may be, in the subtext or on the surface, an expression of sexual desire).

The visual transfer of the film is reference-disc quality: The 2.50 aspect ratio is pushed to its limits by cinematographer Joe MacDonald, with framing that borders on the geometric. You could break some of these compositions into sixteen pieces and find unique planes of imagery in every single shard. This disc captures every one of those details, at a tone entirely accurate to recently-struck 35mm prints of the movie: Always vibrant, but never unnecessarily poppy or excessively bright.

The two audio commentaries included (one is with Kirgo and Nick Redman, the other is with Alain Silver and James Ursani) read into the subtexts that are raised by Fuller's multilayered photography. Indeed, symbols of nations and of Earth rule over each composition: An opening robbery sequence has Mt. Fuji in the background of each shot, in a sly nod to the iconic Hokusai series "Thirty-Six Views of Mt. Fuji." It's the first of many densely composed images in the film, but it's hardly the only one to suggest that the character's fates are being impacted by forces larger than any individual person.

Given his furious and incendiary philosophy, it wasn't dishonest to reduce the work of Fuller into a close-up of a flying fist, but that does require you to ignore the exquisite worlds he had built in the background.

"House of Bamboo"


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