For a late 50s Japanese crime thriller, Toshio Masuda’s Rusty Knife is somewhat unusual in that it presents a surprisingly sympathetic and compassionate look at the life of an ex-convict who can neither escape his past nor come to terms with his volatile temper. Sure, there are many staples of the genre firmly in place here – unrepentant, hard-boiled gangsters, impetuous youth, sinister mob bosses and sudden bursts of violence to name just a few – but at it’s center, it is about a man who suffers for having committed an evil deed and cannot trust himself to not repeat it. This gives it a distinctive quality, certainly as compared to some of the other films in Criterion’s impressive Nikkatsu Noir Eclipse Set and as a result, makes it one of the better titles in the set.
As the voice-over at the beginning informs us, Udaka is a flourishing and rapidly growing industrial city that is nevertheless plagued by crime problems caused by a vicious and ruthless gang operated by Katsumata behind the facade of a truck company, though the ones pulling the strings are probably much higher up the hierarchy. Katsumata is arrested by the police for a petty crime, though the lack of evidence and witnesses mean the police cannot proceed with anything meaningful. Which is where three ex-yakuza, who worked for a rival boss and witnessed his murder at the hands of Katsumata, enter the picture. The first, Shimabara (future Nikkatsu superstar Joe Shishido in a “blink n’ you’ll miss him” cameo) is disposed off before he can cause too much damage, but the other two, who have since mended their ways and make ends meet by running a stuffy bar, remain troublesome thorns in the gang’s flesh. The elder of the two is Tachibana (Yujiro Ishihara), a person with a history of violence and a volatile, unpredictable temper, at least partially fueled by a tragic incident from his past involving his girlfriend. He mentors and tries to guide the younger and more impulsive Makoto (Akira Kobayashi), making sure he doesn’t lose direction in a manner that he perhaps did when younger. Makoto’s scornful dismissal of Tachibana’s advice however mean Tachibana’s hopes of achieving a modicum of redemption through Makoto’s life are severely compromised.
It is a common motif in many crime movies that characters with a sketchy past wishing to leave it behind find that it isn’t the easiest thing to do, with their misdeeds eventually catching up with them. Rusty Knife isn’t different in this regard, yet it is much less cynical in the sense that the central protagonist (Tachibana, in this case) continues to resist his past impulses, than casually submitting to them like he’d never shed them off at all. Gratifyingly, this does not mean his character is broadly portrayed as a “good” man handed a raw deal by fate. Just one glance at his face during a truck chase sequence – for the first time in the movie, we see him sporting a satisfied, yet menacing smile – after he has, in a fit of desperation decided to revert back to his old ways tells us as much about his personality as his contrasting, yet equally sincere efforts at turning over a new leaf. These efforts are much bolstered by the presence of a smart, sympathetic woman Keiko who goes some way towards providing Tachibana the redemption he seeks, acting as his guardian angel, and the film’s memorable final image reinforces this view.
The plot, as with many a yakuza noir flick, is slight and you can see the big revelation near the end coming a mile off. But if you are a fan of the genre, you know it is more about the artful, moody look and the breezy, jazz-inflected style. That Rusty Knife also offers a compelling and more humane lead character in addition to the genre thrills is a more than welcome bonus.