Any filmmaker, novelist, or what have you weaving a saga of crime undoubtedly has their work cut out for them. Despite the genre’s cultural proliferation, it’s hard to do right, as your audience is, in some respect, asked to pledge allegiance to the exploits of individuals tainted by seediness. However, one way around such a tricky premise entails focusing on a figure who’s since abandoned their illicit past, allowing an audience to experience firsthand the struggle of someone from delinquent origins trying to adhere to the straight and narrow. The list of movies that incorporated this technique to great success is extensive indeed, including in their numbers everything from the Godfather trilogy to 1958’s Rusty Knife. One of the classic, scrappy noir thrillers from Japan’s Nikkatsu studio, this picture adopts a borderline nihilistic view of crime’s corruptive influence, revealing the scummy sides of its supposed “good guys” and exposing its villains as being even more morally bankrupt than on the outset. Into this sea of wickedness wades a man driven to the brink of madness, and it’s by way of chronicling his self-destructive quest to bring the whole damn thing down that Rusty Knife‘s veins come to pulsate with an invigorating fury.
From the ashes of World War II rose Udaka City, a metropolis on the move. Industrial developments are quickly turning this young community into a thriving economic powerhouse, but, alas, crime has already infested its very heart. Gang bosses like Katsumata (Naoki Suigura) reign supreme and rest comfortably, knowing that witnesses to their misdeeds are too frightened to come forward. But one threat to this creep’s empire arises in the guise of an old low-level thug, who anonymously declares his intentions to inform the authorities about Katsumata’s role in staging a councilman’s suicide. Scrambling to silence any with knowledge of the incident, his cronies track down those parties present to the deed — one of whom, Tachibana (Yujiro Ishihara), prefers to be left alone to tend his humble bar. Quite the hothead in his time, Tachibana wants nothing to do with Katsumata or the police seeking to put him away…that is, until learning the truth of an ex-girlfriend’s death sends him on a vengeful journey to strike at the mobster and his operations by any means possible.
Rusty Knife was among the first features by director Toshio Masuda, who became something of a fixture in Japanese cinema’s swelling crime movement of the ’50s and ’60s. Teaming again with star Ishihara for Nikkatsu’s Red Pier later that year and eventually contributing to the Outlaw Gangster VIP series, Masuda presents a movie whose thematic ambition and technical proficiency are all the more impressive, considering he was virtually a first-timer. His is a sad, angry, and unexpectedly philosophical picture, one that commits the majority of itself towards chronicling Tachibana’s crisis of conscience. Whether it’s allowing Katsumata to buy his silence or snitching to the cops, our protagonist sees any involvement in that old life as a potential trigger for feelings he never wants to confront again. Just mentioning his former associates gets Tachibana riled up, and he only grows more unhinged when the reality behind past tragedies comes to light. Masuda makes a compelling case for how ignoring one’s sins doesn’t atone for them, as not only does the evil Tachibana became wrapped up in continue to prosper and adapt alongside Udaka City, it was even more deplorable than he knew back in the day. The realization of how deeply corruption has penetrated society rocks our man to his core, leaving him to ponder whether protecting his soul is worth it if means allowing depravity to flourish.
Masuda proves so adept in communicating the complex nature of his subject matter, it’s relieving to also see Rusty Knife as confident on a visual scale. The camera perfectly captures the close-quartered state of the story’s setting without getting trapped in a cycle of static shots, enabling an intimate atmosphere with nary a hint of staginess. Of course, the emotions afoot in Rusty Knife wouldn’t connect as effectively as they do, were they not being supplied by such a sterling ensemble. It’s easy to look at Ishihara’s performance and chuckle at his melodramatic outbursts, but he helps everything click in the end, skillfully and successfully presenting himself as a ticking time bomb of a man. Solid support is lent by Suguira as the smug and sneering Katsumata, Mie Kitahara as a journalist who tries goading Tachibana into coming clean, and Akira Kobayashi as a witness who happily accepts Katsumata’s payoff — until the dough runs out, though. The viewer is bombarded with rage and grit from all angles throughout the film, though the story loses a little of its punch towards the ending. The revelation of an eleventh-hour twist (as much as it connects with Masuda’s overarching notion of crime evolving as society does) doesn’t resonate with the impact that it might, having been fairly telegraphed in advance and causing the finale to come across as a smidge muddled.
While back-alley brawling and gunplay are most assuredly part of the package, Rusty Knife values its smarts more than anything and feels a much richer flick for it. Moody in tone yet never sensationalizing the humanity out of its characters, this is a true thinking person’s yakuza tale, with action and emotion working in tandem to make one another feel as palpable as possible. Regardless of what jokes its title may tempt you to use, Rusty Knife emerges as an example of Japanese noir at its sharpest.
(This review is part of CineSlice’s Noirvember tribute, featuring a different film noir review every week throughout November. For Noirvember reviews from other critics, check out the official community Facebook page or follow the #Noirvember hashtag on Twitter.)