Made when Sam Fuller was still a respectable(ish) studio director, 1955 production House of Bamboo is a film full of cultural clashes and contradictions. A film noir shot in vivid colour and cinemascope; a movie located in Japan but populated mostly by American gangsters; a love story in which the unspoken romance seems to be a love triangle between three men, and where the overt passion crosses racial lines; and a film that presents a Japan that is torn between the traditional and the modern. It’s remarkable stuff, and infused as it is with Fuller’s trademark combination of no-nonsense action and florid melodrama, it’s quite the experience.
The film opens with a raid on a train that is carrying a cargo of ammunition between Kyoto and Tokyo. As an American soldier is killed in the raid, it becomes a joint investigation between the Japanese police and the US military, and they seem to get a break a month later when an American member of a criminal gang is shot by the same gun used to kill the soldier. While the man dies without exposing his partners, the authorities to find that he is secretly married to a Japanese woman, Mariko, and is expecting the arrival of US ex-con Eddie Spanier.
Sure enough, a few weeks later, Eddie (Robert Stack) arrives in Japan and meets up with Mariko (Shirley Yamaguchi), promising to find the killers. He does this by carrying out a shakedown of local pachinko parlours – crowded gambling houses on the fringes of legality. This brings him to the attention of racketeer Sandy Dawson (Robert Ryan), who draws him into the gang and seems to take a curious liking to the newcomer – much to the dismay of Griff (Cameron Mitchell), Sandy’s ‘ichiban’ (number one boy). Things become strangely homoerotic at this point, as Sandy rejects his own rule than anyone injured on a job must be killed to prevent them talking by saving Eddie and putting him up in his own home. He looks at Eddie with a sense of adulation and attraction that is hard not to notice; Griff meanwhile sulks like a lover spurned. Even in the less aware times of 1955, this must have raised eyebrows.
To complicate things further, Eddie is not simply infiltrating the gang to get revenge for his old pal. He’s actually an undercover army investigator. This complicates his growing relationship with Mariko, who is drawn into this dangerous world by posing as his ‘kimono girl’ – who seems to be somewhere between a girlfriend and a prostitute. This makes her an outcast in her own community, but the act becomes real over time.
This more ‘conventional’ relationship has been widely dismissed by critics as less interesting that the gay subtext of the film, but it’s no less subversive in its own way (mixed race relationships were probably not seen as much more acceptable than homosexual ones by plenty of people at the time), and Fuller – contrary to what you may have read – does not treat it dismissively. Mariko is an important character in the story, and the growing relationship between her and Eddie is given plenty of attention, with Fuller’s trademark melodrama (something that would seem kitsch in other hands but oddly seems to work in his films, no matter how cliched) – and features some of the film’s most impressive visual tableaus.
And this is a film full of visual wonder. The idea of a widescreen, technicolor noir might seem odd, but Fuller uses the screen in a way that few other filmmakers have. This is a movie where every shot seems carefully composed, the cinemascope embraced fully. Each frame is painstakingly constructed, with no part of the screen wasted, and several moments will leave you breathless in their visual magnificence. As a fan of Fuller’s gritty black and white movies, I had my doubts when I saw that this was a colour film, but he proves himself to be a master of the form.
His presentation of a Japan in transition is impressive. This is a place of traditional costume, quaint cultures and kabuki theatre, yet also one transitioning into the modern nation it now is. The clash of the traditional and the modern is neatly captured in one scene, where traditional geisha dancers at a party suddenly pull off their traditional kimonos to become westernised swing dancers. It’s a pretty astonishing moment. But equally fascinating are the American characters, who seem removed from their environment – no one here bothers to speak Japanese, and they look, sound and act like they have been transplanted directly from a 1930 gangster movie. They seem awkwardly out of place – even the furniture seems to be rebelling against them as they sit stiffly in too-small chairs. Yet as the film progresses, it’s clear that the local culture has seeped into them – the fact that Griff is referred to as ‘ichiban’ is enough to show that. Eventually, they seem less like actual American gangsters and closer to the Japanese imitations found in Yasujiro Ozo’s crime movies. Eddie, of course, is the character who’s sense of self is weakest, given the number of roles he is playing, and so he attempts to remain at arms length from everyone.
Fuller’s film is a heady mix of romance, square-jawed action, suspense and travelogue that could easily collapse under the weight of its conflicting aims. It’s hard to see any other director being able to pull this off, but Fuller – a man at home with action scenes and sentiment alike, and who was never self-conscious about revelling in a pulp narrative or worried about sliding into camp – handles it flawlessly and makes it seem easy. His no-nonsense approach, combined with his eye for composition, ensures that this is a hugely entertaining, visually stunning movie – looking fantastic here in widescreen (I can only imagine what older pan and scan TV prints must have been like). Fuller fans will need to encouragement to snap this up, but for anyone keen to explore his cinematic world, this would make a fine starting point.