3 Seconds Before the Explosion

When Nikkatsu Studio began to gain steam once again in the 1950s, thanks to the success first of their “Sun Tribe” films and then their “borderless action” style, their marketing department struck upon the clever idea of selling the studio’s top young stars as a brand name — the Diamond Line, as they would be dubbed in 1960. The original Diamond Line consisted of Yujiro Ishihara (upon whom almost all of the studio’s early success was dependent), Koji Wada, Keiichiro Akagi, and Akira Kobayashi. “Membership” was fluid, though, especially among a group of suddenly very famous young men who found every vice and indulgence now available to them. Ishihara for example, who built his early career in the studio’s popular “Sun Tribe” films was perceived as the real-life embodiment of his on-screen characters: brash, amoral, decadent, disrespectful — an affront to everything that was good and decent in polite Japanese society. Needless to say, restless young boys and girls, especially those in their late teens and twenties, flocked to support him.

Nikkatsu was one of the first studios to recognize, like American International Pictures in the United States, the vast untapped potential of pandering to the emerging youth market. After the war, and really starting to escalate in the early 1960s, there was suddenly a large population of young men and women who had disposable income that no one in their age group had ever had before, and they wanted to spend tat money somewhere. Other Japanese movie studios were cranking out the same films as they’d always made, geared toward an older audience and often reinforcing concepts of conformity and responsibility. Or they were cranking out family friendly fare. No one was making movies that the youth wanted to watch, at least not until Nikkatsu released A Season in the Sun, the first of what would become known as their Sun Tribe films. Here at last were movies that spoke directly to the tastes of young Japan. And young Japan embraced them for exactly the same reasons the cultural watchdogs and older generation condemned them.

Most film studios can shoulder the burden of having the morality police taking shots at them so long as the box office receipts are strong enough, and Nikkatsu quickly realized that making movies that pissed off the elders and enthralled the teens and college students resulted in more than enough financial return to make the scorn of society’s guardians worth bearing. They began retooling many of their films to appeal more to youth tastes. More contemporary music, more stylish clothing, and a more Western approach both to art design and direction. When director Toshio Masuda started blending these “youth in rebellion” films with yakuza films, and adding a healthy dose of influence from the French New Wave, Nikkatsu borderless action was born.

In its early days, borderless action was carried primarily by Ishihara, Kobayashi, and Joe Shishido. When Ishihara injured himself in a skiing accident and had to go out of rotation for seven months, Nikkatsu ramped up Akira Kobayashi’s schedule and added Joe Shishido to the Diamond Line crew. Further tragedy struck the Diamond Liners when Akagi was killed in an accident, though even this only served to feed into the James Dean-like romantic image of these hot and hot-headed young stars. Internationally, Joe Shishido is probably the best known of Nikkatsu’s superstars, thanks almost entirely to his starring role in Seijun Suzuki’s Branded to Kill, a film that ended Suzuki’s career (for decades, anyway), flopped in Japan, and became an international cult phenomenon. But if you had to pick the most solid workhorse of the Diamond Line, it would undoubtedly be Akira Kobayashi.

His father was already in the film business, and Kobayashi himself entered after showing up to one of Nikkatsu’s New Faces cattle calls. Kobayashi catapulted to fame thanks to his role in the seminal borderless action film Rusty Knife in 1958 and then his role in Leaving Tosa of the South a year later, and once he was going, there was no stopping the man. Before the Diamond Line was coined, Kobayashi was a member of what Nikkatsu sold as their “Bad Boy Trio,” along with Tamio Kawachi and Tadao Sawamoto. He grew into the role with ease, bringing with him an easy cool, a macho swagger, and an accomplished background in judo that made him a perfect fit for the rough and tumble sort of roles that would become his mainstay for the decade plus that he was at Nikkatsu. Like Yujiro Ishihara, Kobayashi also brought a smoldering yet laid-back intensity (if that makes any sense) to his roles. In other words, you believed without him seeming like he was trying to make you believe, and he didn’t have to lapse into fits of hammy histrionics to communicate the fact that he was meaner, tougher, angrier, more upset, and cooler than you.

Kobayashi success in Leaving Tosa of the South lead to him being cast in the lead role of what would become a nine-film series known as The Wanderer. In each installment, Kobayashi played a loner decked out in classic American Western gear, who drifts from town to town, solving people’s problems and usually throwing down against some shady yakuza or exploitative businessman. Kobayashi’s wanderer also carried a guitar with him, which he would use to woo young women both in and out of the movies. Just as he was able to do his own fights and stunts, Kobayashi sang his own songs (actually quite common at the time), and his singing in The Wanderer series turned him into a pop music sensation on top of his film stardom. Chief among the women enamored by his suave ass-kicker image was frequent Wanderer co-star Ruriko Asaoka (Velvet Hustler). Kobayashi and Asaoka followed the lead of their frequent on-screen pairings by striking up a romance in real life. it came as a shock to everyone, then — especially Asaoka — when Kobayashi married pop singer Hibari Misora seemingly out of the blue. Asaoka left the Wanderer series shortly thereafter, though it doesn’t seem like it was because she was trying to escape working with Kobayashi. They starred together in many films after the surprise wedding. Not surprisingly, Kobayashi’s marriage to Hibari Misora only lasted a couple years.

While Ishihara was busy tumbling down ski slopes and Akagi was busy, well, being killed in what I keep seeing referred to as a “backlot go-cart accident,” Kobayashi seemed to air his bad boy tendencies out via stormy flings and ill-fated marriages. While still fodder for tabloids and the moral watchdogs who were already upset by Nikkatsu’s swingin’ leading men, at least his particular brand of rebellious living left him fit for work. As such, he and Shishido became the go-to guys for all of Nikkatsu’s action needs. Hot on the heels of his Wanderer series, Kobayashi took on the starring role in the Drifter series, which was basically The Wanderer series but without the fringed cowboy jacket. He was also the lead in the ‘Mite Guy series, about a mysterious gangster (with a noble heart, of course) who battles far more evil gangsters.

By the mid-sixties, a lot had started to change for Nikkatsu. The borderless action films were falling out of style. As the studio sought directors to tweak the formula, Kobayashi remained as a clear and dependable connection to what had been and what was coming. A little heavier, a few years older, he slipped easily out of the rebellious youth roles of his early career and into the role of a more sophisticated and imposing man of action. Films like Velvet Hustler were redefining what Nikkatsu action was, still making callbacks to film noir and the French New Wave but infusing it with something less morose, snappier, and more in keeping in touch with the evolving go-go and rock ‘n’ roll culture. Kobayashi couldn’t pull off the “Sun Tribe with a gun” mood of those movies, but he had his own more grown-up version of cool that still appealed to younger viewers. And then everyone started watching James Bond movies.

The first James Bond film, Dr. No, came out in 1962, but it was the third film in the series, 1964’s Goldfinger, that unleashed a deluge of imitators, each one doing its best (often with far less money) to out cool, out swank, and just plain outdo James Bond. Suddenly the world was crawling with smirking, smartly dressed secret agents who were as handy with the ladies as they were with a Walther PPK (or the P38 — either would do, really). In the wake of Goldfinger, pretty much every country tried its hand at the swingin’ spy genre, and while Europe emerged as the free and easy kings of the cut-rate Bond film, there’s a lot to be said for the product coming out of Asia. Like Europe, Asian film industries could achieve that globetrotting, jet-setting atmosphere with relative ease and inexpensiveness. Thailand, The Philippines, Hong Kong, India — they all had their own homegrown versions of Bond parading through an endless tangle of jazzy cabarets, exotic locales, and shadow-swathed dockyards (prime territory for fight scenes, after all). And Japan, being one of the outright coolest places in the world in the mid-1960s, obviously had their fair share of Bond-like espionage adventures. Sadly, almost none of them have found their way into the American DVD market, even as bootlegs. But two of them that did — 3 Seconds Before the Explosion and Black Tight Killers — are both from Nikkatsu and both star Akira Kobayashi.

Of the two, 3 Seconds Before the Explosion is the more conservative. It straddles the line between crime film and espionage film, making something more akin to the German “Jerry Cotton” movies starring George Nader than it is a pure James Bond style spy movie. Cotton was an FBI man who frequently tangled with underworld types but in plots that often had some more global, espionage-style ramifications. 3 Seconds Before the Explosion is very similar in that respect. Kobayashi stars as Yabuki, a former street tough who is recruited to become a spy — against his will, initially, and with the use of an irritating high-pitched whine that will have the viewer scrambling for the TV volume — by a shadowy government organization. Yabuki is assigned to a case involving stolen jewels. The jewels belong to a made-up country called Rabeley that apparently lost them sometime during the war. In exchange for aid from Japan, the country has agreed to place a statute of limitations on recovery of the jewels. If they aren’t found by the deadline, then Rabeley gives up their claim to them and gets various types of relief and rebuilding assistance from the Japanese government. It’s a pretty sketchy arrangement, if you ask me.

Yabuki’s task is to find the jewels if he can, though it’s more important that he keep them out of the hands of certain other parties than it is that he actually get them into his own hands. Those other parties include a shady businessman named Takashima (Takashi Kanda), who actually possesses the jewels, and a gang of international drug smugglers staffed by an assortment of classic Eurospy archetypes: the competent hitman, the abusive underboss, the karate guy, the guy in a slim suit and fez, and of course, the German mastermind played by an American actor (Erik Neilson) doing the worst German accent ever and occasionally tossing out words like, “Achtung!’ and “Wunderbar!” to enforce the illusion that he is German. Everyone is in overdrive with their various plotting, because the deadline for the jewels becoming fair game for anyone who has them is fast approaching. I don’t quite understand why the deadline means so much for the jewel thieves. One assumes that they would be just as happy to steal the jewels from Takashima after he could claim to be the rightful owner. You know, what with them being a murderous gang of thieves and all. I also don’t understand why the mythical country of Rabeley, to whom the jewels rightfully belong, wouldn’t have their own man on the scene trying to get the jewels back, or why they wouldn’t demand that the Japanese government confiscate the jewels and return them, what with it seeming like everyone already knows that Takashima has them somewhere. I guess I just don’t understand international relations and jewel thievin’.

Yabuki’s plan is about as convoluted as the arrangement over who gets to keep the jewels after what date. A portion of it seems to involve him going undercover with the ring of jewel thieves, who because of their international make-up are apparently considered the least desirable of all the options regarding who ends up with the jewels. Another part of his plan seems to be constantly running away from the jewel thieves. Another part of his plan requires him to put on black slacks and a turtleneck and go adventurin’ around in the middle of the night, sneaking into the facilities of the shady businessman in an effort to ascertain he actual location of the jewels. This brings him into contact with Yamawaki (Hideki Takahashi, a veteran of Seijun Suzuki films like Tattooed Life, Our Blood Will Not Forgive, and Fighting Elegy), a former spy who left the life when he decided the love of a good woman was more important to him than putting on a black body stocking and jumping over walls. He’s now employed by the businessman to make sure the jewels stay in the company’s possession. The two men strike up one of those “let’s fight then have soul-searching conversations in between” types of relationships that are so common among such men of action.

Yamawaki himself has been doing more than hanging out in warehouses and shooting at people with his rifle. He has a spy, a young female singer named Nana (Katsue Takaishi), working in the nightclub that serves as the headquarters for the jewel thieves. Nana is romancing one of the gang members then passing on the information she woos out of him to her real lover, Yamawaki. Yamawaki’s motivation is to get paid for protecting the jewels, so that he and Nana can disappear and start new lives far away from all the evils of the world. You know how dreams like that usually turn out. Yabuki quickly deducts Nana’s ulterior motive, and he uses it mostly as an excuse to stand around the nightclub in a sharp suit, smoking a cigarette and looking cooler than everyone else in the room. In fact, this film’s primary goal seems to be to make Akira Kobayashi stand around and appear cooler and smarter than everyone in any given room. I think something like half the movie’s total running time is taken up by scenes where Yabuki is surrounded by angry men with guns, prompting the super-spy to just stand there and look laid-back and awesome while people try to intimidate him.

Because this movie isn’t nonsensical enough, jewel thieves Uezaki and Komiya employ one of their gun molls,a Chinese immigrant, to seduce Yabuki in order to… something or other. Probably to reveal one of the many locations of the jewels, in case he was holding something back. Her method of seduction is to basically stand there while he says, “You’re not going to seduce me into revealing my secrets,” which she responds to by taking off her clothes in an “oh yeah, how about now?” fashion. It’s less an act of seduction than a game of double dog dare ya since she puts no further effort into it other than taking off her clothes. She never once tries to hide or deny the fact that she wants secrets from him. I thought you were supposed to be smoother than “if you tell me where the jewels are, I’ll have sex with you.” Of course, had Yabuki really been cut from the same cloth as James Bond, he would slept with her then told her he still wasn’t seduced into revealing his secrets.

And hell — why not tell her where the jewels are? The few parts of the movie that aren’t devoted to Yabuki being surrounded by thugs with guns while he looks smug and unimpressed are devoted to the cat and mouse game of Takashima hiding the jewels somewhere. Somehow, the thieves find out. Nana finds out they found out, so she alerts Yamawaki, who in turn alerts Takashima, who moves the jewels just as the gang shows up to storm a warehouse. Repeat process. And no one seems to be able to hide anything well enough that Yabuki can’t put on his cat burglar duds and instantly know which warehouse to sneak into. The whole thing is pretty ridiculous, though at least it’s easy to follow once you realize it’s not a function of overly complex plotting and is, instead, just a symptom of a script that seems to have been thrown together more or less as they were shooting each scene. That was actually pretty common for Nikkatsu productions. Joe Shishido has mentioned in interviews how he would often get “scripts” that were only the vaguest summary of the film’s concept, touching on nothing more than the few “must have” elements in that particular style of film.

3 Seconds Before the Explosion definitely has the feel of a movie that was being written at the same time it was being filmed. It was based on a novel by Haruhiko Oyabu, whose novels also provided the source material for Youth of the Beast and Detective Bureau 2-3: Go to Hell Bastards, both directed by Seijun Suzuki. Having never read the man’s writing, I can’t make a guess as to the quality of the original novels, but it might be that his style was better suited to the flight of fancy weirdness of a Seijun Suzuki film more than the very matter-of-fact approach to filmmaking taken by director Tan Ida in 3 Seconds Before the Explosion. With such a clinical approach to staging the movie, there’s nothing visual to distract from how sloppy and absurd the script is.

For example — when Yabuki finally tracks down the jewels in a place that doesn’t feature Yamawaki jumping out of the shadows to engage him in some fisticuffs, the plan he devises is to plant explosives in the barrels containing the jewels and blow everything up. There’s a lot of jewels, so I can understand why he had to do something other than bring a rucksack and fill it up. But he sets the timer on the explosives for exactly three seconds before the expiration of the ridiculous deadline. Why? Why not just blow them up then and there? I mean besides the fact that you need to provide time for the big finale to happen, and you also need something to happen three seconds before the explosion, although what happens three seconds before the explosion is, I guess, the explosion. Needless to say, there’s no part of the script that holds up even under the most cursory of scrutiny. It was only screenwriter Shuichi Nagahara’s second film, so one could pen it on inexperience — if not for the fact that his first script was A Colt is My Passport, which was one of the finest action films Japan ever produced. It must have been the working conditions, then. This movie must have been written on the fly, and possibly heavily under the influence of Suntory whiskey.

With no notable stylistic flourishes to detract you from the script’s shortcomings, 3 Seconds Before the Explosion relies on you thinking that spies are cool, Akira Kobayashi is cool, and that’s enough. And really, for me, it is. 3 Seconds Before the Explosion is a badly written movie, but it’s not a bad movie. It still manages to pack in a fair amount of action, including Kobayashi leading the villains on a wild rooftop chase and a few pretty decent dust-ups between him and Hideki Takahashi. And then there’s some truly zany nonsense, like the booby-trapped safe that catches a few of the jewel thieves unawares when it suddenly explodes, sending gory rubber arms and reddish-pink globs of pudding splattering against basement walls. By far the most ridiculous moment, though, is when Yabuki evades tommy gun wielding gangsters by using a rickety wooden contraption to slide down power lines and toward freedom — except that he seems to be traveling much slower than if he just ran or walked away, and the gangsters are only like ten feet blow him, blasting away with machine guns but somehow never able to hit the awkward, slow-moving target dangling a few feet away. It was a stunt that probably sounded really cool on paper (assuming they even got the point of writing it down, instead of someone just thinking of it on the way to the catering table), but the execution was so laughably inept that it would have been better left on the cutting room floor.

The rest of the action is actually pretty well executed, though. Kobayashi’s build, and his handiness with judo, meant that he could pull off stunts and fight pretty believably. Although the fights between him and Hideki Takahashi are brief, they’re good. And Takahashi brings a haunted intensity to his role that is the perfect — if predictable — counter-balance to Kobayashi’s more laid-back character. There’s nothing surprising about his doomed romance with Nana — it progresses and ends exactly how these things always do in action movies — but the two performers manage to wring a much more effective degree of pathos from the cliched relationship than the writing itself probably deserves. This is thanks largely to Takahashi, since Katsue Takaishi had almost no experience as an actress. She had previously appeared in a couple bit parts and as a singer (which is what she is here, though at least she gets a name and some lines), and she vanished from movie making after 3 Seconds Before the Explosion. I guess she’s better than a lot of singers-turned-actress, but ultimately, the women in this movie are present to look good in a cocktail dress, then die.

Only the gang’s gun moll has any real substance to her character — and even then she only has a few minutes here and there to express it. It turns out that she’s in love with one of the thieves, but he has nothing but contempt for her. In turn, the ridiculous ex-Nazi leader of the gang has the hots for the gun moll, who he tries to protect from his underling’s more violent tendencies. I think there might be an attempt at a love triangle between Nana, Yabuki, and Yamawaki as well, but if that was the intention, the movie puts about as much effort into that as the gun moll puts into seducing Yabuki. Nana seems to have no real interest in Yabuki, and Yabuki seems mostly interested in seeing her just so he can be seen in a swingin’ club with purple walls and crazy lights.

No worries, though. No one comes to a spy film for the romantic triangles. And when 3 Seconds Before the Explosion has its head in the game, it’s a lot of fun. Tan Ida has no style to his direction beyond the style of no style. Very zen, huh? Spy movies do lend themselves to a director or art designer with a bit of visual flare and playfulness (as we’ll see in Black Tight Killers), but 3 Seconds Before the Explosion does not really have any of that. It has a swanky club and good fashion, but there’s nothing overly flashy about anything the movie does. However, while that may not make it as fun, visually, as some of its wilder contemporaries, it also means that it gives the actors and the action more of the spotlight, with the director really becoming nothing more than a cog whose sole purpose is to keep the film in focus and on screen. Tan Ida does that. Nothing more, nothing less. Many young directors came to Nikkatsu seeking the freedom they weren’t getting at other studios, and while they still had to go through the usual procession up the ladder (no one gets to start off as a director in the studio system; they start out as script doctors, then script writers, then assistant directors, and then maybe they get to direct after they’ve learned what the hell they’re doing), once they were in the director’s chair, Nikkatsu let them have a substantial deal of leeway with the product, so long as the key requirements of the genre were fulfilled. Tan Ida didn’t seem to have the same aspirations as many other young directors seeking refuge at Nikkatsu.

Tan Ida (aka Motomu Ida) is a director I know almost nothing about. Where he came from, where he went, how old he was when he started directing. As far as I can tell, 3 Seconds Before the Explosion was his third film as a director, though credits for Japanese directors can be sketchy, especially if you are trying to find out if they did something before directing. He made a few more movies after this one, and that seems to be it. But judging from his work on 3 Seconds Before the Explosion, he was there to do a job, not to flex any particular artistic ambition the way Seijun Suzuki, Yasuharu Hasebe, or Toshio Masuda seemed to want to do. I’ve said before that I appreciate an unobtrusive director, one who lets the movie take front and center instead of forcing the viewer to to endure a frustrating parade of gratuitous directorial embellishments and indulgences. And that’s true — I appreciate Tan Ida letting Kobayashi and crew do their job — but it’s also true that this is a movie who’s script probably could have used something a little more visually flashy so that I’d stop thinking about how half-assed the plotting was.

3 Seconds Before the Explosion also lacks the sense of playfulness that went into many of the better spy films of the period. Even the Bond films knew better than to go about everything with grim-faced seriousness, and few films that followed the Bond template missed out on being aware of their own absurdity. They didn’t spoof themselves, exactly, but neither did they fool themselves or pretend that they were anything more serious than goofball adventure movies. If nothing else, it made rolling with their more egregiously absurd moments much easier, and it generally lent them a breezier pace and more affable, charming veneer. 3 Seconds Before the Explosion doesn’t really seem to be in on the joke. It seems to take itself very seriously, and while that can often work in a film’s favor, it’s not the case here. This is a movie that could have used some levity. Akira Kobayashi gets to be cool, but he never gets to be charming. He smirks because he’s cocky, not because he’s especially clever. The film, as I said, has its fair share of action — chases, explosions, shoot outs, judo fights, karate, guys jumping off buildings, all that good stuff — but none of it is ever as fun as this type of movie needs to be, and that’s because no one involved with it seems to be having much fun. Which is why, I reckon, I tend to compare it more to Jerry Cotton films. Or maybe the Timothy Dalton Bond films, though I tend to doubt that those movies were much of an influence on this one.

Akira Kobayashi labored on at Nikkatsu until the studio finally abandoned action cinema and switched entirely to saucy, sleazy pink films. Before that happened, though, he starred in at least three more film series — the Gambler series, the That Guy series (no relation to That Girl), and the Woan Cop series, in which I assume Kobayashi did not play the titular character. Although Kobayashi ws fiercely loyal to Nikkatsu, when the pink era began, he had to pack his bags. He found a home briefly at Toei, where he appeared in a couple of Kinji Fukasaku’s Battles Without Honor and Humanity films. When the “true tales of crime” style of yakuza film faded from popularity, Kobayashi settled back into his singing career, apearing from time to time in television and film.

If it sounds like I’m being overly harsh on this film or somehow communicating that I didn’t enjoy it, let me correct the record: I enjoyed this movie. Akira Kobayashi is cool as ice, and the final shootout against the backdrop of the ticking time bomb is always fun. Plus, the fez guy, upon the occasion of the gang finally tracking down the jewels, seems to be more excited by the fac that the warehouse also contains a valuable cache of Asahi beer and what looks to be a corn chip assortment. If you are a seasoned vet of low-budget Eurospy films, there’s no misstep in this movie that you won’t already be able to roll with. In fact, it’s better than a good many spy films. I guess the problem is that I came into this after already having seen Black Tight Killers. That movie is pretty much exactly what you want from a swingin’ Japanese spy movie, and 3 Seconds Before the Explosion seems to reserved by comparison. So no, while I might have been slightly disappointed that 3 Seconds Before the Explosion played it so straight, I was still entertained. Akira Kobayashi is a great leading man, there’s lots of snappy ’60s fashion, and the film has no shortage of pretty girls, shoot-outs, sneaking in and out of buildings, swingin’ music, and guys in sunglasses and fezzes.

Release Year: 1967 | Country: Japan | Starring: Akira Kobayashi, Hideki Takahashi, Ryoji Hayama, Ruriko Ito, Ying Lan Fang, Takashi Kanda, Kazuo Kitamura, Hiroshi Nawa, Katsue Takaishi, Asao Uchida, Erik Neilson | Screenplay: Shuichi Nagahara | Director: Tan Ida | Music: Seitaro Omori | Original Title: Bakuha 3-byo mae

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