Black Tight Killers, was constructed out of some mad fever dream by director Yasuharu Hasebe and production designer Teruyoshi Satani after they stayed up all night at a psychedelic go-go cabaret, drunk on Suntory whisky and overdosing on a steady stream of pop art and spy movies. When they awoke the next morning, two things had happened. One, their clothes had vanished; and two, they had apparently made a movie about a photojournalist who gets tangled up with a gang of black leather clad go-go girl assassins who fling razor sharp 45rpm records and are armed with ninja chewing gum, among other things.
OK, so maybe the genesis of Black Tight Killers wasn’t quite that grand. But whatever happened, the end result was mind-blowingly cool, a heady concoction of saturated colors, bizarre camera angles, good-natured spoofing, crazy action, and sexy female assassins. Standing in the middle of the maelstrom of cool, sporting a boss pair of Chelsea boots, was Nikkatsu’s dependable leading action man, Akira Kobayashi. It’s tempting to classify Black Tight Killers as another in the long line of usually entertaining James Bond rip-offs being produced all over the world, and it would be naive (and wrong) to claim that the international smash success of Bond isn’t the main reason Black Tight Killers got made; but if you are looking for a true kindred spirit for this nutty gem, you really have to look to the legion of Italian fumetti films — movies based on colorful, sexy, and violent comic book anti-heroes. It is within the ranks of Diabolik, Kriminal, Modesty Blaise, and Barbarella that Black Tight Killers finds its home, and believe me that home is going to have fantastic interior decor.
For fans of ludicrous movies with gorgeous production design, 1966 was the start of something special. Though 1968 was undoubtedly the high water mark (what with the release of both Barbarella and Danger: Diabolik!), 1966 is the year that pop art and high camp came to roost in the minds of ambitious, free-spirited young film makers across the world. In England, we got Modesty Blaise starring Terence Stamp and Italian beauty Monica Vitti. In Italy, we saw the cinematic debut of Kriminal, a master thief who parades about in a skeleton motif body stocking. The United States saw James Coburn in Our Man Flint. Batman starring Adam West, The Avengers starring Diana Rigg, and The Man from UNCLE were burning up television screens. Yes indeed. If you weren’t looking for anything serious, but you were looking for something bright, colorful, absurd, and aware of — but not overly concerned with pointing out — its own absurdity, 1966 was a pretty happening year to tune in.
And on top of all that, just the year before, they’d released Thunderball, the most lavish, expensive, and over-the-top James Bond film to date. But what all those other movies and television shows had in common that Bond was lacking was a finger on the fast emerging counter-culture. Bond certainly appealed to young viewers in his own way, but there was a new generation just coming to prominence in 1966 that had a more alternative outlook on life, and who might look at Bond films as something just a little to reactionary. Too authoritarian. Maybe even too grown up. Bond was all tuxedos and orchestra music and exclusive cocktail parties. He didn’t hang out in underground rock clubs. He didn’t wear jeans. And when confronted by that dreadful racket known as the Beatles, he grimaced and made remarks that kids expected to hear from their parents and grandparents: “My dear girl there are some things that just aren’t done, such as drinking Dom Perignon ’53 above a temperature of 38 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s as bad as listening to the Beatles without earmuffs!” What a square!
Compare that to, say, James Coburn’s Derek Flint, who made his cinematic debut the same year as Black Tight Killers. Same line of work as Bond, same style of movie as Bond, but Coburn’s spy was considerably hipper, funnier, and more in tune with the trippy sorts of things the kids were beginning to sample. He talked to dolphins. He practiced zen meditation and played Tibetan gongs. He was working for The Man, but The Man was constantly baffled by Flint’s bizarre alternative lifestyle. And even though Flint was as much a lover as Bond, what with having an all-girl army at his command, the relationship between the two men and the women in their lives was much different. Bond gave off the patriarchal, controlling, and even abusive vibe. Derek Flint, on the other hand, was much cooler with his ladies. They were more equal, and his hedonistic lifestyle was less about the patriarchy, and far more about groovy free love.
What Coburn started with Flint would come to a more extreme conclusion a year later in The President’s Analyst, one of my very favorite spy movies, and one in which the powers that be are hopelessly corrupt and idiotic, causing Coburn to hide out among the hippies and culminating in him, an American spy, and a Soviet spy realizing how moronic the whole thing is, and just walking away and having an awesome Christmas dinner together. By the time Coburn is wildly, joyously playing music in a psychedelic rock band, the gulf between his hipper, more subversive type of spy movie and Bond’s old-fashioned squareness is vast. It’s probably no coincidence that Bond was being marshaled by a bunch of old British men while Flint and the Black Tight Killers who lend their name to the movie were coming from a younger, more anti-authoritarian generation.
Cool is just a hard thing to keep, after all. It can be a full-time job. And nothing hurts a cool person more than realizing they’ve gone past that point where what they like is no longer cool. Some can adapt, for a while anyway, and learn the new cool. But that only lasts until you can no longer pass as anything but the creepy old guy in the corner, making eyes at all the young things. More times than not, the formerly cool retreat into the confines of what was cool when they were cool, like referring to things as “cool.” You surround yourself with people who have the same concept of cool, and you usually cast scorn and disdain on what the next generation thinks is cool — which is what your parents did to you, and their parents did to them. Take the Rat Pack. Who was cooler, right? At least until the 1960s, when Dean Martin (who was either self-aware or too drunk to care) shows up in a scene in Murderers’ Row where young, hip Ann-Margaret drags him to a go-go club. Then, all of a sudden, he is hopeless, old, greasy, and square.
Elvis had the same problem, and really, there’s no easy solution. If Elvis couldn’t figure it out, no one could. I mean, changing what you think is cool, just so you can seem cool — that isn’t cool. The rare individual can pull it off. A couple of The Beatles adapted pretty well to emerging cool without seeming like they were just jumping on bandwagons, after all, and you can always adhere to “classic” cool, which may not be as tuned in to current pop trends and culture but certainly doesn’t go out of style nearly as quickly. Or you can just not give a crap, and do whatever the hell it is you want to, regardless of the era in which it was cool (or not cool). Which is pretty cool.
Confusing matters even further is that removed by decades from the point at which something that used to be cool stopped being cool, no one remembers that it ever stopped being cool. Sean Connery’s James Bond, for example. They’re the epitome of cool again, because so few people remember how square Bond and his high society Beatles-bashing must have sounded in the 1960s. Now, James Coburn, Sean Connery, and Dean Martin are all part of the same “swingin’ 60s” spy genre, regardless of how different they and their philosophies may actually be. Muddy the waters even further by adding their European counterparts to the mix. Suddenly, Bond is rubbing elbows not just with that counter culture freak James Coburn, but also with Diabolik in his black leather catsuit, Tony Kendall and his oozing playboy… you know, someone needs to invent a word to describe Tony Kendall in the Kommissar X films. A word that means sleazy, greasy, cool, suave, charming, square, and hip all at the same time. How that man managed to pull that off, I will never understand but will always appreciate.
And along with the straight up spies and private eyes, you get those insane costumed fumetti heroes and villains. Guys in stretch fabric body stockings and combat boots, stalking around with Lugers and stilettos (knives, not heels, though I wouldn’t have put it past them). Chaos and anarchy. Anti-heroes. Increasingly incompetent authority figures. Hell, even Bond is an authority figure who thumbs his nose at the authority figures above him. All of these things, influencing and being influenced by one another — the results were beautiful, baffling, and bold. And no one wanted to be left out. Though this mad, motley colored jumble of costumed villains, smart suited spies, and pop art sensibilities (or lack of) is generally regarded as the purview of Europe, the UK, and the United States, it was hardly limited to those places. Turkey adopted the jumble of styles and tropes with reckless abandon, and though their cinematic industry’s commitment to saving cash by shooting in black and white meant they couldn’t take full advantage of the eye-popping kaleidoscope of candy colors that defined the pop art look, they more than made up for it with endless energy, zest, insanity, and a hearty disregard for copyright and intellectual property. India, as well, embraced these sensibilities, albeit in movies that were largely inaccessible to outsiders who couldn’t quite grasp the schizophrenic blend of melodrama, stony-faced patriotism, family drama, romance, and singing and dancing. One Westerners did start to poke around in India’s 1960s Bond-mimicry output, they found quite a few gems, rough around the edges though they may have been, and an eye for garishly gorgeous over-the-top pop-art interior decor that remains unmatched to this day.
But if there was one non-Western country that could match the big guns not just in terms of art design insanity, but also in overall technical quality and high production value, it was Japan (followed closely by Hong Kong, though they never achieved the laid back cool of Japan). From its early days, clear through the end of the 1960s, Japanese cinema was defined by an attention to detail unsurpassed anywhere else in the world. Because they adhered to a strict training hierarchy, by the time future Japanese became directors, they’d done time as everything from script writers to cameramen, and the regiment they followed — as well as the overarching social structure of Japanese society — resulted in filmmakers who seemed to perfectly understand how to be both artists and technicians. Japanese films are like Japanese gardens. meticulously planned and executed, but also infused with heart and creativity. As a result, even the very worst of them at least look like masterpieces. Such keen attention to every element of a shot meant that Japanese directors were well primed for adopting the “pop art” style.
I reckon that before we go much further, maybe we should talk about the concept of pop art in general. The phrase has been tossed around in this many other reviews of films from the 60s and 70s, and I’m sure there are moments when I’ve used it incorrectly. Similarly, though I doubt it requires as much of a definition, is camp. And then I guess we’ll fall into the trap of how none of them apply — which is why I generally try to avoid defining art styles or movements. Every time you think you’ve come up with the proper definition and application of it to something, someone emerges to explain in passionate (and sometimes condescending and insulting) style how wrong you are. So anyway, with that caveat in mind, pop art was an art movement that emerged in the mid 1950s in Britain, then later that decade made the jump to the United States. The basic concept was that art — meaningful or otherwise — could be made from common and mass-produced items taken out of their original context. In a way, and as is probably true with many creative movements, it has a lot more to do with your attitude and your ability to explain (or bullshit about) what you’re doing.
Another key element of pop art was the idea that it could be mass produced. Thus, you get Andy Warhol using silk-screening to make prints of soup cans and whatnot. And I want to admit here that i used to never get Andy Warhol, but that changed a few years ago. Some of his art was up for auction, and a huge debate broke out over whether these were truly Warhols, or if someone else in his “factory” had made them. Of course, it’s silkscreening — it shouldn’t make a lick of difference. It’s mass produced. It’s like worrying about which worker on an assembly line pushed the button that applied the paint to something you bought. But people were twisting themselves into all sorts of arty fits about how they could determine a “true”Warhol. And somewhere amid all that nonsense, it hit me that causing exactly this sort of consternation, hand-wringing, and confusion was the whole point of what he had been doing. He would have been delighted to see the overly serious and pretentious confusion caused by the work he and his cohorts produced.
A few years after pop art hit the United States, the concept of “camp” was first vocalized (keep in mind that most concepts, including camp, existing long before someone decided to give them a name and write a manifesto). When people refer to the pop art look of a movie, they usually mean it’s camp value. But I’m no art historian, so I don’t get bent out of shape about it. It’s the movies themselves that are “pop art,” as much as the white shag carpet and plastic egg-shaped chairs that adorn them. The word “camp” was derived from the French (oh, of course it was) phrase se camper, which means “to pose in an exaggerated fashion.” if ever there was a poster child for 1960s camp, it was the Batman television series, and the cinematic style that arose from camp “sensibilities” included outrageously ornate interior design, insane color schemes (both on the sets and with the lighting), and over-the-top fashion and costuming.
Camp in the ’60s still tended to be played with a straight face — Batman may have been ludicrous, but when Batman and Robin escape being killed by Liberace’s player piano card puncher by whistling the exact outlines of their bodies, none of the actors ever pretend like it’s anything other than the obvious and sensible scenario. Movies would eventually become overly self-aware, spending more time reminding the audiences that the filmmakers know how silly it all is than was spent just trying to make a movie that was silly and enjoyable. For me, that over-obvious “hey, we’re in on the joke too” telegraphing kills the fun. So while many of my favorite movies are obvious works of camp, none of them have to explain to you that they’re being campy. They play it cool, and pretend like nothing is out of the ordinary. And nothing is better than when someone makes a campy movie without realizing it.
Along with Europe and the United States, Japanese filmmakers embraced camp, and the idea of film as pop art, with zeal. For new filmmakers struggling to make a name for themselves, one of the ways to stand out from the crowd of more staid and steady Japanese directors would be to really make things splashy. Nikkatsu was the perfect place to do that, open as they were to their directors and writers indulging their artistic whims so long as they fulfilled a checklist of requisite elements for whatever genre in which the film lived. Added to that was the fact that few Nikkatsu directors became directors without first working as writers or cameramen or designers — making them qualified to really push the envelope in terms of eye-popping art direction and style.
Along with that came the easy cool of Japanese cinema. Nikkatsu Studio’s action films were rooted in the American film noir and, even more so, in the French interpretation of American noir that became the French new wave. Sunglasses, cigarettes, slim cut suits, and attitude to spare. Additionally, Nikkatsu had built its post-war success on youth films — the so-called Sun Tribe films that focused on disillusioned and sometime nihilistic youths gone wild. Nikkatsu was uniquely equipped among Japanese studios fo the late 1950s and throughout the 1960s for exploiting the continuing shift of filmmakers to the aesthetics of younger patrons. It’s not surprising, then, that many of the Nikkatsu spy films that would emerge during that period feel far more like the counter-culture celebrations of fumetti and Derek Flint (or even the more teen oriented American International Pictures) than the James Bond films whose popularity was, never the less, responsible for producers wanting to make spy films in the first place.
Akira Kobayashi had been Nikkatsu go-to guy for action films, in the late 60s the best known among their stable of hot young actors. But he was also an experienced performer, maybe a little older than some of his cohorts, so while he could still appeal to the youth market, he could also bring a sense of gravity and having been “around the world” that others might not pull off quite as believably. In 3 Seconds Before the Explosion, he plays a fairly convention role in a fairly conventional (if wildly convoluted) take on the Japanese spy film (which was, in essence, very similar to the Kommissar X films in that they are as more like cops and robbers movies played out on an international espionage stage). Although he starts out as some sort of undefined drifter-rebel, he soon becomes a government man.
Kobayashi’s other espionage film, however, is a horse of many other different colors. Directed by young Yasuharu Hasabe, Black Tight Killers fully embraces the iconoclastic spirit of the late 1960s, youth in revolt, counter-cultures, and rock and roll. This time out, Kobayashi is Daisuke Hondo, a combat photojournalist recently returned from Vietnam. On his flight back to Japan, he flirts with beautiful young stewardess Yoriko (Chieko Matsubara, Tokyo Drifter, Cruel Gun Story) and even manages to score a date. Unfortunately for him, but fortunately for the movie’s plot, Yorkio’s deceased father happens to have hid a stash of gold from the last war, and it’s just as Hondo is making progress with the girl that people start coming out of the woodwork to kidnap Yoriko and find the gold. One of these groups are pretty standard issue international crime syndicate types. The other group are the Black Tight Killers — a team of female assassins in black fetish masks, high heels, and hot pants.
Hondo first encounters the enticingly clad young women when they save him and his girl from an assault in an alley, though it turns out they only save him because they want to take him apart themselves. Each of the girls has been trained in peculiar forms of ninjitsu that incorporate common items in youth culture — records, bubblegum, et cetera — as killing devices. But by far their most powerful attack is the “octopus pot,” though if you have to go, it might as well be by getting crushed between the lithesome thighs of an attractive Japanese woman. Hondo finds himself on the foot end of an ass-kicking at the hands of these girls several times before he and they discover that they need to become allies in order to accomplish their respective goals: Hondo to rescue Yoriko from the thugs who want to use her to find her father’s gold, and the black tight killers to recover the gold and return it to its rightful owners.
There’s just one problem: the black tight killers are better getting killed than they are at killing. And so begins the movie’s primary running joke, and the thing that clues the viewer in to the fact that, while Hasebe isn’t giving us a movie full of mugging and winking, he’s definitely planting it firmly in the realm of spoof — albeit the best kind of spoof (straight-faced, seemingly earnest, and an excellent example of the genre it is also spoofing). One after another, each of the go-go dancing femme fatales dies in combat, collapsing into Hondo’s arms as outrageously melodramatic music swells on the soundtrack.
It’s at those moments that Hasebe tips his camp hand, but again, as ridiculous as each scene is, no one ever cracks a smile or handles with anything less than the gravity due a tragic death. Part of the reason Hasebe handles the camp so deftly probably has to do with the fact that he apprenticed under Inoue Umetsugu, a man whose eye for the garish and grand conjured up some astounding camp moments that were, I think, never intended t be camp. Inoue loved nothing so much as he seems to have loved a lavish nightclub scene, and he would over-indulge those with reckless glee. His best known movies — with Hong Kong’s Shaw Brothers Studio, ironically, rather than Nikkatsu — like Hong Kong Nocturne and Hong Kong Rhapsody are basically thinly sketched plots that serve as an excuse for Inoue to stage insane nightclub scenes and musical numbers. It’s a shame the man never directed an Indian film. While Hasebe is a markedly different type of director than Umetsugu, it’s also obvious that he picked up certain aspects of the elder director’s sense of style. Few of Hasebe’s movies don’t feature at least one extended nightclub sequence, and Black Tight Killers in particular is a veritable nonstop smorgasbord of colorful weirdness.
Cinematographer Kazue Nagatsuka is certainly as game for the madness as his director, and like Hasebe, he comes well prepared. He was fresh off working with Seijun Suzuki on Youth of the Beast, and the year after Black Tight Killers he worked on Suzuki’s career-killing masterpiece, Branded to Kill. Even after Suzuki’s fall from grace and dismissal from Nikkatsu, Nagatsuka stuck with him, working on Tsigoineruwaizen and Kagero-za, two of the director’s off-kilter entries in his early 80s trilogy. Obviously, Nagatsuka was no stranger to weirdness, and he really cuts loose in Black Tight Killers and seems to be shooting film with an insane mix of Bond style suaveness, counter-culture avant gardism, and something that looks like film noir if noir had been able to drench itself in lurid colors. When Nagatsuka and Hasebe set themselves about creating a dream sequence, it’s ironic that the result is actually less insane and surreal than the film’s waking world.
And like I said, even though the cast and crew are making a lark of a movie, Hasebe never lets it collapse under the weight of its own self-awareness. He understands that the best spoof of the campy spy film of the 1960s also has to be a very enjoyable spy film, and Black Tight Killers doesn’t forget to entertain. Kobayashi, as usual, throws himself into the role’s physical aspects with gusto, and he and the girls who make up the black tight squad get to have frequent fights with fists, feet, guns, bamboo bazookas, and of course more mundane weapons like killer albums and ninja chewing gum.
The whole thing is light, frothy, and totally ridiculous. Black Tight Killers looks like some scamp replaced the crew’s cameras with kaleidoscopes — and yet, oddly, it’s far less convoluted than Kobayashi’s 3 Seconds Before the Explosion. That movie is Kobayashi’s Bond movie. This one is his Flint movie, with a uch firmer finger on the pulse of the emerging youth counter-culture. I was thoroughly delighted with every single aspect of the movie.