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Anime Black Tight Killers

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By Tom Wilmot.

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Unlikely as it might be, the late Yasuharu Hasebe is one of Japan’s best-represented filmmakers overseas, with several of the director’s works making their way west over the past twenty or so years. Radiance Films continues the trend of bringing Hasebe’s trademark action movies to Blu-ray with the release of his electrifying directorial debut, Black Tight Killers (1966).


War photographer Honda (Akira Kobayashi) returns from Vietnam and immediately falls for air hostess Yoriko (Chieko Matsubara). However, their first date is suddenly interrupted when Yoriko is whisked away by a mysterious group of black-tight-wearing, knife-wielding, go-go dancing ninja, prompting Honda to search for the stolen beauty. What follows is a non-stop, action-packed, 007-inspired narrative complete with romance, double-crossings, and a hunt for hidden gold.

The gaudy, B-movie narrative, very loosely adapted from Michio Tsuzuki’s 1964 novel Triple Exposure, is merely the bassline to this beautifully shot actioner. Black Tight Killers is one of those delightful films where every aspect comes together perfectly. We’re treated to an abundance of exciting action sequences, ranging from helicopter pursuits and car chases to fist fights and shootouts. These inventive set-pieces keep the plot moving along at a ferocious pace as the film races through its 87-minute runtime.

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Our hero, Honda, is the James Bond stand-in for all intents and purposes, displaying daring and debonair as he battles it out with all parties to get the girl and save the day – he even acquires a couple of gadgets along the way, a canister of laughing gas saving him from the bawdy ninja technique known as “octopus pot”. The titular black tight killers are wonderful oddities in their own right, clad in matching leather jackets and bouffant wigs, wielding razor-sharp vinyl records in place of shuriken stars. The ringleader, Akemi Kita’s Akiko, is the stand-out of the group, a brazen seductress who’s a welcome contrast to Chieko Matsubara’s sweet Yoriko.

The similarities to the distinct visual style of the legendary Seijun Suzuki are there for all to see, with Hasebe himself admitting the influence that his one-time mentor had on the picture. The liberal use of colour, vibrant backdrops, and generally superficial production design give the film a daydream-like quality, allowing us to escape into the heightened reality of its adventure. Another Suzuki-esque element, at least for the era, is the light-hearted tone that pervades the film. The mostly macho Honda sneezes and splutters his way through several tricky scenarios while go-go dancing breaks and unorthodox interrogations keep things fun and frisky.

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Wildly entertaining as it might be, Black Tight Killers sticks out as an anomaly in Hasebe’s career. While this film and his sophomore effort, The Singing Gunman (1967), can be classified as action-comedies, the director’s subsequent works have a distinctly darker edge, featuring rougher characters and more brutally executed violence – shades of the latter are sprinkled throughout his debut. Even stylistically, the candy-coloured chaos of Black Tight Killers is a far cry from the muted, documentary-like approach that the filmmaker would employ in his early yakuza works, which showcase a form not dissimilar to that displayed in Kinji Fukasaku’s Toei-produced jitsuroku (‘true record’) gangster films.

Hasebe joined Japan’s oldest studio, Nikkatsu, in 1958, working for several years as a scriptwriter and assistant director before shooting Black Tight Killers in 1965. His promotion to full-fledged director came at the beginning of a transitionary period for the studio, as its so-called mukokuseki akushon (‘borderless action’) films, characterised by their foreign cultural elements and Hollywood influences, began to struggle at the box office. In response, Nikkatsu launched their nyu akushon (‘new action’) line in the late 1960s, with some of Hasebe’s key works falling into this sub-genre. The director’s noir-like actioner Massacre Gun (1967), yakuza masterpiece Retaliation (1968), and three entries in the Stray Cat Rock series (1970-71), which launched one Meiko Kaji to stardom, perfectly encapsulate the sexier, grittier, and more unforgiving nature of ‘new action’.

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Although he’s best remembered in the West for his action flicks, Hasebe proved to be an extremely versatile filmmaker for the entirety of his career. Having initially left Nikkatsu after its sudden pivot to exclusively producing Roman Porno films in late 1971, the director returned to the studio to develop the infamous ‘violent pink’ sub-genre, producing pinku classics such as Sukeban Deka: Dirty Mary (1974) and Assault! Jack the Ripper (1976). Hasebe even graced the V-Cinema scene of the 1990s, helming around a dozen direct-to-video features that are begging to be unearthed, several starring frequent Takashi Miike collaborator Sho Aikawa.

Black Tight Killers also owes a lot to its leading man, the highly charismatic Akira Kobayashi. After joining Nikkatsu in 1956, the young actor steadily rose to stardom by working with the likes of Toshio Masuda (Rusty Knife, 1958), Seijun Suzuki (The Boy Who Came Back, 1958), and Buichi Saito (The Wandering Guitarist, 1959), becoming part of the studio’s esteemed ‘Diamond Line’ of actors by 1960.

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Just as Black Tight Killers came at a time of change for both Hasebe and Nikkatsu at large, so too was Kobayashi at a transitional point in his career. As the 1960s wore on, the actor moved away from the rebellious delinquent roles of his youth and developed into the charming man of action that we find in the character of Honda. The reliable star would change further still in the years to come, collaborating with Hasebe on several yakuza pictures in which he plays tougher, meaner, more physically imposing figures.

Kobayashi’s performance as Honda marks a brief window of time in which the actor embodied all the alluringly playful characteristics of a Nikkatsu borderless action hero, as can be inferred from his suave and smoulder displayed on the film’s poster. It’s impossible to picture the film without him.

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Radiance Films gives Black Tight Killers the premium treatment, with a stellar Blu-ray presentation packaged together with a few bonus features. The limited edition release includes a booklet essay written by Chris D, author of the excellent Outlaw Gangsters of Japanese Cinema (2005), who draws attention to the curious case of Hasebe’s missing Nikkatsu credits from 1961-1966 – a time during which the director reckons he worked on around 50-60 films.

While the filmmaker is unfortunately no longer around to talk about his efforts during this period, he does feature on this release in some small capacity – an archival interview from 2000 in which he details the making of his debut feature. Hasebe’s enthusiasm for filmmaking is palpable here as he grins his way through this brief discussion of his illustrious career.

The release also features an audio commentary from Japanese film expert Jasper Sharp, whose typically informative track not only guides us through the history of Nikkatsu’s borderless action movement but also offers background on the studio’s key figures both on- and off-screen. It’s always nice to see the spotlight shine on the names that too often slip by; in the cases of production designer Akiyoshi Satani and editor Akira Suzuki, the focus is certainly worthwhile.

In many respects, Yasuharu Hasebe’s Black Tight Killers represents the best of what Nikkatsu’s borderless action had to offer. With thrills and spills abound, the film is a dizzying slice of cinematic escapism that serves as a blistering introduction to one of Japan’s finest action directors.

Black Tight Killers is released in the UK by Radiance Films.

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