Kurosen chitai / Black Line (1960)

6 08 2014

Teruo Ishii started his career as an assistant to the great Mikio Naruse. While Ishii would go on to become Japan’s most beloved cult filmmaker, there is still traces of his mentor in this early effort. The jazzy, noir qualities of When a Woman Ascends the Stairs show up in Black Line, while Ishii also seems to devote some attention to the plight of women and yet, the sensitive qualities of Naruse’s work are absent. Not because Ishii’s film seems to “miss something” but instead, because he operates on a completely different level. The aforementioned noir quality is taken to its logical conclusion and the result is a film that feels like a serviceable genre flick, with only a few isolated moments that hint at something more.

1

Koji Machida wakes up and finds himself in bed with a woman, but the woman is dead and he’s the obvious lead suspect. Machida suspects he’s been carefully framed for the murder so he begins an unofficial investigation. It leads him to another women, this one gets deliberately run over by a car while the two are arguing. Machida looks even more suspicious, but as he climbs deeper into the underworld, the women become more welcoming (if only for the fact that they read his questioning as flirting) but the men become more hostile.

2

That last sentence suggests something that is one of the few major points of interest in Ishii’s film, and that’s how he handles gender. Machida himself seems to have a gendered protocol for social interaction, one that is confrontational and demanding around men, while cool and distant around women. For the latter, he seems to have been raised on American noir, perhaps using Humphrey Bogart as a character to emulate, not unlike Belmondo does in Breathless. This isn’t the most revolutionary idea, and I’m not even sure Ishii himself is making a conscious decision to meditate on Machida’s social malleability, but instead it is something that rings true that probably just flows subconsciously from the film’s script. It’s not always a gendered thing, but it can be: being around different people can shape our interactions and even how we talk depending on context. Much is said about the performance of gender, but that’s not the sensation here. Instead, it’s one where social interactions are read and experienced through a certain filter. I find the experience a difficult one to describe, especially because the language here is so tricky. Machida isn’t vapid or empty because his personality adapts to situations, this is something that happens, in some degree, to most of us.

3

Machida’s aforementioned social protocol encounters a problem, at least through Machida’s eyes of interpretation, when he meets Kayako, a trans woman. Their small conversation, which eventually ends in Machida shouting is a small portion of the film. I have no doubt that Ishii himself thought nothing special of the sequence, it is one that might superficially convince the audience of how “deep” Machida is in the underworld, but that’s already problematic. The scene is fascinating because of Machida’s inability to recognize Kayako as a woman (the film, alas, doesn’t do this either, crediting Kayako as “gay man”) and thus, his coolness around women isn’t present nor is his hostile attitude that is reserved for men. Kayako is a woman, but Machida struggles to accept this, eventually shouting at her before storming out.

4

Before the sequence concludes, Kayako leaves us with a rather succinct observation: “I am only here to please men.” Perhaps the most recent transphobic travesty found in the New Yorker is weighing on my mind, but how often is this idea about someone’s existence taken seriously? Although, Kayako is presumably a sex worker, this doesn’t imply that her or any other sex worker exists only as a tool for a man’s sexuality. This is 100-level feminism, yet it somehow seems to be forgotten about and not applied to trans women. Instead, an argument exists that their existence is itself a sexual perversion. I don’t want to dwell in the argument because it is so offensive, but Kayako’s line seems to acknowledge this line of thinking and expose it for the error that it is. Call it, if nothing else, an unintentional moment of clarity in a film that is far more comfortable exploring more familiar noir territory.

5

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