Saturday, February 13, 2010

In short: Hepcat in the Funky Hat - The Case of the 2,000,000 Yen Arm (1961)

aka Vigilante in the Funky Hat: 200,000 Yen Arm

Three Japanese major league baseball teams are fighting to sign the student league star pitcher Kawahara. The young man suddenly disappears. Although his father and his manager pretend nothing is wrong, one of the teams, the delightfully named Nantetsu Kinki Socks, hires Ichiro Tenka (Sonny Chiba) to find out what really is the matter. Ichiro isn't an actual detective, but he is rather good at catching phone calls meant for his father, a big shot Tokyo detective.

At first, Ichiro isn't all that interested in actually cracking the case he took on. He prefers to stalk a young woman (Hitomi Nakahara) he has seen in a cafe and now very much wants to get to know. When he learns that she is a sports reporter working on a story about Kawahara's disappearance, the not-quite-a-boy-anymore detective changes his tune and goes to work on the Kawahara problem. He'll have to punch quite a few people in the nose and to weather more than one ride with the most frightening cab driver of Japan to win "his" girl's heart.

Like the Drifting Detective film I talked about some months ago, Hepcat is an early cooperation between the future inventor of the jitsuroku yakuza film Kinji Fukasaku and one of the most beloved scene chewers on the face of the planet, Sonny Chiba.

Both men are at very early points in their respective careers here, and therefore working on films which are obviously meant to cheaply fill slots in a double or triple feature. As is usually the case with films like this, Hepcat is awfully slight and scripted with a sense of propulsion but not much logic.

There really isn't much to it. The plot is of no interest to anyone, not even the characters, but it is fun to see a young boyish Chiba mug into the camera in a rather disarming fashion, which is all he ever seems to do when he's not punching people in the face in one of the film's enthusiastic action scenes.

Fukasaku already shows some of the flair he'd later bring to his more personal work. Some of the scenes are much more interestingly framed than is strictly necessary, but I'm not sure if I'd realized that if I hadn't been looking out for signs of the future Fukasaku.

What is already obvious here is the nervous energy that seemed to propel all of Fukasaku's films until the beginning of the 80s. This gives the film a nice forward drive that helps make it the fun, fast-paced time it is meant to be.

Hepcat is also a timely reminder that Nikkatsu wasn't the only Japanese studio trying to reach a younger, hipper audience with its productions. This Toei film features obvious Western influences, youthful protagonists, a fine jazz score and makes jokes about traditional Japanese morals.

It seems as if Fukasaku was part of a wave of directors dragging Japanese cinema into pop culture right from the beginning. That is especially fitting for a director who has made his interest in "youth" and the place of young people in his society a central theme for much of his career.


No comments: