Director: Yasuzo Masumura
By Marilyn Ferdinand
One stop I make almost daily on my Internet travels is Cinebeats. Kimberly Lindbergs makes all things 60s and 70s fascinating and always offers gems to people like myself who want to learn more about this seminal time in cultural history. In her recent rundown of her top 30 DVDS of 2007 was a Japanese film from the early 60s I just had to see. Black Test Car promised a suspenseful ride through the revving-up capitalist economy in Japan by focusing on the industrial spying of rival car manufacturers Tiger Motors and Yomato.
The film opens on a road where two vehicles are assembled. One of them is completely draped in a black cover, the other contains employees of Tiger Motors. Using walkie talkies, the occupants of the two cars confer and once it has been determined there are no cars in front of or behind them, the black-draped car takes off. It accelerates, weaves, and finally goes off the road and crashes. The twisted metal and blazing chassis are photographed by spies who had hidden themselves on a bluff above the road. The embarrassing pictures surface, and it’s back to the drawing board for Tiger Motors.
Department head Onoda (Hideo Takamatsu) reveals his plans for the love of his life—the Pioneer, a four-door sports car that he hopes will help Tiger overtake their larger and more successful rival. I originally thought Onoda was in the design department, but as the film progressed, I thought perhaps he headed the industrial espionage department. He got regular visits from a portly, laughing slime of a man who provided him with intelligence on Yomato, and asked his entire team to get one step ahead of their rival by spying.
Young Asahina (Jiro Tamiya) is Onoda’s ambitious protégé. Onoda promises to make him department head if the Pioneer succeeds. Asahina wants the promotion so that he can afford to marry Masako (Junko Kano), a hostess at a cocktail lounge. Masako warns him about his ambition, wondering if the conservative Tiger corporation would approve of him marrying someone like her. He sloughs off the question, but makes her promise to start work at Pandora, a nightclub frequented by Yomato’s president Mawatari (Ichiro Sugai), a former colonel and a secret agent in the former Imperial Army in Guangdong who surrounds himself with men from his former command. She is to listen for information he can use. Reluctantly, she agrees and begins from her first night on the job to cozy up to Mawatari.
Still, Yomato stays one step ahead of Tiger, producing a plan for a sports car exactly like the Pioneer. Onoda knows a spy is at work among the Tiger executives and works to sniff him out. There are a great many double-dealings, with Yomato bugging a Tiger executive’s room, and Onoda and his men filming a board meeting at which Yomato is expected to set the price of their rival sports car and then having a lip reader interpret the film. Unfortunately for Onoda, Mawatari does not reveal the price. The crisis in the film occurs when Asahina asks Masako to sleep with Mawatari so that she can get the price from an envelope in his briefcase. Masako does his bidding in a rude and rough scene, then returns to him with her payment for prostituting herself—a precious ring. She writes the car’s price on Asahina’s pillow with a lipstick, kisses the ring repeatedly (“It’s warmer than you are”), and storms out. Tiger is able to undercut Yomato’s price and immediately jumpstart their sales. But Yomato isn’t done yet, and the web of betrayals starts to unravel and leads to scandal and death.
Black Test Car most resembles a film noir in look, tone, and storyline. People with whom we initially sympathize become cutthroat, amoral competitors jockeying for position in the new capitalist order. Onoda is married to his job, and his wife passively remarks to Asahina not to emulate him too closely. But ambition and money cause Asahina to lose himself. As riveting as the corporate espionage becomes—a first-rate spy thriller even though its gadgetry is as simple as it gets—the moral tragedy between Asahina and Masako really forms the heart of the film.
It is tempting to think of Masako as traditional Japan and Asahina as new, industrial Japan, but it’s not that simple. Masako is no fool and has no qualms about sleeping with Asahina even though they are not engaged. She’s a modern girl, but she doesn’t fall into the alienation seen in other films of this era, particularly those of Michelangelo Antonioni, a classmate of Masumura’s at Italy’s famed Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia and a great admirer. (Indeed, this film has a lot in common with Antonioni’s views and shooting style.) Alas, Asahina is all too like Antonioni’s cruelly romantic men. The other characters form a tight ensemble, but Onoda’s turn to the dark side, though getting progressively worse through the film, seems excessive by the end.
Black Test Car seems at first to be a candidate for a What’s Up Tiger Lily? treatment, which may be why it is being marketed as a dark comedy. It’s not, however. This film is an intricately plotted, caustic tale of the price of human frailty in a competitive, money-obsessed world. Thanks, Kimberly, for the turn-on! l
Clips of the film can be viewed at Wildgrounds: Cinema de Sentiers.