House of Bamboo is remarkable only in its settings . . .
. . . It takes more than an original setting, though, to refurbish a formula production.
These are the first and last lines of the Monthly Film Bulletin review by ‘P.H.’ of this film. The MFB was the British Film Institute’s ‘journal of record’ which attempted to review films released in the UK. It was ‘absorbed’ by Sight & Sound in 1991. In 1955, reviewers weren’t named but I’m guessing this might have been Philip Hope-Wallace. The attitude towards many Hollywood films is neatly summarised by that reference to ‘formula’ and in the body of the shortish review the conventional elements of the film, including the playing which is “moderate”, are recognised as being used to present a “gratuitous emphasis on physical violence”. The only praise is for the cinematography of Joe MacDonald whose work is described as “handsome”.
I’m not sure what I expected and I would have to agree that this is a conventional ‘gangster melodrama’ – the term used in the review. However, I think the presentation is stunning and the performances are generally very good. The narrative has real intelligence in the way it explores a specific time and place and it has something to say about American culture as expressed in an unusual setting.
House of Bamboo is a contemporary crime story filmed on location in Tokyo and Yokohama. In 1954 the Allied (i.e. mainly American) Occupation of Japan had ended some two years earlier and sovereignty was restored to a Japanese administration but there were still many thousands of US military personnel based in Japan. The film’s story deals with a criminal gang comprising ex-GIs which is carrying out a series of major robberies, each conducted like a military operation. The Tokyo police have joined forces with the American military police and organised an infiltration of the criminal gang by an undercover military policeman posing as another ‘dishonourably discharged’ GI.
The film’s script is actually a re-write of an earlier crime film, The Street With No Name (1948) directed by William Keighley and set in Los Angeles. That film was itself seen as a sequel to or ‘spin-off’ from The House on 92nd Street, Henry Hathaway’s 1945 film about an FBI undercover operation aiming to break up a Nazi spy ring. So, in this regard, the MFB review is on the right track. But House of Bamboo is very different to the two earlier films for two reasons. First it is a CinemaScope and DeLuxe Color production from 20th Century Fox, using the original 2.55:1 ‘Scope aspect ratio and 4-track stereo sound. Visually and aurally this is a significantly different proposition to those earlier films. Second this is a Sam Fuller movie. The mere mention of Fuller’s name may have had a negative effect on British critics in the 1950s. Fuller had two driving forces which informed all his films. These were his two main ‘life experiences’ – his early career as a journalist and his wartime experience. In between he wrote pulp fiction. Sam Fuller didn’t make staid, run-of-the-mill movies. As Phil Hardy puts it in his Studio Vista Movie Paperback (1970) on the director, Fuller was a writer, but not an intellectual. He presented stories like a tabloid sub-editor, punching out scenes and communicating quickly and directly with his audience. Fuller also had strong opinions and he believed his films should have a direct message. He had a strong belief in the potential of American ideologies to liberate people and he therefore supported American imperialism when it meant going to war to fight Communists. This led some critics to describe the director as a ‘fascist’, but that didn’t really make sense. Fuller was in some ways Utopian in his belief in multi-racial societies. He was also critical of how American policies were put into practice and he chose to explore them at moments of crisis and both inside the US and overseas.
I first saw House of Bamboo many years ago on TV when it would have been ‘panned and scanned’ for a 4:3 presentation and when the colour was faded. Watching it now in HD with the colours restored and the original ‘Scope image, I found it a stunning spectacle. It should be remembered that Japan in the mid-fifties was still in the early stage of its economic miracle and Japanese cinema had not yet embraced widescreen technologies or colour (which would appear in the next few years). House of Bamboo looks fabulous, whether it is location shooting, much of it in long shot, or what I assume to be Japanese studio footage with some terrific sets.
The three principals are played by Robert Ryan as the gang-leader Sandy Dawson, Robert Stack as the infiltrator Eddie and Shirley Yamaguchi as Mariko, the widow who acts as Eddie’s ‘kimono’, the gang’s sexist slang for the women who live with them. Robert Ryan is, of course, terrific as always. Here he is both calculating and vicious but with an underling elegance that might derive from is repressed homoerotic attraction to Eddie. Robert Stack has a kind of double role to play. He has to show his more human side to Mariko when she decides to support his undercover work but he also has to appear mean and surly as a gang member. I’m not sure he quite pulls this off. I note one ‘user’ comment which complains that he talks to everyone as if he was playing Elliot Ness in The Untouchables (he starred in 119 episodes of the TV series between 1959 and 1963). There is some truth in this. I had forgotten that ‘Shirley Yamaguchi’ was actually Yamaguchi Yoshiko and that she appeared with Mifune Toshiro in Kurosawa’s Scandal (Japan 1947). Like Mifune she was born in Manchuria to Japanese parents in 1920 but then appeared in propaganda films made in Manchuko as a Chinese actor. Later she would make a career briefly in the US and then in Hong Kong. She was also a successful singer whose performances were used recently in both Crazy Rich Asians (US 2018) and Wong Kar-wai’s The Grandmaster (HK-China 2013) under her Chinese pseudonym Li Xianglan.
Like many of Fuller’s films in this period, House of Bamboo begins with a journalistic commentary as voiceover, effectively setting the scene for us. I would argue that the ‘formula’ is exploited by Fuller such that he can explore his usual concerns. The mixed race relationship, Robert Ryan’s control over crime activities all planned as military operations and throughout the sense that America’s presence in Japan is both necessary but also prone to the corruption of idealism and the loss of control. As Phil Hardy notes, Eddie’s role as the American breaking up the American gang is an ironic reference to the American-Japanese treaty and the role of the US in Japan’s recovery. Japan is presented with sociological and cultural detail in place. Fuller’s art director also contributes towards this by providing a ‘bamboo curtain’, a transparent barrier which descends between Eddie and Mariko at night. It’s still early in terms of CinemaScope and most shots are relatively static with movement in an across the frame offered by the extreme width of the image and the long shot framings. It would take Fuller a little longer to re-discover the punchy style of his pre-CinemaScope work and it was that style that so impressed later directors such as Jean-Luc Godard.
I’m looking forward now to watching some more Fuller ‘Scope films from the 1950s.