Yakuza mobster Jiro (Yujiro Ishihara) has run away from the Tokyo police, and remains holed up in Kobe. At the city port he witnesses a man get killed, only to later find himself romancing the man’s sister Keiko (Mie Kitahara). Before long Jiro is hunted down by out-of-town criminals, while the police continue to close in.
There is a fair whack of style to Red Pier (also sometimes translated to English as Red Quay). It’s a 1958 crime film directed by Toshio Masuda and produced by the Japanese movie studio Nikkatsu. At the time these low budget thrillers and action movies were Nikkatsu’s stock-in-trade, and as long as each director stayed on budget and in genre there was a surprising amount of latitude in how they could go about filming the story. This made Nikkatsu in effect something of a film laboratory, where individual filmmakers would test out new ways of shooting or editing the action. Masuda certainly tries out some fairly innovative stuff here. A highlight is a violent altercation in a hotel room between Jiro and another gangster. The camera tilts with the first blow, and lurches back and forth as the melee goes on. It’s slightly disorientating, but also hugely effective in selling the panicky emotions of the fight. That is certainly the visual highlight of the film, but there are plenty of interesting camera angles throughout that keep things feeling fresh and interesting.
Sadly to a large extent the innovation serves to mask an underwhelming and slightly muddled story. Red Pier is almost three short films lined end-to-end: it begins with Jiro’s over-confident attempts to woo Keiko, suddenly changes gears when a group of Tokyo hitmen are dispatched to kill him, and transforms again as Jiro murders one hitman in cold blood and goes on the run as a result. It is not just the content that shifts but the tone: the film begins in quite a light and energetic context and concludes with melancholy. It does not lack for story, but it does lack a clear emotional through-line. It looks wonderful, and boasts a jazz-infused soundtrack typical of Nikkatsu, but it’s papering over some fairly obvious cracks in the overall structure.
To their credit the cast give it their all. At the time Ishihara was a popular screen heart-throb, and he certainly plays off his character’s cool image throughout. Mie Kitahara does an excellent job of portraying Keiko, balancing her grief with the excitement of a new romance, and ultimately a growing distrust of Jiro as the extent of his criminal involvement becomes clear. Sanae Nakahara makes for an energetic and always-hopeful ex-girlfriend for Jiro. The real stand-out is Shiro Osaka as the police detective Noro. He knows Jiro is a wanted criminal, yet instinctively likes him. He spends most of the film warning Jiro out of trouble and struggling to make him change his criminal ways, despite knowing that he will inevitably have to apprehend Jiro in the end. There’s a wonderful blend of comedy and drama to him, and Osaka plays it wonderfully.
As with all of Nikkatsu’s crime films, the low budget led to a lot of location filming to save on building sets. This affords the viewer a wonderful view of late 1950s Japan; in this case Kobe. It’s an unintended but valuable highlight for the modern-day viewer. Red Pier is not an exceptional film, but neither is it a particularly poor one. Instead it feels like the perfect example of a kind of film made in a certain period. It’s a wonderful crime flick, rich in character and camera work, despite its muddled narrative.