Review for House of Bamboo
To be honest, this was the afterthought when I requested Hell and High Water for review. This December, Eureka films are re-releasing two films from the Fuller at Fox boxset, the two which never got stand alone releases from them previously, and I got my wires crossed with Hell and High Water, thinking it was another film altogether. When I saw House of Bamboo solicited for review at the same time, and seeing in the blurb that it was the first major Hollywood picture filmed in post-war Japan, I thought it would make a nice accompaniment. However, having now seen, and been disappointed by Hell and High Water, I’m having second thoughts about this film. Expectations lowered accordingly, let’s see what House of Bamboo is all about.
In Japan of 1954, there is still a big US presence, some of it criminal. A US soldier is killed when a military supply train is hit, and small arms stolen. Those weapons are used in a subsequent robbery where one of the thieves is left for dead, shot by his own gang. The man, Webber dies in hospital, but not before revealing that he had secretly taken a Japanese wife named Mariko. That’s the first lead that the police have.
It’s also a lead that a new arrival in Japan quickly picks up on. He’s a petty criminal named Eddie Spanier, summoned to Japan by a letter from his pal Webber with the promise of making a quick buck, nice and easy. But with Webber dead, and his wife naive of her husband’s career, Eddie has no choice but to go into business for himself. A pachinko parlour protection racket in Tokyo steps on the wrong toes though, and he comes to the attention of Sandy Dawson, a gang leader whose crew are ex-military, and who have been hitting lucrative targets all over the city. He has one inviolable rule; if any of his men are injured during a hit, they’ll be put down, to avoid squealing to the cops; and Eddie’s the kind of guy that he can use.
Like Hell and High Water, House of Bamboo was shot in the short-lived Cinemascope format, presented on this disc as 2.55:1 widescreen 1080p. This is an excellent transfer of a film that has been through the 4k restoration process. The image is clear and sharp, colours are rich and lush, while contrast is excellent, black levels are spot on. The film opens with an amazing scene of a train journey through a snowscape, Mt Fuji in the background. It captures a moment in time, that of Japan in its post-war reconstruction, big modern construction in the background in Tokyo, while people still live in small, wooden homes with few mod-cons. The audio comes in perfectly serviceable DTS-HD MA 2.0 Mono English form with optional SDH subtitles. The dialogue is clear, although the Japanese dialogue isn’t translated, to emphasise the culture clash and the fish out of water nature of the protagonist. The action comes across well, and there are no issues with dropouts or the like.
This disc was part of the Fuller at Fox boxset released in 2019, which had a run of 2000. This individual disc release is even more limited at 1000 units, so I assume that all of them will come with the booklet inside. In it, you’ll find an essay from Richard Combs, and a text commentary on the film from director Samuel Fuller, published posthumously.
The disc boots to a static menu.
On the disc you’ll find two commentaries from film historians, one from Julie Kirgo and Nick Redman, and one from Alain Silver and James Ursini.
Fuller at Fox: A Video Essay by David Cairns lasts 26:18, and is a profile of the director, with a look at the five films he directed for Fox and which were in the boxset from Eureka.
The trailer for the film lasts 2:19.
Not advertised with the disc, and not even a menu option, but if you flick your remote through the audio settings on your player, you’ll find a fourth audio track, which turns out to be a isolated music and effects track for the film, although some of the Japanese dialogue is considered effects for the purposes of the track.
This is more like it! While Hell and High Water disappointed me, House of Bamboo on the other hand had my attention for its one hour and forty minute run time, It’s an effective film noir crime thriller, which transplanted to Japan is enchanting with its travelogue culture clash fifty years before Lost in Translation. It’s got an appealing and (at the time) somewhat taboo love story, and it’s got an honour among thieves tale which Tarantino possibly saw and thought was a good idea when he was writing Reservoir Dogs. That House of Bamboo has Star Trek’s DeForest “Dr McCoy” Kelley in a hoodlum role delights me on a personal level, and gives me more of a connection to the film.
Robert Stack makes for an unlikely protagonist in Eddie Spanier, introduced in the narration as a nondescript arrival in Japan, looking like a thug, and blustering his way through the city, surfing an attitude and an air of superiority, demanding answers to his questions, expecting everyone to speak English, and when he starts shaking down Pachinko parlour managers for protection money, you’re certain that he’s a villain. The only sympathetic side he shows is to his friend Webber’s widow, where you get the sense that he’s looking to avenge Webber more than establish himself as a criminal.
The film lets you hang on to that perception for a lot longer than modern films would have, before you learn that there is more to Eddie than meets the eye. There are ulterior motives as to why he wants to infiltrate Sandy Dawson’s gang, and he winds up using Mariko as part of his cover to do so. Given that she wants to see justice for her late husband gives her reason to do so too, but associating with foreigners gives her pause. The Americans may be the ‘liberators’ but they are only welcome to a point.
Then there is the gang, led by Robert Ryan’s Dawson. He runs it like a military affair, precise and planned down to the last detail. He recruits the dregs of the military; those who were career criminals to begin with, got military training and experience up to a point, and then dishonourably discharged for various infractions. They’ve got the perfect training to break the law with military precision, and Dawson’s one hard rule is that he’ll kill anyone who’s injured in a heist rather than let them be captured, as he believes every man has a breaking point under interrogation. He takes a shine to Eddie, to such a degree that he starts to alienate his Lieutenant, Griff, and once he breaks his own rule to save Eddie in his first heist as part of the gang, the seeds of paranoia and discord are sown. The more cause for paranoia there is, the more Dawson loses that military perfection to reveal a twisted, deranged mind leading to a shocking memorable scene, worthy of any Shakespeare play.
I may have been let down by Hell and High Water, but House of Bamboo gave me so much more than I was expecting that I’m putting this towards the top of the re-watch pile. That it’s an effective piece of film noir goes without saying, but there are layers to this film that make it much more than the sum of its parts. The Blu-ray presentation is excellent, and you get that isolated music and effects track as an Easter Egg.