Review by Ian Johnston
Posted on 29 August 2005
Source Fox DVD
“Film is like a battlefield,” Samuel Fuller famously pronounced in his cameo appearance in Godard’s Pierrot Le Fou, and House Of Bamboo certainly fits the bill: fuelled by Fuller’s background in tabloid journalism and his war experience, it’s blunt, brutal, energetic, and — in the spirit of Fuller’s later cigar-chomping persona — naively sincere. Still, fifty years later, there’s also something a little embarrassing about its Japanese setting. House of Bamboo was the first Hollywood film to be shot on location in post-World-War-II Japan, and Fuller makes the most of the opportunity, even if it adds up to nothing much more than exotic local colour, plus a decidedly retrograde portrayal of Japanese women. Fuller doesn’t seem to have realised how much he and his film crew parallel the film’s characters—big-boned Americans blundering into a culture they don’t understand.
The film’s story is fairly preposterous. Robert Ryan plays Sandy Dawson, the leader of a ruthless gang of ex-GIs operating in the Tokyo of the day. They’re not only successful in pulling off a series of robberies (with a policy of shooting any wounded gang members in order to leave no evidence behind), but they also seem to be running the city’s pachinko parlours without knowing any Japanese! Because they murder an American guard in the opening train-robbery sequence, the U.S. military investigators use Eddie Kenner — a very one-note performance by Robert Stack — to masquerade as an ex-con, Eddie Spanier, and infiltrate the gang. (The story is a remake of a very standard semi-documentary film noir, The Street with No Name, directed by William Keighley in 1948.)
There’s a strong homoerotic current to Sandy’s gang, and in particular to Sandy himself. Unlike other gang members, Sandy doesn’t even keep a Japanese woman in tow (all the gang refers derisively to the Japanese girlfriends as “kimonos”) and any emotional commitment is to his sidekick Griff. But in the course of the film Sandy transfers his interest to Eddie, and the jealous Griff is progressively displaced. The acknowledgment of Sandy’s love, so to speak, occurs during the robbery of a wharfside factory. Although one wounded gang member has already been eliminated, Sandy stops the same thing happening to the slightly wounded Eddie. Eddie is moved into Sandy’s beautiful traditional Japanese house and is increasingly feminised — in one scene, appearing in a kimono where the other gang members are wearing Western suits.
In fact, this subtextual emotional triangle formed by Sandy, Griff, and Eddie is a lot more convincing than Eddie’s romance with Machiko. She was secretly married to one of the gang members, now dead—he was wounded in an earlier robbery and shot by Sandy, although he didn’t die until in the hospital (Fuller gives us a marvelous overhead shot of him on the operating table, refusing to talk to his interrogators). Now, Machiko is in on Eddie’s scheme, and they’re both falling in love, but Fuller never seems to stage their love scenes together with much conviction. The interest of the film is in Sandy’s “love”, to the extent that the audience can initially misinterpret the import of a scene.
For example, after Michiko has visited a hotel (where she has been seen) to make contact with Eddie’s superior, she’s cornered by Sandy on her return. We think Sandy’s doing this because he knows she’s betraying him, when in fact we realise he’s angry with her because he thinks she’s betraying Eddie.
Both Fuller and Robert Ryan were fully aware of this subtext to Sandy’s character. The joke is that Robert Stack was oblivious, and we read a certain discomfort or perplexity at times on Stack’s face, such as when Sandy sits Eddie down at the department store robbery, sits next to him, and drapes his leg over one of Eddie’s.
But the interest of House of Bamboo above all lies in the tremendous use Fuller makes of the colour Cinemascope frame. There’s very little in the way of conventional Hollywood shot set-ups or editing, a lot of wide shots and not much cutting within the scene; and in his own way Fuller is trying genuinely to incorporate Japanese culture and the Japanese location shooting into the visual design of the film.
There’s a very productive use of the geography of the Japanese house to structure the scenes visually, especially with the application of screens: look at the screen that Machiko pulls down which both separates them when they sleep and changes the dynamics of the shot, creating a new foreground and background space; or the startling scene when Eddie is thrown through a rice-paper wall at the back of the frame and into the next room where Sandy’s gang are lined up across the shot.
Fuller builds up his shots around the Japanese icons he found on location. Sometimes he does this with a certain lack of logic: at the end of the opening train robbery sequence, for example, he suddenly cuts non-naturalistically to a new angle on the body of the murdered American guard; foreshortened, his legs are directed straight at the audience, positioned this way to provide a formal composition of Mt Fuji. Sometimes, as when we’re shown Eddie in long shot slowly making his way around some small boats at a wharf, the shot/scene is there just to emphasise the location. But sometimes it’s simply perfect: after we see Machiko a victim of reverse racism (being ostracised because of her association with a Western man) there’s a marvelous low-angle tracking shot following Machiko along a line of slightly ramshackle houses, an effect of both formal beauty and realism, attainable because of the location shooting.
There are so many intensely colourful set pieces — take as another example the single shot that starts as a medium-shot of a single Kabuki performer on a rooftop, swings over to witness Eddie’s arrival, and then swings back to reveal the whole rooftop humming with performers — that all lead to the film’s climax. This is set in some kind of children’s amusement park on a department store roof and ends with a dramatic shoot-out between Sandy and Eddie on a revolving globe. Irrespective of the ludicrous basis for the storyline and the sometimes lacklustre performances, this final scene demonstrates the splendour of House of Bamboo: a paroxysm of colour and style.