Cinesphere: Joe Shishido and Nikkatsu Noir

He had a face like a chipmunk and would become one of Japan’s greatest-ever tough guys. Joe Shishido, or “Joe the Ace,” was a contract player for Nikkatsu Company during their golden age. A statement which probably means next to nothing to a lot of people since they aren’t familiar with Nikkatsu or the multi-decade run they had cranking out dark, low-budget film noirs to compete with American and French crime movies.

From the 50s to the 70s Nikkatsu’s house directors included Toshio Masuda, Takashi Nomura, Shoehei Imamura, Yasuharu Hesebe and, most famously, Seijun Suzuki. Suzuki took crime films from straight-ahead dramas to stylistically daring romps like BRANDED TO KILL and TOKYO DRIFTER. Films which would be credited as direct influences on filmmakers as diverse as Jim Jarmusch, Tekeshi Kitano, Quentin Tarantino and Wong Kar-wei. Which brings us back to the man with the chipmunk face.

Joe Shishido was Suzuki’s favorite star and featured in the above two films as well as DETECTIVE BUREAU 2-3: GO TO HELL BASTARDS!, YOUTH OF THE BEAST, GATE OF FLESH and A TALE OF SORROW AND SADNESS.

Shishido also managed to star in a number of other notable Nikkatsu Company features for other directors including; RUSTY KNIFE, CRUEL GUN STORY, MASSACRE GUN and A COLT IS MY PASSPORT. Four of these films are a part of a terrific Criterion DVD set called NIKKATSU NOIR, which I highly recommend if you collect such pre-streaming-age artifacts.

Later in his career, Shishido would finally leave Nikkatsu and work for TOEI. He became part of its most famous franchise and stared in BATTLES WITHOUT HONOR AND HUMANITY: FINAL EPISODE and NEW BATTLES WITHOUT HONOR AND HUMANITY. Both were helmed by director, Kinji Fukasaku who would go on to direct the ultra-violent, teen epic, BATTLE ROYALE.

Clearly, it wasn’t just Shishido’s cheeks that were in demand. He had a look and a presence which made him unique in Japanese filmmaking. Speaking of those cheeks, they weren’t natural. They were surgically created.

In 1957, Shishido decided that his looks were too bland and had plastic surgery to create the look he would become famous for. Clearly it worked. His career went from forgettable action/comedy roles to being one of the most in-demand actors of his era. He made over 300 films in his career and, if anything, achieved even greater fame, at least in the west, when his early crime films were finally released on DVD and streaming services.

The days are long-gone, of course, when studios cranked out picture after picture with the same stable of directors and the same stars. A shame, really, when you consider how many of those quick, low-budget projects were so memorable.

Joe Shishido harkens back to another era, not just for the studios but to tough guys. A time when all you needed was a cold look in the eye, a warm gun in the hand and really, really big, surgically-created cheeks.

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