Black Tight Killers

Black Tight Killers (1966)
Image Entertainment
Cast: Akira Kobayashi, Chieko Matsubara
Extras: Theatrical Trailer, Liner Notes

The explosive popularity of the DVD format has seen an influx of foreign titles to the American market. While discussion is usually limited to the rise in the availability of European horror titles, there has also been a surge in the number of releases from the Far East. Companies such as Tai Seng have made Chinese films readily available on DVD. Now, thanks to Image Entertainment and American Cinematheque, a new batch of Japanese films will be hitting our shores. "Black Tight Killers" and "Female Convict Scorpion — Jailhouse 41" are two films from this series. While both are from the same period, the two films couldn’t be more different.

"Black Tight Killers" is definitely the better of the two, and is a very entertaining movie. The DVD’s liner notes claim that the film was made to compete with the "James Bond" films, but it comes away with a style all of its own. Instead of playing like a spy caper, "Black Tight Killers" is more reminiscent of a pulp novel in which an Everyman character finds himself involved in circumstances that he doesn’t understand and can’t control. The film stars Akira Kobayashi as Hondo, a photo-journalist who has just completed an assignment photographing the Vietnam War. On his flight home, he woos the stewardess Yoriko (Chieko Matsubara) and convinces her to accompanying him to dinner.

While at dinner, Yoriko notices that a strange man is following them. When the man approaches Yoriko, she flees the restaurant. Hondo pursues them, only to find the man being attacked by a group of female ninjas dressed as go-go dancers. (I’m not making this up.) The ninjas, who Hondo dubs the "Black Tight Killers" because of their costumes, kill the strange man and kidnap Hondo. Hondo is framed for the murder, but is released from custody when he produces an alibi. Hondo now begins a search for Yoriko and the "Black Tight Killers". Hondo soon finds himself involved in a war between two rival factions who are searching for gold from World War II. Hondo aligns with the female ninjas in order to rescue Yoriko and stop the bad guys.

While some of "Black Tight Killers" is incredibly campy (the ninjas use weapons like "chewing gum darts" and throw razor-sharp 45rpm records), the majority of the film is played very straight (note the high body count). I didn’t see the film as a "James Bond" ripoff, nor as a spoof, but as a solid action film with some well-done fight scenes. Director Yasuharu Hasebe has given the film a very colorful look and delivers the goods in the action department. The film is well-acted and the characters have depth. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed "Black Tight Killers".

The Image Entertainment DVD of "Black Tight Killers" presents the film in an <$16x9,anamorphic> <$PS,widescreen>, which is <$PS,letterboxed> at 2.35:1. The digital transfer displays some unavoidable defects in the source print, most scratches and grain. The picture itself is quite clear and crisp. The DVD does a wonderful job of recreating the colors in the film. The best example of this is a dream sequences which occurs around the 19 minute mark. This scene shows off a very impressive color palette and it resembles a Technicolor Hollywood musical. The DVD shows no signs of compression problems or major artifacting (not surprising, given the brevity of the film). The audio on "Black Tight Killers" is a <$DD,Dolby Digital> Mono track, which is satisfactory, but somewhat lifeless at times. The DVD also contains the original theatrical trailer for the film, which is <$PS,letterboxed> at 2.35:1. You will also find a 20-minute interview with director Yasuharu Hasebe on the disc, which is informative, but dry at times, and with some slow points where the translator is waiting for Hasebe to complete his thought. (Note the "Trainspotting" tape behind Hasebe, in a sea of Japanese titles.)

Female Convict Scorpion — Jailhouse 41 (1972)
Image Entertainment
Length: 89 mins.
Rated: Not Rated
Format: Anamorphic Widescreen · 2.35:1
Language: Japanese
Subtitles: English
Audio: Dolby Digital Mono
Extras: Theatrical Trailer, Liner Notes

While "Black Tight Killers" is a fun romp, "Female Convict Scorpion — Jailhouse 41" is the exact opposite. This is a cold, sadistic movie, which shows that the United States and Europe aren’t the only places that want to dwell on the exploits of women’s prisons. This film is actually a sequel, being the second film in a six film series. (The first film being "Female Convict #701 — Scorpion") Fortunately, the extensive liner notes which accompany the DVD explain all of this, as the film itself doesn’t waste any time explaining what happened in the first movie.

The film opens with Scorpion (Meiko Kaji) in solitary confinement, presumably for the actions she’d committed in the first film, which included blinding the warden in his right eye. The warden visits Scorpion to inform her that she will be allowed in the yard, as a dignitary is coming to visit. During this visit, Scorpion attacks the warden and triggers a riot (as well as some pants soiling!). The prisoners are punished by being placed on a harsh work detail. The warden punishes Scorpion by having four guards rape her, and on the way back to the prison, even the other prisoners attack and assault her. When the guards stop the van to see what’s happening, the women turn their attack on them and escape. Scorpion leads the women into the mountains as the warden begins his pursuit. From this point on, the film becomes a mind game, between the escapees and the warden, and between the female prisoners themselves, as they try to decide who they can trust.

From beginning to end, "Female Convict Scorpion — Jailhouse 41" is a grim and violent film. Imagine some of the "Ilsa" films, but without any camp humor thrown in. Scorpion is constantly being abused throughout the film, yet she never says a word. The film is unrated, but the violence would certainly earn it an R. While the acts committed in the film make it hard to watch at times, director Shunya Ito has created a visually stunning film. His camera is rarely still and some of the shots are reminiscent of Sam Raimi. The storyline comes across as a bit cliched at times, but the film remains very watchable, as you can’t help but cheer for Scorpion to get her revenge on her oppressors.

The Image DVD of "Female Convict Scorpion — Jailhouse 41" is presented in an <$16x9,anamorphic> <$PS,widescreen> and is <$PS,letterboxed> at 2.35:1. The picture shows some major defects in the source print, such as scratches and white spots, but that is understandable for a foreign film which is nearly 30 years old. The transfer is very crisp and clear, although the image does get a bit too dark at times. Being a prison film, there are many blacks and grays in the movie. They come across realistically and there is little saturation in the colors. The compression has been handled well without introduction of noticeable artifacts. The Dolby Digital Mono soundtrack allows the dialogue and sound effects to be clear and audible, but offers little in the way of a dynamic range. The only extra on the DVD is the movie’s theatrical trailer.

The major complaint that I have about both DVDs are the subtitles. The subtitles are in white and are hard-burned on the film, inside the actual image frame. The subtitles are very difficult to read and impossible to see if something white is at the bottom of the shot. With both films being in Japanese, it’s imperative that the subtitles be clear and easy to read.

While I still prefer the Hong Kong cinema, I’ve enjoyed my latest foree into the films of Japan. "Black Tight Killers" and "Female Convict Scorpion — Jailhouse 41" may be complete opposites when it comes to tone and storyline, but both films are lively and daring, and both show a great sense of style. If you’re a fan of Asian movies, but want to have a taste of something a little different, I suggest you look into this series of films from Image Entertainment and American Cinematheque. Trust me, there’s weirder things than Godzilla stomping around Japan.