House of Bamboo

House of Bamboo, Samuel Fuller’s 1954 color film noir shot on location in Japan, depicts Japanese culture in a liminal state between past tradition and modernization with stunning widescreen photography. The film is a technical tour de force, but falls flat as it struggles to both develop characters and analyze the cultural and physical setting in depth. One of the principal victims of the film’s narrative weaknesses is Japanese culture itself, in that the film primarily focuses on expatriates and does little more than sensationalize Japan.

This post-war period of American cinema found itself in a tough position when dealing with Japanese culture. The decade prior to the release of this film had portrayed Japan as the antagonist, yet America had now obliterated major parts of the nation, and there was no reason to depict the Japanese as simplistic enemies. Fuller in no way makes the Japanese out to be the antagonists, instead depicting them as sympathetic victims of the expatriates’ crimes. Despite Fuller’s attempts to humanize the Japanese by educating the viewer on their customs, Japanese culture is sensationalized beyond the point of any true insight or commentary. Fuller does not overtly mock or criticize Japan’s traditions, but his superficial engagement with the culture merely serves as an exotic playground for the expatriate characters.

It would be unfair, however, to say that Japan is the lone subject that the film fails to investigate in depth, as the narrative as whole is weak. The story is about the investigation of a series of crimes involving Americans in Japan. A military sergeant comes to Tokyo under the guise of Eddie Spanier, the military friend of a recently deceased criminal. He begins living with his late friend’s widow while infiltrating a criminal organization composed of American veterans. Little backstory is given to any of the characters, however, resulting in a notable distance between the viewer and the protagonists. For instance, Eddie is not introduced until eight minutes into the film, and is not revealed to be a military sergeant until much later. In a counterintuitive manner, the leader of the criminal organization is one of the few characters who is presented multidimensionally. The viewer is exposed to not only his brutality as he murders and steals, but also his humanity when he chooses to save Eddie’s life. Although these characteristics of the narrative could be seen as daring challenges to traditional structure, they fail to gather the momentum that this kind of thriller demands.

Despite these flaws, House of Bamboo is visually stunning; any frame could stand alone as a still photograph. Fuller uses rich, saturated colors, and one would struggle to find wasted space in any shot. Even in static shots of people talking, Fuller makes a point of layering characters in the frame to add the greatest sense of depth. While the sensationalism seems stereotypical in the depiction of Japan, it also produces its fair share of beautiful images. The use of extra wide shots accentuates the broadness of the urban landscapes, often making the characters feel small within the larger picture. While the story may come off as trivial and simplistic, the photography easily makes up for this.

In many ways, House of Bamboo, may be more enjoyable from a contemporary perspective. With the present day ubiquity of special effects and stunning imagery, viewers are now largely accustomed to films that sacrifice narrative for the sake of a visually stimulating experience. This is precisely what House of Bamboo does. The plot’s twists and turns largely fall flat, but the imagery is so magnificent that it can captivate on its own. If there is one thing that the film succeeds at, it is in reinforcing the power of the image. Although the movie fails to dig below the surface in providing any cultural or historical insight into postwar Tokyo, it renders that surface beautifully, offering an immersive voyage to a sensationalized, bygone Japan.

House of Bamboo is playing at Film Forum through Thursday, April 18th.