Wednesday, 22 January 2020

Jô Shishido

It’s sad to have to kick off this year’s blog posts with an obituary, but we must of course take some time here to pay tribute to the great Jô Shishido, one of the most distinctive and charismatic stars to have ever bothered the world of Japanese commercial cinema, who sadly passed away this week at the age of 86.

Shishido began his career by painstakingly working his way up through the ranks of Nikkatsu studio players during the 1950s, and it was seemingly at this point that he took the extraordinary step of undergoing an early form of facial plastic surgery in order to ‘fill out’ his cheeks. Insofar as I can tell, the reasons why he felt this was necessary have never been entirely made clear, but it has been suggested that both the studio’s criticism of his perceived ‘skinniness’ and an apparent desire to pursue tough guy / action-based parts rather than conventional romantic leads may have influenced his decision.

At times, the results of this on-going surgical dabbling gave Shishido a bizarre, ‘hamster-cheeked’ appearance which has subsequently helped endear him to cult movie fans in the West, but, perhaps more surprisingly, it doesn’t seem to have hurt his standing with image-conscious Nikkatsu at the time either.

In fact, Shishido soon carved out a niche for himself playing villains, thugs and leery, fast-talking ‘bad boys’, and by the late ‘50s he frequently found himself second or third billed alongside the studio’s leading male heart-throbs Yûjirô Ishihara and Akira Kobayashi, earning himself the nickname “Hitman Joe” (soon amended by the studio to the slightly less contentious “Ace Joe”) in the process.

He gained his first leading roles within the strange sub-genre of Nikkatsu’s borderless ‘Eastern-Westerns’, allowing the never-knowingly-modest actor to show off his horse-riding and gun-twirling skills in movies like ‘Quick Draw Joe’ (Takashi Nomura, 1961), whilst the accidental death of fellow star Keiichiro Akagi and the temporary retirement of Ishihara (who had broken his leg in a skiing accident) saw Shishido and fellow b-lister Hideaki Nitani hastily promoted to the giddy heights of Nikkatsu’s exclusive “Diamond Line” of male stars in 1961.

Poster for ‘Rokudenashi Kagyo’ [‘Tiger of the Sea’ aka ‘Ace Joe: Gambling for a Living’] (Buichi Saitô, 1961)

Even at this early stage in his career though, Shishido already seemed to find himself gravitating toward the stranger end of Nikkatsu’s output, notably starring in rebellious director Koreyoshi Kurahara’s ‘Glass Johnny: Look Like a Beast’ (1962), an unconventional feature inspired by Fellini’s ‘La Strada’ which reportedly broke with all of the studio’s usual stylistic conventions.

Throughout his early films, ‘Ace Joe’s approach to performance tended to be wilder and more daring than his Nikkatsu contemporaries, veering unpredictably between powerful, kinetic intensity and tongue-in-cheek goofery – a combination which naturally endeared him to the studio’s other resident rule-breaker, Seijun Suzuki, leading to the series of films for which he remains best known in the West.

Shishido first worked for Suzuki in the underrated, noir-tinged thriller ‘Voice Without a Shadow’ (1958), but he really came into his own playing the berserk, cartoon-ish leads in the director’s eye-popping pop art gangster rampages ‘Youth of the Beast’ and the splendidly named ‘Detective Bureau 2-3: Go to Hell Bastards!’ (both 1963), before moderating his screen persona somewhat to essay the role of the virile, shirtless fugitive who sows sexual discord amid a close-knit group of teenage prostitutes in Suzuki’s erotically charged masterpiece ‘Gate of Flesh’ (1964).

The weirder side of Shishido’s persona came to full fruition though in the film which both he and Suzuki seem destined to remain best remembered for, the extraordinary surrealist-noir fever dream ‘Branded to Kill’ (1967). Certainly, few are likely to forget Shishido’s oily, unhinged performance here as the ill-fated ‘No. 2’ assassin, his artificially-enhanced cheeks looking particularly freakish as he finds himself lost in a tangled nightmare jointly ripped from ‘Point Blank’ and ‘The Tenth Victim’, battling to beat his rivals to the hallowed No. 1 spot, in between becoming sexually aroused by the smell of boiling rice.

Suffice to say that ‘Branded to Kill’s promotional artwork - featuring the star wielding a Bond-esque pistol and sporting mod-ish sunglasses as his female co-stars mount a steel staircase behind him – has in recent years become possibly more widely known than the film itself, establishing itself as an iconic signifier of ‘60s cinematic cool. Fitting poetic justice perhaps for a movie which radical nature saw it alternately belittled, demonised and ignored upon its initial release, famously killing the career of its director stone-dead.

Outside of his collaborations with Suzuki meanwhile, the mid ‘60s saw Shishido becoming virtuously synonymous with the harder-edged line of action / yakuza films which Nikkatsu were beginning to produce at the time, heading up the casts of a string of my all-time favourite Japanese crime films - Takumi Furukawa’s aptly named ‘Cruel Gun Story’ (1964), Takashi Nomura’s ‘borderless noir’ ‘A Colt is my Passport’ (1967) and Yasuharu Hasebe’s proto-jitsuroku ‘Retaliation’ (1968) foremost amongst them.

Adopting the persona of a brooding, violence-prone bad-ass through these films, Shishido seems to have spent his last few years at Nikkatsu working almost exclusively in the realm of modern yakuza films, with the occasional ninkyo period film thrown in for the sake of variety, often alongside Ishikawa, Tetsuya Watari and his own younger brother, the ubiquitous Eiji Go. Rarely appearing on posters without his by-now trademark shades, gun and smouldering cigarette, Shishido seems by this point to be directly prefiguring the kind of ultra-macho persona which would be adopted in the following decade by stars like Bunta Sugawara and a post-Zatoichi Shintaro Katsu.

Cruel Gun Story (1964)

Unfortunately, Shishido’s career, like those of so many of his Nikkatsu colleagues, seems to have floundered badly after the studio turned their attentions entirely toward the production of low budget ‘Roman Porno’ sexploitation films from 1970 onwards, jettisoning the vast majority of their creative staff in the process.

In view of his considerable cred as a yakuza star, it would have seemed a natural move for Shishido to transition directly into rival studio Toei’s burgeoning slate of jitsuroku gangster movies, but for whatever reason, that never really happened, with his work for Toei during the early ‘70s restricted to an occasional guest spot here and there – most notably in two of Kinji Fukasaku’s epochal ‘Battles Without Honour and Humanity’ films (I particularly recall him making a very strange appearance as the mentally deficient brother of a gangster clan in the first entry in the underrated ‘New Battles..’ trilogy).

Like so many Japanese movie greats, he eked out a living in the ‘70s and ‘80s through TV work of one kind or another interspersed with intermittent film appearances, including several projects for ‘House’ director Nobuhiko Ôbayashi, eventually returning to yakuza territory for a string of ‘V-cinema’ shot-on-video crime flicks in the early ‘90s.

Still clearly up for a challenge however, Shishido proudly told interviewer Mark Schilling in the early ‘00s that he’d just put his “white pubes” on display in what we must assume was a brave role in S&M auteur Takashi Ishii’s erotic epic ‘Flower & Snake II’ (2005), and indeed he worked for Ishii again in 2010’s ‘A Night in the Nude: Salvation’.

Shishido’s final film appearance came in 2012 (in Manga adaptation ‘The Final Judgement’), but he has also made a great impression over the past few decades as an ever-enthusiastic interview subject, always happy to fill out the extras on releases of his films with wild tales of his time at Nikkatsu, boasting along the way of his unbeaten prowess in the field of swordsmanship, athletics and goodness knows what else, merrily stomping across the line separating fact from fiction in a never less than entertaining fashion.

Sadly, Shishido’s home was destroyed in a house fire in 2013, his collection of personal memorabilia lost along with it – nothing to laugh at there of course, but I’ll never forget the interview segment included on Arrow’s subsequent release of one of his films, in which claims that one of his neighbours started the fire, out of jealousy! (You can almost picture his relatives somewhere off camera, head in hands: “oh Dad, we’ve BEEN through this – PLEASE don’t tell the foreign film crew your neighbour started the fire!”)

One hell of a character to put it mildly, Jô Shishido was a real on-off who enlivened everything he appeared in – he will be missed.

Farewell Hitman Joe – R.I.P.

In closing, I need to acknowledge Mark Schilling’s book ‘No Borders No Limits: Nikkatsu Action Cinema’ (Fab Press, 2008), which helped me to fill in many of the details included in this post. A great overview of Nikkatsu’s ‘50s/’60s output and certainly one of the best volumes available on the subject in English, it’s still available direct from Fab Press at the time of writing.

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