Jo Shishido rose to prominence after World War II when Japan was reconstructing itself in every way from culture to economy and the arts. In a time of uncertainty, Shishido embodied a radicalism and heroism that the country so desperately needed. To see why Jo Shishido was so popular, it is extremely important to look at the time, the struggles of the people and the changing culture.
Hope for Post War Japan
Japan went through radical change in terms of government, politics and culture with political protests and allied occupation. Most of the world was struggling in the aftermath of WWII, but the Japanese citizens did not have much to turn back to. The people were demoralized, the economy collapsed, the civil industry didn’t exist and most of the country was starving. To rebuild the economy, they needed manpower in the steel, automobile and electronic industries. This caused hundred of young men to drop out of school and join the work force and became the majority of the base work force in Japan. Additionally, this time in Japanese history was extremely tense with resentment to the United States increased following the US-Japan Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security signed in 1960. This caused lot of protests by college students and Japanese social activists.
In a time like this people were tired, frustrated, scared, angry and desperate they needed a hero that they could look at. This is one of the reasons that Yakuza Films became so extremely popular. Although the Yakuza were originally gangsters, the films portrayed them in a glowing light. The were men fiercely loyal to their families, and abided by a steadfast code of conduct with a sense of “unlawful chivalry.” The Yakuza in Japanese Film are analogous to Robin Hood and his band of merry men. These men died faithful to their gangs and their honor code. More so than this, they were extremely powerful and unyielding, exerting their influence over the government, the Allied Forces in Japan. As you can imagine, for young men who were forced to work after am humiliating (as regarded in Japanese Culture) surrender the Yakuza were a symbol of the Japanese Spirit.
It is in these Yakuza films that Jo Shishido rose to fame. It was an extremely brilliant move of Jo Shishido to get cheek transplants because the young men, who comprised most of the film audience in this era, did not need a romantic hero. They needed a rugged thug who was going to stand up to authority. Even outside of the movies, Jo Shishido embodied the morals of the Yakuza. When he first entered Nikkatsu, they executives urged him to change his name because Shishido is the name of famous villain in Japanese literature. Having started as a romantic star, it would ruin his image. Instead, to make him more rugged and to stand out from the already established Yakuza stars, he did something radial and unexpected and got cheek implants. This may seem like just another actor changing his experience to get role, but in Post War Japan this act was goes far beyond. It is a way that Shishido essentially stands up against the Big Dogs of Nikkatsu who were trying to typecast him into the romantic role and essentially forcing them to consider him in more serious roles. This was an exertion of his power and fierceness that he also brought into his movies.
Below is a quote from an interview with Jo Shishido on Midnight Eye about his progression in the film industry:
Jo Shishido: At first I just played a naïve young boy role. It wasn’t my most successful period. Then I had some problems on the set. After that I spent about 3 months without work. Then I decided to change my face. I had plastic surgery to fatten up my cheeks. I then got a lot of work playing gangsters and heavies. I was Killer Joe (Koroshiya Jo). Then I became a hero again, Joe the Ace (Ace no Jo). Now, after Flower and Snake, it’s Dirty Joe!
In “Fast Draw Guy” in 1961, which earned Shishido the nick name “Ace No Jo,” he plays a bounty hunter in Northern Japan. He, with the help of the local sheriff, stands up to the saloon boss to liberate the town. Considering that this movie was released a year after the singing of the Threat of Mutual Cooperation and Security which gave the United States the right to exert power in Japan on domestic matters, it is not a far leap to interpret the Saloon Boss as the American forces. Making Jo Shishido the
Review of film – Mark Schilling
“The ensuing action owes much to Anthony Mann’s The Tin Star (1957), with Shishido playing the Henry Fonda role. The execution, however, borders on parody, with Shishido supplying most of the laughs. A long-time fan and close student of classic Westerns, he came to the role well prepared – and the result is among the most entertaining of his comic creations.”
This film is a parody of the western influence, here Jo Shisido satirizes the oppression of the Americans and the allies in Japan. He does this while maintaining his role as the hard-core thug while adding a comic element to it (his cheeks probably added a great deal of comic relief to this movie). This is one of the reasons he was also incredibly popular. In addition to being able to play the Yakuza, he is provides a way foe the audience to laugh at the current state of affair. It is also worth mentioning, that Shishido perfected his draw for this film, making him that much more authentic and entertaining for this audience.
For the youth of Japan, Jo Shishido was the radical and individualistic hero they needed. He fought off the bad guys, he made fun of western influence and showed up time and time again to save the day.
Work with Seijun Sizuki
Another reason that Jo Shishido became so famous is because of his need to constantly do something different, to set him apart from the crowd of actors. Shishido constantly worked for originality in his films, whether it was through practicing the fight scenes over and over again or bringing the raw emotion of the Yakuza in his films. This made him the perfect actor to work with Seijun Suzuki, a radical actor who never sticks to the norm.
“Some have seen him as an iconoclast, a cinematic rebel out to break every rule in the filmmaking book – more likely discard it entirely “
Seijun Suzuki was a B-level director, meaning that all the films he got he didn’t choose. The studio assigned the movies to him with a limited budget and a very short production schedule. Below is a description of the Nikkatsu movie industry by Seijun Suzuki.
“Films from Nikkatsu usually have the same plot: the main character falls in love with a woman, he kills the bad guy and gets the woman. This pattern is repeated in every film, so you concentrate on finding out all you can about who the actors are, who the director is, and the approach this director has”
To be able to survive in film industry, Suzuki and Shishido needed to show something to the public that is not common. To combat this, Jo Shishido worked with Suzuki on many movies, to practically become the face of Suzuki’s movies, but I will focus on Gates of Flesh (1964) and Branded to Kill (1966), which Suzuki actually got fired for
Gates of Flesh:
In Gates of Flesh, Jo Shishido plays a wounded soldier in the aftermath of WWII who was take in by a group prostitutes and nursed back to health. Eventually one of the girls falls in love with him and both of them are abandoned.
To view the trailer for Gates of Flesh click here.
Review of Gates of Flesh
We get another demonstration of Joe Shishido’s magnetic pull – building on his swaggering go-for-broke loner performance in Youth of the Beast, here he plays Shin, the grim, explosive “returnee” who brings all sorts of frightful baggage with him in the aftermath of his trauma-inducing deployment to northern China. Shin incarnates raw masculinity, stripped down to the essence of its gnashing, barbaric appetites for sex, food and violence, regarding all three as simple variations on one process of voracious consumption. Suzuki himself revels in the opportunity to turn Shishido loose for our entertainment, even though we all know instinctively that his meteoric blaze will just as rapidly be squelched before he’s found any semblance of satisfaction.
This movie features Jo Shishido’s skill as an actor where he makes this one of the most melodramatic and emotional adaptations of this film. In Japan, more specifically with the post war youth, sex and violence became the way they challenged society’s values. This movie captured the same emotion, torment and rebelliousness that the audience was feeling but in much more amplified way on the big screen.
Branded To Kill
This movie is most famous for getting Seijun Suzuki fired. In this movie, Suzuki and Shishido rip apart the romantic idea of the Yakuza by portraying them as crazed and blood thirsty. Jo Shishido plays the #3 hit man and with a insatiable sexual appetite and a fetish for boiling rice.
To view the trailer for Branded To Kill click here.
Review of Branded To Kill
Seijun Suzuki is one of the boldest visual stylists the Japanese film industry has ever known. And, while this 1967 experimental/crime movie mind-fuck is regarded by many as his masterpiece, it’s better known today for the legend of how it was received upon its initial release (Suzuki was fired by longtime employer Nikkatsu on the grounds the movie was incomprehensible) than it is actually watched and appreciated. The plot has something to do with Goro Hanada, Japan’s No. 3 hitman (that’s right, this movie takes place in a world where hitmen are ranked like professional athletes), bungling his latest job, which makes him the next target of his employer. But you don’t watch Suzuki for the plot, you watch for the surrealism, the psychosexual undercurrents (Hanada, played by chipmunk-cheeked Jo Shishido, has a fetish for sniffing boiled rice) and the super-cool set-pieces (the film’s most famous scene sees a butterfly alighting on the barrel of Hanada’s gun). Suzuki was a master of using color symbolically and purposefully (check out Tokyo Drifter, which features an assassin-protagonist in a powder-blue suit) but Branded to Kill is equally remarkable for its expressive use of black-and-white.
This movie, was essentially seen as ridiculous and insanely unconventional. This was Suzuki’s style, which Jo Shishdo embodied extremely well. He played the sex and killing crazed Yakuza who just did what he wanted when he wanted. Suzuki’s style is to give minimal instruction and essentially create a playground for the actors to do what they want. This says a lot about Shishido because this was regarded and Suzuki’s most eclectic masterpiece and it centered around Shishido ability to bring the insanity out of his character.
Jo Shishido became so incredibly popular because he embodied the individualism and radicalism that most of the country was fell but could not let out as freely as he could on the big screen. He was bold, eccentric, original, authentic, carnal and rebellious. These were all themes present through out Jo Shishido’s career that the audience was able to latch onto and use as a channel for their own frustration and sentiments.
For your pleasure, while reading my really long post, a score from one of Jo Shishido’s movies, released by Nikkatsu.
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