I Am Waiting
aka 俺は待ってるぜ aka Ore wa matteru ze
Written by Shintaro Ishihara
Directed by Koreyoshi Kurahara
Japan’s cinematic output in the 50s and 60s was astounding, and the quality of films from that period form a reputation that is hard to match. It is no wonder that huge swaths of them got festival coverage over the years, and many get released in the US under premium labels. Nikkatsu Studios produced a whole series of “borderless action” films (as a response to US and French film box office success) and is where Seijun Suzuki made his fantastic flicks, at least until he got fired after constant clashes with the studio head and Nikkatsu later turned into a roman porno factory. But those hundreds of films still exist, and are still awesome. And while many haven’t been seen outside of Japan in forever, the growing appreciation means more and more get releases over time. Hence, I Am Waiting popping up in 2009.
I Am Waiting is a tale in two acts. Joji Shimaki (Yujiro Ishihara) meets a mysterious woman at the pier who calls herself Saeko (Mie Kitahara) – we find out later her name is Reiko. It’s clear she’s on the run from something traumatic, and we slowly learn that she is a cabaret singer at a yakuza club and one of the gang members got too frisky, so she bashed his head and ran, thinking him dead. Her dreams of being a singer soured after he vocal chords were ruined by an illness, and now she’s trapped in a contract at the yakuza nightclub. Her time with Joji helps her to briefly escape that life, working as his waitress and hanging out in town with Joji. But she’s recognized, and the yakuza come to reclaim her, until she finishes her contract. She spends the last half of the film again working in the nightclub, which Joji returns to occasionally as part of his story.
While the yakuza are confronting Joji, Joji gets a clue into his big mystery, the whereabouts of his brother. His brother was supposed to go to Brazil a year ago to buy land for a farm, but hasn’t contacted him since the boat left port, and Joji’s letters were returned. But one of the yakuza had a medallion that Joji’s bother carried, and the focus switches to Joji’s mystery as he works to unravel just what happened to his brother, and the culprits work to try to cover up their deeds.
Yujiro Ishihara became a youth sensation just a year prior, with 1956’s Season of the Sun, a film that Ishihara got work on due to his brother Shintaro Ishihara being the author of the book it was base on. Season of the Sun helped launch the taiyozoku films – the sun trive films – about care-free youth you drink and chase women and hang out near the beach, upsetting the traditional values generation. The follow-up was fellow cinema classic Crazed Fruit, the first film that he was paired with his eventual wife, Mie Kitahara. They both rocketed into marquee fame, and Nikkatsu rushed to release the pair in a string of films together (another of which, Rusty Knife, is included on the same Nikkatsu Noir boxed set that brought a subtitled version of I Am Waiting to America.)
Ishihara has a sly grin, constantly flashing it, which gives his sinister proclamations to the threatening gangsters added bite. And he can back up his threats, as a former champion boxer who killed someone in a fight. On his quest to find out information about his brother, Joji disregards the danger to himself, and rushes straight in to demanding answers and then beating the answers out of people when they won’t talk. The yakuza know he’s a threat, and their leader (and former boxer himself) Shibata (Hideaki Nitani) knows his men are outmatched due to Joji’s fighting skills. But if all the loose threads are killed off, then no one can unravel the sweater of the mystery.
Joji seems to collect strays. Besides bringing in Saeko, the cook in the restaurant he owns was once a cook on a luxury cruise ship until a car accident. He also is befriended by an alcoholic doctor (Isamu Kosugi) who treats the restaurant like a second home. Then again, what young single guy seeing Mie Kitahara standing alone in the dark wouldn’t try to make excuses to keep her around? Joji is tormented by the memories of the life he took, trying to outrun the past by going to Brazil, only for that dream to turn into a mystery of a lost brother who seems to have met a sinister end. His dreams of being a champion were dashed, his dreams of escape to Brazil are dashed, and Reiko’s dreams of being a big singer are dashed. The reality they have at the end is each other, and that result doesn’t seem so bad in the long run.
Director Koreyoshi Kurahara makes his debut with I Am Waiting. Kurahara would go on to make Intimidation (a film we were disappointed with), but found cult fame with the intense The Warped Ones (a dubbed and altered version would be released in the US as The Weird Lovemakers). He also helmed the follow up Black Sun, as well as decade-long box office champ Antarctica.
I Am Waiting stands out with sharp cinematography that highlight the shadows and darkness to enhance the loneliness feelings of the characters. The nightclub has the illusion of being alive and vibrant, but there are wolves in the wings as the yakuza hover keeping watch. Only the warmth of Joji’s restaurant during the morning rush seems authentic, even as Reiko works under her fake name. Dreams can come and go, but reality is what we make of it.
Rated 8/10 (logo, doctor, ring fight, the mail that never comes, 1950s hipsters, medallion rubbing, billiards place logo, mahjong place logo)
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