One of the enduring images of contemporary Japanese culture is the salaryman. The rather anonymous guy in the suit who devotes his life to the company. He might be married and have kids (usually he is: what else would he need to dedicate so much time to work for, if not to keep his family?) but his number one priority is the company. Work 10 hours a day, then go off to drink with your boss, go home to sleep, and come back the next day, six days a week.
It's soul deadening, and not the obvious setting for a thriller, but that's where director Yasuzo Masumura has set this pair of '60s noir-tinged black and white thrillers: in the world of the white-collar worker. Black Test Car (1962) is about corporate espionage, and The Black Report (1963) is a more standard crime/courtroom drama from the perspective of the prosecuting attorney. But both use their subject matter to explore what is lost when men are more dedicated to advancing their careers than any other aspect of their lives.
In Black Test Car, that dedication is taken to an extreme. Tiger automotive is a second-tier Japanese car manufacturer who is hoping to rocket to the top with the introduction of a new sports car. It's a top secret project, and when photographs of a disastrous test run are leaked to the press, the company knows it must have spies in its midst. So Onoda, for whom the new car, the Pioneer, is his passion project, forms a "planning department" which is, in fact, an industrial espionage unit inside the car company to ferret out the spy, and make sure that Tiger can successfully launch the new car and overtake their rivals Yamato.
To do so, Onoda employs an increasingly aggressive set of strategies to ensure the Pioneer is a success. He distributes fake plans in an attempt to smoke out who the spy is in his own company. He sends men into bars to try and get close to the head of the competition, ex-General Mawatari. Eventually, he even sends a man to try and sell fake blueprints to the enemy, only to find out they already know the information, and know the double agent is trying to sell a fake.
As Onoda gets more desperate, so do his measures, and right alongside him is his second-in-command, Asahina. He's been promised a chance to become his own department head once the car is successfully launched. He's so dedicated, he decides to send his girlfriend Masako into the lion's den. He wants her to work at the bar Mawatari frequents, get to know the old man. Find out anything she can, no matter how close she has to get. Then, if it all works out, Asahina and Masako can get married.
It's a sick little game, and it's played out like some kind of business film noir, getting bleaker and darker as it goes along. While not any kind of action film (there's not much in the way of violence), Black Test Car is briskly paced as it goes from move to counter-move in the game of corporate espionage. Onoda is the prime mover of the plot but for most of the film there isn't a central point of view character. The story follows the action as the intrigues get more devious and the moral waters more shallow, including blackmail, prostitution, and threatened violence, all to get a stupid sports car to the market.
The industrialized work place is both the setting and the theme of Black Test Car. Dehumanization in the work place, until all of the natural desires of humanity have been supplanted by the good of the company. It's not for nothing that Yamada Motors is made up of old army men; Masumura is drawing a direct comparison between the dehumanizing effects of war with that of corporate espionage: in both, humanity has to be stripped away to make room for the overriding goals of the organization.
A similar theme is seen in a different context in The Black Report, which looks at essentially the industrialization of the criminal justice system. We start with a murder investigation: an old man lying in a pool of blood, his head split open. The detective and the public prosecutor are on the case, and quickly a picture emerges: the man's wife was having an affair, he was embezzling money from his company for short-term investments, and he had his own mistress, also his secretary. Within the first 20 minutes of the film, the basic facts of the investigation are established. It should be an easy conviction.
The prosecutor, Kido, is happy of this, because he has over 200 cases on his docket already, each one with hundreds of pages of paperwork to go through. Those are routine. A murder case could make his career, his supervisor tells him as much: he's been recommended to move up from their suburb to Tokyo, if he can just get this murder in the bag. The main suspect, Hitomi, is the wife's lover, and is also the man whom the husband dealt with at the investment company where he was regularly moving money back and forth. Hitomi has as much a sealed his fate by transparently faking an alibi with a nearby bar hostess.
But Hitomi, bankrolled by the widow, suddenly has a high-priced lawyer. Witnesses begin to disappear or change their testimony. Kido seems to be the only one in the office who is actually concerned with convicting the murderer, rather than how the case will make them appear. Even the police are uncaring: the local precinct captain is annoyed that the elderly detective who is Kido's sole ally is continuing to investigate the crime, even though they've already made the arrest.
Both films center on the corrupt and corrupting effects of modernity, with the bureaucracy and official indifference. Masumura's direction in both is brisk and layered, and his take on modern life is dark, cynical, bordering on the nihilistic. Each movie might end with a little ray of optimism, but they are for the individuals fighting against the systems, none for the monolithic systems themselves.
Which might make these films sound like social dramas, but they're proper thrillers, with quick moving stories. Black Test Car is more unique, since it doesn't have the convention of the courtroom drama that fuels much of The Black Report's action. They're gripping Japanese crime dramas, refreshing in that the crime isn't connected, like so many similar films, in any way with Yakuza, but instead takes place in and around the "respectable" parts of society.
Black Test Car + The Black Report has been released on Blu-ray by Arrow Video. Both films are on a single disc, with uncompressed Japanese mono audio and subtitles. There's a video extra on the disc, a video appreciation of the films by Jonathan Rosenbaum (17 min), and trailers and image galleries for both films. There's also an essay on the films in the accompanying booklet by Mark Downing Roberts.