June 5, 2016

Black Test Car (1962)

Two rival car manufacturers are in a race to release their new sports cars. When the Tiger company's test vehicle crashes, photographers paid for by the rival Yamato corporation are there to shoot the accident and leak it to the press. Soon afterwards it becomes clear that Yamato has somehow stolen the blueprints to Tiger's forthcoming vehicle, setting off an escalating race of spies, bugs, subterfuge and lies as each company struggles to get its own car to market faster and cheaper than their competitor.

Black Test Car is a 1962 Japanese drama directed by Yasuzo Masumura. It is a surprisingly bleak and cynical film, in which characters progressively cross moral and ethical lines in order to get what they want. It begins with photographers sneaking around observing test drives. It ends with lives in ruins, friendships shattered, and for what? A more profitable sports car? One gets the impression that Masumura took a hard look at the growing consumerism of 1960s Japan and did not like what he saw.

It all works on such a slow build as well. The film begins with a clear set of heroes (Tiger) and villains (Yamato). From there it works on a slow burn. A small bribe here and there. Bugging someone's office. Paying off spies in the rival company to deliver confidential data. It slowly damages the protagonists, step by step, forcing them to compromise on their principles and then as soon as they have settled into those lowered values compromise them again. One character persuades his girlfriend to sleep with a rival company executive to secure valuable intelligence. Another pushes a corporate spy to suicide. The film becomes increasingly tense as a result: when is someone going to draw a line and refuse to cross it? How far can this behaviour extend before all of the heroes become villains?

Jiro Tamiya plays Asahina, a medium-level manager whose promotion is entirely dependent on the successful launch of Tiger's new Pioneer sports car. He is a likeable character, but the further down the rabbit hole he goes the less we like him. Tamiya plays Asahina's inner conflict very well: despite some awful behaviour we root for him to pull out and recover his senses before he compromises too much. Asahina works for Onoda (Hideo Takamatsu), a suave and confident head of Tiger's espionage division. We do not worry about Onoda's morality that much: from the beginning of the film he seems pretty relentless in getting what he wants, and has no compunctions about resorting to blackmail, intimidation or even physical violence to get what he wants.

The film is beautifully shot in stark black and white, using the Cinemascope ratio and incorporating a wide variety of innovative angles and shots. Masumura seems particularly keen on isolating one corner of the frame at the time, filling two-thirds of the screen with a wall or someone's back and leaving the remaining third to showcase visual action or conversation. It gives the film a deeply claustrophobic aesthetic that only accentuates the characters' slow decline.

Black Test Car is a tremendously cynical film, and one that rails against the cut-throat business practice of Japanese corporations. It feels very much of its time: the war is mentioned multiple times, with most of the senior executives former army officers. It feels like it is making a point with that. They were soldiers fighting a war then, and they remain soldiers fighting a war now - but what sort of war, and what possible good is it for?

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