Seijun Suzuki’s hard-boiled crime thriller Take Aim at the Police Van is so keen to deliver on the promise of its provocative title that the eponymous incident occurs in an opening sequence which Suzuki pulls off with typical panache. A vehicle transporting convicts at night is attacked by assassins, resulting in the deaths of two felons. Prison guard Daijiro Tamon (Michitaro Mizushima) tries his best to handle the situation, but subsequently becomes an economic victim of the attack when he is suspended for six months for perceived negligence. As a loyal state employee, Daijiro stoically accepts his punishment, even acknowledging that he may have been at fault, and decides that he will ‘take it easy’ because ‘six months of vacation is nothing to get upset about.’ But he continues to think about the attack and the events leading up to it, wondering about the identity of the girl he spotted by the side of the road before the gunfire broke out and whether the assassins actually killed the prisoners they were supposed to be aiming for, not to mention why anyone would want to take the risk of attacking a police van. In one of many clichéd exchanges, Daijiro is warned, ‘play with matches and you’ll get burned’, but this does not deter him from embarking on an independent investigation which takes in faked deaths, a prostitution ring, the shifting motivations of various ex-cons, and – in a touch that is quintessential Suzuki – a stripper being killed with an arrow to the breast.
Daijiro’s quest to solve the mystery surrounding the titular attack echoes the premise of Akira Kurosawa’s Stray Dog (1949) in which Toshirō Mifune’s rookie homicide detective searched the backstreets of Tokyo for his stolen pistol as a means of restoring his professional reputation. However, Take Aim at the Police Van does not exude the sweaty urgency of Kurosawa’s classic, largely due to the casting of a comparatively older leading man in the role of a morally upstanding servant of the state. Daijiro is, of course, the antithesis of the kind of youthful anti-heroes that Suzuki would later celebrate in such films as Tokyo Drifter (1966) and Branded to kill (1967) and the director’s subversive tendencies are already evident as he seems to be having some fun at the suspended prison guard’s expense. ‘I think of criminals as human beings, no matter their crime’ states Daijiro, but his open-mindedness can also be interpreted as naivety; he is subsequently mislead by various contacts, while a music-loving female informant is almost able to avoid questions that she does not want to answer by simply running away, with Daijiro struggling to catch up. Still, the hero does manage to survive being tied up in the cab of a runaway tanker that is trailing potentially combustible gasoline, perhaps proving that, while it may not necessarily be hip to be square, being a stand-up guy will get you out of some tough scrapes. Kurosawa’s everymen usually received more than mere faint praise.
The famously prolific Suzuki made his directorial debut with the Nikkatsu production Victory Is Mine (1956) and would deliver three or four films per year for the studio until his dismissal in 1968. As it was made during a particularly intensive period, Take Aim at the Police Van is rarely anything more than an efficient programmer, but Suzuki does a more than adequate job of transferring the narrative machinations of the American film noirs of the era to the Nikkatsu production line. The occupation of the film’s hero enables him to inherit one of the key characteristics of the more popularly utilised private detective in that Daijiro occupies the economic middle ground with sufficient social mobility to be well-acquainted with both ex-cons and law enforcers. In addition, Suzuki’s tour of the criminal underworld takes in both the seedy club circuit and more exclusive inns that provide services to men whose wives think they are away on ‘business’. Yet such conformity to the rules of the film noir genre and the studio suits does not entail that Take Aim at the Police Van is an entirely impersonal undertaking; Suzuki is less interested in the story than he is in staging some energetic action sequences and setting up a series of encounters between Daijiro and people who are more in-the-know than he is, while also indulging in a fever dream sequence. Take Aim at the Police Van is terrific entertainment from a filmmaker who was starting to have fun with the script en route to throwing it out of the window.