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  • Ravi Swami

"The Black Test Car", Dir: Yasuzo Masumura, 1962

I put the lack of recent entries down to being distracted by site analytics, one of the pitfalls of blogging and social media SEO that can result in highs and lows matching the rollercoaster graph of site visitors.

The feeling that posts should drive visitors to your site when in fact the whole point was just to have some fun without considerations like monetization or popularity.

Suddenly the simple pleasure of watching a film and then jotting down my thoughts afterwards became a race to the finish with each and every post, which brings me neatly to the subject of "The Black Test Car", another recommendation from a friend and viewable via Arrow Video's streaming service via Apple+ TV and others.

Japanese cinema of the 60's offers a vast selection of titles and subjects beyond the more familiar works known in the West such as the films of Kurosawa or "Godzilla" and rather like "Go To Hell Bastards", reviewed in an earlier post, reveal hidden genre gems such as this 1962 offering, in this case a "Black" film where the use of the word signaled to the audience a particular type of subject matter set within a particular milieu.

The title itself is a little mystifying though it soon becomes clear from the opening sequence, where a car - covered in black fabric - is being put through its paces on a lonely stretch of motorway as a pacer vehicle follows it. We see two men on the side of the road as the cars pass at high speed, one with a camera and telephoto lens and the other with a stop-watch and both out of sight of the cars' drivers.

The black car takes a sharp corner and suddenly spins out of control, careering off the road and bursting into flames, which sets up a montage of burning car and the films' superimposed titles.

"The Black Test Car" uses the rather slim premise of industrial espionage within the burgeoning automotive industry of Post-War Japan to spin a tale of the moral dilemma's faced when rival car companies go head to head and resort to dubious methods to gain on their competitors. In this case a chief car-designer for the "Tiger Automotive Company" assembles a team of his engineers to devise various ways of overturning a more aggressive rival companies' increasingly devious methods of gaining a market advantage over his "dream car".

The car-designer relishes the idea of espionage as if it's a game but things take a turn when he goads a promising young team member who is in line for promotion within the company to use his bar-hostess girlfriend as a honey-trap that involves seducing the boss of the rival car company and stealing trade secrets about his new car.

The girlfriend reluctantly agrees but is filled with disgust at having to sleep with an older man and she walks out on her boyfriend as a result.

In amongst this is the fear that one of the team is a "mole" working for both sides, and there is also an informant who leaks information about the rival company who turns out to be profiting from the situation by also working for both sides, in the process taking incriminating photographs of the "mole" sleeping with his girlfriend which he uses to blackmail him - a plot cooked up by the rival car company boss.

When the "mole" is exposed in a dramatic scene he leaps to his death from an open window in the tiny office the team use for their clandestine meetings, rather than face the public shame of exposure in the press and losing his job.

The films end as the promising team member decides to quit his job and the chance of promotion since he has paid a high price and questions if any job is worth a loss of life, and in the final scenes he is reunited with his girlfriend, who respects his decision and takes him back.

The film closes with a happy family driving the latest car from the "Tiger Automotive Company", now a successful seller, but as we close in on its grille as it races along a motorway we hear the voice of the young former employee say that it is a "black" car.

The film offers an insight into some cultural aspects specific to Japanese culture, in particular the idea of "saving face" and public shame - here represented by the failure of the prototype resulting in a fatality in the opening segment of the film and effectively establishes the high stakes and impetus to succeed at any cost, even if it means sacrificing a life to do so.

This is balanced by the idea of "karma" and right-thinking expressed by the young employee when he quits a promising job and is another kind of sacrifice.

If you enjoyed last year's "Ford v Ferrari" which also shines a light on the fiercely competitive world of motor-racing, and also set in the 1960's, and where the Ford Motor Company was in a race with the Italian Enzo Ferrari to build a super-racing car, then you may enjoy this, though it cleverly side-steps the need to show lengthy scenes of actual motor-racing and tells its story with a great deal of economy by choosing to focus on the human drama.

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