Y A J U N O P R O F I L E
ACE no JO!
I labored long and hard trying to think of a snazzy way to start this profile.
I worked on all sorts of clever opening paragraphs and catchy kick-offs; but, none of them seemed to work. Then, I happened to think of Jo's first appearance in the 1963, Suzuki Seijun-helmed, classic,
"Yaju no Seishun" ("Youth of the Beast")...and I knew exactly where to begin.
Daylight. Street scene. Tokyo. Early 1960's. A young yakuza hipster is hanging out with his pals, trying to score points with some lively "suke" ("chicks") who are listening to some swinging tunes on a sidewalk jukebox. When: BAM! Out of nowhere comes a trench-coated, fedora-topped, whirlwind of brutality, dealing out an extreme hand of vicious justice via foot and fist. Shishido Jo, the human hurricane. The scene is sudden, intense, inescapable; taking not only the cinematic thugs by surprise on screen, but the viewing audience as well. But, somehow, Jo manages to act it with a sort of dettached non-chalance. It is exactly this paradox that makes this moment work beyond the genre's expected "anti-hero enterance". This is the essence--and, it seems, the mission statement-- of Shishido Jo. If you only do what is expected, expect the audience to get bored! Jo's drive to bring an originality to each role he attacks has helped to make his films consistently interesting.
Shishido Jo's flair for the unexpected has manifest itself in many ways . When Jo began his film career, in the mid 1950's, he was first cast as a slick, good-looking, Don Juan. However, at that time in Japan, the market was flooded with handsome matinee idol Romeos, and Jo got lost in the shuffle. Someone suggested that he might do better if he'd be willing to change his appearance slightly and take on the role of a heavy. Our Man Jo found the advice sound; but, no simple growing of a moustache, or perfecting of a scowl, would do for him. Instead, he personally decided to undergo plastic surgery, having his cheekbones enhanced to give him the look of "an impudent tough-guy"! This daring, drastic, face-altering decision--along with the honing of his incisive acting skills--resulted in rocketing Shishido Jo to stardom. He had achieved success by his creed of never simply doing what is expected.
At the height of his popularity, which coincided with the peak of Nikkatsu's early 60's "hard-boiled" action film craze, Shishido Jo became known for his ability to create outlandish realism, dramatically and physically. For example, he practiced dilligently until he could actually draw a pistol in less than a second! This proudly acquired feat earned Shishido-san the nickname of "Ace no Jo". A tag which prompted Nikkatsu to use the image of Jo holding a pistol with the Ace of Spades balanced on its upturned barrell for the poster of the 1962 hit, "Hitori Tabi" ("Solo Trip"). In a series of interviews, conducted in the late 1990's, the brilliant filmmaker, Suzuki Seijun (with whom Jo made some of his most memorable and stunning films) recalled about Shishido, "He was quite ambitious about doing action films. He was really into making the action scenes as physical as possible and he was always thinking about how to make better action scenes." This resulted in Jo helping to make action sequences that rarely seem dated--even by today's Woo-sian standards.
But, Jo was not content with simply being one of Nikkatsu's action kings. He ploughed into a wide range of parts, playing everything from suave gangsters and detectives to buffoonish clowns, from pirates to newspapermen..he even portrayed a snarling, two-gunned Mexican bandito in the Nikkatsu "Western", "Mexico Mushuku" ("Mexico Wanderer")!! In fact, Jo seems to have played every part imaginable (and some not so easily imagninable!) while he worked with Nikkatsu, from 1955-1970. During this period, he even released an album of songs entitled, appropriately enough, "Ace no Jo". The cover for this 10-inch LP was adorned with his own original artwork. Nikkatsu and Jo seemed to be happily linked for good. However, when Nikkatsu shifted its production focus to "Pink Eiga" (sometimes called, "Roman Porn")--Jo checked out of his contract and went looking for new experiences with other film studios and different projects.
Among these new experiences were stints in various popular TV shows (most notably as the host of a long running cooking show!). In the 70's, he appeared in several films at Toei studios alongside that studio's stalwart stars such as Takakura Ken and Sugawara Bunta. Since the 1980's he has made films for almost every major production company in Japan (even returning to Nikkatsu in the late 90's for a romantic film). Being the constantly seeking individual he is, Jo has never locked himself into another contract with any specific studio and has never simply focused himself on any one artistic avenue. Though he has continued to make films (his 237th film was just released this past Feb.!), Jo's quest for the unique has taken him down many other paths. Jo has raised a family (his son Shishido Kai is a very popular "action" star these days). He has written several books, including a recently published autobiographical "novel", and..yes, it is true..cookbooks! [If you have seen "Koroshi no Rakuin" ("Branded to Kill")--this might give you some good Shishido joke fodder! I wonder how many recipes call for hard-boiled rice?] A couple of years ago, Suzuki Seijun remarked that Shishido-san is a very intelligent man that knows a lot of things and is always open to learning more. So, it appears that as long as Jo is still active, we can be sure that he will carry on in his crusade to uniquely entertain his fans. I, among many, always look forward to expecting the unexpected from the King of Nikkatsu Cool, Ace no Jo! And just like those young yakuza hipsters at the beginning of " Yaju no Seishun", we are sure to be caught off gaurd by the devastation of his creative sucker-punches!
Profile by Chris Casey for Yaju no Yabai Gumi . 2003-2005.