Army Intelligence 33 (Japan, 1968)
Sonny Chiba waves good bye to serious war dramas in this criminally neglected mixture of spy-noir and kick-ass commando action. The film is loosely based on the Nakano Spy School which operated in Tokyo during the Second World War. It officially focused on correspondence, but in reality trained top spies for the government. Chiba portrays a promising young soldier who is framed for murder, and forced to become a spy after being found guilty in military court.
After receiving a tough training in martial arts, weapons, explosives, and foreign languages (by Tetsuro Tanba), he is sent for his first mission, which is to gather secret information from a foreign diplomat. This is when the film takes a turn to a wonderful spy noir with gorgeous cinematography, great old fashioned score and terrific atmosphere. Chiba himself looks fabulous in long dark coat and black hat which immediately bring American noir stars like Humphrey Bogart to mind. This is one of those many things foreign fans never expected to find in Chiba’s filmography.
Army Intelligence 33 isn’t entirely a spy noir, though. The final act sees Chiba sent for a Lee Marvin style commando mission to South East Asia together with his partner in crime Kenji Imai. The action packed final third can’t quite compare with the wonderful noir section, but it’s a tremendously entertaining climax nevertheless. The only weakness is occasional lazy screenwriting throughout the film, which has us believe that these young men forced to become spies would barely protest their destiny, and the enemy soldiers whose behaviour isn’t always all that logical. This is however a small gripe in a hugely entertaining film.
Chiba later returned to the same training camp in another Nakano Spy School film: Military Spy School (Junya Sato, 1974). That film, however, couldn’t compare with the far more elegant and entertaining Army Intelligence 33, which remains one of Chiba’s best movies. A real gem waiting to be discovered.
* Original title: Rikugun choho 33 (陸軍諜報３３)
* Director: Tsuneo Kobayashi
* Chiba’s role: Starring role
* Film availability: VoD (Japan) (No subtitles)