Innovative director Seijun Suzuki created a string of dazzling films for the Nikkatsu Studio in Japan stretching from 1963's Youth of the Beast to 1967's Branded to Kill. The breathtaking but sometimes bewildering artistry of those films played to increasingly empty theaters and so befuddled the head of the studio that Suzuki was finally fired and didn't work again for a decade. Suzuki's story has become well known and many of his films have now been restored, screened at festivals and released on DVD.

According to film critic Mark Schilling, though, Suzuki was not the only innovative director working within the Nikkatsu Studio system in the 1960s. Based on the tantalizing evidence presented in the three rarely-seen films screened in the Nikkatsu Action Cinema Retrospective at Fantastic Fest, Schilling has a strong case. A Colt is My Passport is a vivid hitman drama that anticipates Branded to Kill, while The Warped Ones is a completely unhinged exercise that feels like 75 minutes of free jazz improvisation and Velvet Hustler masterfully deconstructs a routine crime story with color and finesse.

Schilling appeared in person to introduce the films and answered questions after each screening. Based in Tokyo since 1975, he has been reviewing films for The Japan Times since 1989 and currently also serves as Japan correspondent for Variety. He latest book is No Borders, No Limits: Nikkatsu Action Cinema, just published by Fab Press. The book was originally written to accompany a 16-film retrospective he curated for the Far East Film Festival in Udine, Italy, in 2005, and has now been expanded and slightly revised. In the introduction, Schilling explains that his aim is "not to challenge the critical consensus -- Suzuki is a master, after all -- but to broaden the discussion." Schilling provides a history of the Nikkatsu Studio and puts Suzuki's accomplishments, and those of his peers, into perspective. The book is well-written, lavishly illustrated and highly recommended.

Released in 1967, a few months before Suzuki's Branded to Kill, which also starred Jo Shishido as a hitman, Takashi Nomura's A Colt is My Passport is not as brassily discordant as the Suzuki film, yet it too stretches the limits of its genre framework. Shishido is hired to kill a rival mob boss, which he handles with icy, efficient professionalism. The assassination sequence is extremely well composed by director Nomura and plays without music or emotion. Shishido escapes the scene of the crime successfully with his accomplice (Jerry Fujio), but the two are waylaid and must hide out in a seaside inn, waiting to board a ship to safety the next day. At the inn they encounter Chitose Kobayashi, a woman who still mourns the murder of her lover. As the three pass the time, danger lurks in every shadow, and Shishido knows that more assassins are on their way. The climactic showdown takes place in a huge empty field that resembles nothing so much as a Spaghetti Western landscape, and the action is staged in such dynamic bursts that it provoked giddy laughter and applause at the screening.

1960's The Warped Ones (AKA Weird Lovemakers, AKA Season of Heat) followed on the heels of Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless but takes a hairpin turn into its own utterly strange land. It's infused with the spirit and love of hard, bebop jazz and feels like it was edited to match the fast, improvisational tempos of songs playing on a nearby record player. Director Koreyoshi Kurahara starts things off in a jazz bar where Tamio Kawachi picks a pocket and is promptly sent to jail. Upon his release, he and his new prison buddy (Eiji Go) race through the streets, steal a car, pick up a hooker friend, rip off one of her customers, and head to the beach. Along the way they see the man who testified against Kawachi and decide to terrorize him and his fiancee Yuki (Noriko Matsumoto). Kawachi rapes Yuki and the lawless trio escape. Later Kawachi and Yuki meet again and she tells him she is pregnant with his child. The adventures take on an even more absurdist slant as the characters ricochet wildly against one another and the mores of the day.

Shot in color, Velvet Hustler (AKA Like a Shooting Star) turns out to be that very rare beast, a film noir comedy. Toshio Masuda, described by Mark Schilling as "Nikkatsu's top director of action films," helmed the 1967 remake of his 1958 film Red Quay. The original was reportedly "a moody thriller based on Pepe le Moko," the classic 1937 French film. Velvet Hustler stars Tetsuya Watari as a hitman who is supposed to be hiding out in Kobe. He has too much high energy to stand being cooped up, though, so he bursts forth and, basically, does everything but paint a target on his forehead. He spends as much time extravagantly flirting with a beautiful woman (Ruriko Asaoka) as he does dodging an assassin on his tail. In a supporting role this time, Jo Shishido plays the elegantly-coiffed assassin with a dry sense of humor. The romantic dance between Watari and Asaoka is amusing and unpredictable, even with death smiling over their shoulders.

Marc Walkow of Outcast Cinema was instrumental is making the screenings happen; the film prints are not subtitled, so he typed out all the subtitles, output them via his laptop computer to a projector that displayed the subtitles below the screen, and manually advanced them throughout the films in a bravura effort that was very much appreciated.

This past Friday, A Colt is My Passport kicked off a series at the Japan Society in New York that will show eight Nikkatsu Action films through May 2008. The Warped Ones will be presented on November 9.

Outcast Cinema is currently seeking U.S. and Canadian theatrical bookings for the entire eight-film series, so keep your eyes peeled: if these films play anywhere near you, make every effort to attend. They are not currently on DVD; the Criterion Collection has rights to some of them, but has no current release plans. Based on the three I've seen, all of these films deserve as wide an audience as possible.