‘Black Test Car’ or — A Dark Machine of Destruction?
The Tiger Motor Company is testing its new prototype sports car called the Pioneer. It will be the first sports car designed and manufactured in Japan. It is draped under a black covering to hide the vehicle’s design from any spies for the rival Yamamoto Company who might be observing. And observing they are because after the test car spins out of control and crashes in flames then the story, along with photographs of the accident, appear in the press, severely damaging Tiger’s reputation.
Not only that but there must be a Yamamoto spy working at the Tiger Company because specifics of the Pioneer’s design have reached Yamamoto who are now racing to develop their own sports car to beat Tiger to that illustrious punch.
Head of the Pioneer program and designer of the car, Onoda, is tasked by his superiors to both flush out the spy in their midst as well as attempting to feed Yamamoto false information regarding their new model. This involves setting up an industrial espionage team and before long both companies are engaged in internecine corporate warfare.
Yet when one of Onoda’s staff, Asahina, is coerced into using his fiancée to obtain Yamamoto secrets it destroys not only his marriage but Asahina’s faith in the business world, capitalism, Japan and, possibly, humanity itself.
So ‘Black Test Car’ is an industrial espionage film but any spy work here is less James Bond and more John le Carré as cynical men who exist in shadows and believe morality is almost a weakness scheme and betray each other. It’s enough of a foundation for a strong critique of Capitalism and business as is but director Yasuzo Masumura was a smart guy so there’s more.
On top of all this Masumura adds another layer of criticism against Japan that’s even darker than the lethality of the corporate world, namely — What darkness did Japan bring back home after its Imperial invasions?
For example: the head of Yamamoto’s spy network, Mr. Mawatari, was once a feared army officer during the Japanese invasion of Manchuria and it is obvious he has brought the “skills” he honed during that occupation back home and is now exercising them in the arena of Japanese Capitalism. “He thinks he’s still in Manchuria!” one employee states along with the implication that the way Mawatari treated the Chinese he is now applying to his own people.
The film also seems to highlight this by the use and abuse of women in times of conflict, females almost becoming collateral damage or there simply to be used in order to further the fight. In short, they are expendable and the treatment of Asahina’s girlfriend could be seen to have parallels to the “comfort women” taken to Manchuria by the Japanese military. Prostitution and warfare always, it seems, go hand in hand and ‘Black Test Car’ demonstrates this is still the case even when it is corporate warfare on domestic soil.
This sense of all-consuming corruption and the atmospheric toxicity of modern business are captured by some stunning black and white cinematography and gorgeous compositions, mostly with the camera observing at shoulder or ankle height. Blocks of black often obscure large chunks of visible space providing a feeling of constriction whilst other times the screen is crammed with highly research details, blueprints and machinery.
There’s a lot of visual invention going on here, too (Masumura was a student of Antonioni and, apparently, Antonioni never missed the chance to catch one of his former pupil’s work when they were screened). At one point some Tiger spies secretly film a Yamamoto board meeting using high-speed film so they can play the footage back to a lip-reader at their office. This leads to a exquisite moment where we observe Tiger execs discussing the revealed information as, behind them, Yamamoto board members move as though in another temporal reality. Masumura’s eye is aesthetically invigorating and intensely intelligent.
‘Black Test Car’ is an excellent film although despite all the espionage, spying and intrigue it’s not an action heavy film at all; it is character and theme driven more than anything else. It also has very little to do with cars, too, but more with the men behind them. The Pioneer might be draped in black but notice the businessmen and that they, especially the ambitious Onoda, are also clothed in black fabric. The Pioneer isn’t the only dangerous machine in a dark suit; so is the Japanese businessman. Indeed, the real dark machine of destruction could be Japanese capitalist society itself.
This is a visually arresting, smartly written, deeply cynical satire and, as with Marumura’s ‘Giants and Toys’, you could update this movie for today without having to change a single word of the script and it would still work and hit hard. Unlike most models, this black car hasn’t come close to going out of date.