The Friday Video series has touched upon many great Japanese movies and TV programs celebrating the automobile. But while they made their cars brutish and macho and excellent for ramming criminals into submission, they never made cars sexy. Well, turn down the lights and pour yourself a masu of warm sake before hitting “play”.
1972’s Hairpin Circus was the seminal Japanese motoring film. The age of the personal RWD sports coupe was in full swing and Japan was still blissfully unaware of the oil crisis to come. The giants, especially Toyota, Mazda and Nissan, believed that they had earned their place on the world stage with world-class cars. So why not a world-class film dripping with passion and petrol?
Based on a short story by Hiroyuki Itsuki, it’s the tale of a bitter yet unresolved racing rivalry between two hard-boiled drivers, disaster on the racetrack, young love, and street racing.
No expense was spared. Director Kiyoshi Nishimura (who later worked on Seibu Keisatsu) employed state-of-the-art cinematography techniques, capturing gorgeous images of night-time dashes through Tokyo. Eminent Japanese jazz artist Masaaki Kikuchi was hired to compose a soulful soundtrack that glides down your ear canal as smoothly as reflected streetlights slink over the star Toyota 2000GT’s sensuous fenders. If you harbor any doubt at all about the mood of this film, just look the DVD cover.
As with Steve McQueen’s 1971 Le Mans, a real race features prominently in the plot, in this case the Macau Grand Prix. Filmmakers were allowed to run cars in the actual race to obtain footage. Yoshio Otsubo, a Toyota factory works driver, served as technical director.
Driving scenes featuring a 2000GT, Celica and Mazda Savanna RX-3 blasting over public roads were just as real. Nishimura filmed them on high-speed runs through the Tokyo Metropolitan Expressway system and in Yokohama. There’s not a single pixel of computer-generated bullshit, and sadly, it’s a feat unlikely to be replicated again for a production of this caliber without the strict regulation of traffic.
Many consider Hairpin Circus a masterpiece of Japanese cinema, and the best Japanese car film of all time, so it’s a wonder why it never got more exposure in the West. Best of all, though, it preserves the spirit of a time that will never be repeated.
Now excuse me while I go smoke a cigarette.
Thanks to Toyotageek for the tip!