setsuled: (Skull Tree)


I'm not sure if 1975's Graveyard of Honour (仁義の墓場) is a violent, nihilist, vicarious wish fulfilment fantasy or something between that and a Taxi Driver style psychological reinterpretation of the lone gun action film. Although it was always stylish, there were parts where I wondered what the director, Kinji Fukasaku, was trying to get at with his raging psychopath protagonist. But by the end I found, while the story is definitely a fantasy, the film is a somewhat haunting statement about a man always seeking an impossible fulfilment.



We meet the violent young yakuza, Rikio Ishikawa (Tetsuya Watari), shortly after the end of World War II. We see him opening his pants and unashamedly pissing in front of a group of prostitutes whose brightly coloured western clothes make them strikingly resemble the prostitutes in Seijun Suzuki's Gate of Flesh. When they react in disgust, Rikio explains to them that they're whores so their feelings don't matter.



This casual bullying behaviour is in one sense typical for a gangster in any country. Pushing social boundaries and laying down disparaging statements are the ways a gangster establishes psychological dominance in a community. But Rikio's instincts for sadism go beyond this and we see a series of episodes where it proves a problem for his gang when he tends to start fights with rival gangs his own boss has no desire to provoke.



Rikio never seems to lose a fight, something in the film that strains the sense of realism. Generally an asshole who tries to fight the whole world ends up getting killed. There's also a geisha, Chieko (Yumi Takigawa), who falls in love with him despite the fact that he rapes her. Her motives are a little mysterious in the way that I'm not sure the filmmakers thought them out but a scene where he asks her to hide a gun for him reminded me of the scene in Goodfellas where Henry asks Karen to hide a gun. But maybe she senses something about his lack of a mental capacity for empathy and this makes her pity him--the rape scene is very strange, throughout it he keeps telling her in a bewildered tone that he doesn't want to hurt her even as he doesn't stop while she's clearly trying to fight him off. It's as though he's unable to understand anyone who resists giving him what he wants and so the only response he can think of is physical force.



He meets a prostitute who introduces him to heroin, to which he becomes immediately addicted. This doesn't seem to slow him down in the action scenes somehow. But the addiction fits in with the general sense of a personality that has no barriers to constantly seeking some elusive satisfaction.

Tetsuya Watari had played the cherubic young gangster in Seijun Suzuki's Tokyo Drifter nine years earlier. He comes off as more closed off and worn down here, curiously almost always wearing the aviator glasses like the villain in Tokyo Drifter.



Twitter Sonnet #1018

A chancing glance to fish confirmed the word.
However bleak the beaker fogs, take wing.
Without the stance of science, blanks're heard.
Like paper noodles teaching forks to sing.
In bread, a buoyant bean abuts the base.
The camel recks no farther coin than dimes.
The eastly wind arranged a bitter taste.
No more could count the hands or face of times.
In groups defined in foam they swim to Earth.
In visions sought by graceful planes they eat.
The sky became a trade in starry worth.
A thousand ghosts to-day are in your seat.
This sand'll bounce beyond the radar's scope.
The morning brings a quest for velvet rope.
setsuled: (Skull Tree)


It's harder to applaud a man's decision not to kill when the movie he's in so stacks the deck in favour of killing. In 1958's Rusty Knife (錆びたナイフ), former gangster Tachibana (Yujiro Ishihara) has to fight the urge to kill again even when he learns the yakuza syndicate who seem invulnerable to prosecution gang raped his girlfriend who then killed herself. With its bittersweet Masaru Sato theme song, the point of the film seems to be that ridiculous morality ties the hands of good men--not unlike American films like Death Wish or Russian films like Brat, its ostensibly anti-gangster message works out to be pro-gangster in real life. It's a bit silly but also ominous.



Tachibana's working as a bartender at the start of the movie. Police regularly stop by to try to get him to rat on his former associations but, despite having renounced the lifestyle, Tachibana is still bound by a code of honour. On one occasion, Keiko (Mie Kitahara), the daughter of a man who committed suicide under suspicious circumstances, overhears the cops asking Tachibana about his death.



Meanwhile, Tachibana's young friend, Makoto (Akira Kobayashi), is falling under the influence of the yakuza and takes hush money to party with a disreputable woman. Soon he's in hot water, too, and Tachibana blames himself. But after he killed the man whom he thought was solely responsible for his girlfriend's rape, Tachibana is afraid to take up his rusty knife, despite the fact that every time a gangster is arrested he's almost immediately released when witnesses are paid off or knocked off. Then Tachibana learns that his girlfriend was gang raped and it becomes even harder for him to resist the urge to kill. And, really, any viewer would want him to go on a killing spree at this point.



But it's good to remember how the movie is manipulating the audience. Tachibana was a former member of this gang and are we to believe he'd never heard of gangsters committing rape before? How feasible would it be to learn the identities of everyone guilty in a gang rape if the yakuza control so much of the information? The movie gives a bunch of two dimensional bad guys, how easy would it be to judge who deserves to die in real life? The film presents the idea that one man should be above the law because he's the only good man and the only one who can see clearly. The only way we know this is from how the film manipulates our perspective on the situation. It's films like this that led to later films by Seijun Suzuki and Takeshi Kitano that undermine the presumptions of the genre.



Rusty Knife is well shot with some really nice compositions of shadow. There are a few nice action sequences, including a good truck chase, and its Masaru Sato score is, as usual, great. It's also one of those movies from late 1950s, early 1960s Japan that heavily features the period's lovely, jazzy bar scene.
setsuled: (Skull Tree)


Naturally, real life gangsters aren't generally very romantic figures, which might be easy to forget with even some movies that aim to be more realistic inevitably portraying them as charming underdogs. Which isn't necessarily bad--gangsters are people, too, after all, and may be as complicated as anyone else. But I am thankful now and then for a movie like "Beat" Takeshi Kitano's 1990 film 3-4X October (3-4X10月, released in English speaking countries under the really dumb title Boiling Point). Here's a movie that leaves you with the impression that yakuza are chiefly ugly-spirited, frightening, and pathetic. It's a very cold, cruel film but has a laugh in almost every scene.

The title refers to a baseball game where we're introduced to the main characters at the beginning of the film, the title's irrelevance to what happens in the film a reflection of its nihilism, one of the reasons Boiling Point is not an appropriate title. As a title, Boiling Point suggests someone becomes violent after a slow build-up of circumstances but no-one really has that overrated thing called an arc in this film, except possibly the main character.



And with him it's hard to tell. We first see Masaki (Yurei Yanagi) expressionless in the almost total darkness of an outhouse, the first shot of the film, before we see that the outhouse is located on the edge of a baseball field. Masaki remains expressionless for almost the entire film and says little. He and some of the other players on one of the baseball teams work at a gas station and it's there the trouble begins when a gangster is angered when Masaki doesn't clean the hubcaps of his car quickly enough.



The manager of the baseball team is a former gangster and takes a personal interest in the matter. Masaki takes his and anyone else's advice unquestioningly. When he's told to find a girlfriend, he immediately asks out a nearby waitress, Sayaka (Yuriko Ishida), who happily becomes his girlfriend. They two seem well matched in that neither of them ever say very much. In one of the funnier scenes in the film, the two are riding a motorcycle when a car full of gangsters appears beside them, taunting them, before slamming into a parked car while Masaki and Sayaka ride on without exhibiting any reaction.



Eventually the manager gets in over his head and takes a beating from his former yakuza syndicate. He vows revenge and intends to go to Okinawa to buy a gun but, since he can barely move due to his injuries, Masaki and his friend Kazuo (Dankan) go instead. It's here that "Beat" Takeshi enters and steals his own film as one of the most impressively rendered psychopaths I've ever seen in a movie.



This sequence seems pretty clearly influenced by Blue Velvet and Takeshi seems intent on outdoing Frank Booth--and he does give him a run for his money, I have to say. Obviously Masaki is less emotionally vulnerable than Kyle MacLachlan's character but the way Takeshi's gangster character, Uehara, takes him under his wing for a chaotic ride with a few friends definitely feels like a version of what happens in Blue Velvet. Uehara displays a similar disregard for sexual boundaries that seems designed to humiliate people around him possibly to subjugate them or possibly just out of pure, idle sadism.



He compulsively rubs Kazuo's leg and genitals and then abruptly orders his right hand man to have sex with his girlfriend and cut off his own finger. Earlier in the film, we see the baseball manager giving the typical strong-arm tactic of the unanswerable question--asking a guy he has at his mercy to call him an insulting name. The point is to make the victim frantically try to figure out a way to respond that's not insulting, knowing there's not a right answer not really helping. Uehara takes it to another level through his manipulation of his friend and his girlfriend, whom he can't stop hitting for the rest of the film. She responds with angry words but seems bound to him somehow.



The film has a lot of references to other yakuza films and even one odd fishing sequence that seems to parody Yasujiro Ozu. Reminiscent of Ozu, throughout this film Takeshi shows a preference for low shots, though he tends to shoot from more of a distance than Ozu often puts a lot of empty space above the actors' heads. This is another of the many things that emphasises the characters' ineffectuality. In one strikingly emblematic scene, Masaki hits a home run after practising swinging his bat a long time only to lose the game for his team when he runs faster to home plate than his team mate ahead of him. No matter what he does, with however much effort, he's defeated by his misunderstanding of a basic rule.



Twitter Sonnet #994

Behind a beige and golden mist they stood.
Unmoved by buns or bagel bites they sang.
A resolute and silent swath withstood.
A growing glut of eyes reward the hanged.
The mountain dwarfed by grass digests the club.
The taste of sugar blue announced the fog.
Distracted eyes are shaking for the dub.
Recorded words resound through glowing bog.
In sep'rate currents air divides a port.
The flash of storm reveals a grin's approach.
Along a flattened space the stars contort.
A dye sets out a claim inside the coach.
A pamphlet tangled spokes and stopped the cab.
Asbestos eyes pervade the penthouse scab.
setsuled: (Frog Leaf)


Who ordered the gangster King Arthur who knows Kung Fu? Well that's what Guy Ritchie's delivered with 2017's King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, featuring the fresh faced Charlie Hunnam as the famous rough and tumble brothel raised cockney of yore. I must admit, this ridiculous, perplexing creation is a lot of fun. At any rate, it's better than First Knight.

I could see Guy Ritchie directing a decent version of Oliver Twist one day. He certainly seems like he'd be more comfortable with the Artful Dodger and Bill Sikes than he is with Percival or Bedivere. King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, first of a planned six part film series unlikely to happen now considering this one's disastrous box office, feels for all the world like Ritchie's protest against the world that would force him to make a big budget sword and sorcery film.

It was like Ritchie burst into the Warner Brothers' office and said, "I got this great idea for a film about this hood named Artie and his pals Backlack and George--"

"You're doing a King Arthur film, Guy."

"As I was saying, this idea I have's about a king named Arthur and his pals Backlack and George . . ."

When the film is focusing on that crew, roaming about a preposterously Victorian Londinium, it's a lot of fun, deploying the layering of narratives of guys who take the piss telling stories that are cinematically illustrated. And why not? If the movie can have twenty storey war elephants, why not gangsters, too?

And it does have twenty storey war elephants. The first fifteen minutes of the film might well convince you there's nothing of value here because it's a muddled retread of the usual Lord of the Rings battle sequences with some 300 fast/slo-mo featuring the long lost Eric Bana as Uther Pendragon. What has Eric Bana been up to? He was so great in Hulk and Munich. Anyway, for all the poetry in Ritchie's editing of street guys telling stories, he does not have the chops to thread together a massive fantasy battle. Uther manages to get on top of an elephant alone to kill its master and then somehow gets out unscathed while everyone else dies--no idea how, the film just cuts to him standing on a battlement looking grim.

Ritchie draws on video games a lot, like Zack Snyder before him, and one can detect traces of Skyrim and God of War and the finale is right out of Soul Calibur. But the feeling that the rules are totally arbitrary isn't helped by the confusion created with the editing. When Ritchie is dealing with guys on the street, he seems to relax and make something more coherent, consequently making the plight of a minor child character in the middle of the film, and the distress over the potential loss of his parent, far more effective than Arthur witnessing the loss of his own parents at the beginning of the film. Ritchie makes the odd choice of having child Arthur's face be a total emotional blank, which is a bit eerie but also removes the viewer from emotional investment. This is exacerbated when the child's age in this one scene, repeatedly referred back to, seems to fluctuate between helpless infant and boy capable of tossing a sword.

Arthur's youth is shown in montage as his life in the brothel teaches him about scumbags. He learns slight of hand cons in alleyways and, yes, learns Kung Fu so he can protect the prostitutes from belligerent customers. But just because Arthur was raised by prostitutes, don't expect any of them to be a full fledged character or a mother figure. They remain throughout the film interchangeable pretty ladies there for Arthur to protect. In a way, I do like that the film doesn't have a token warrior lady (though this being after the time of Boudica that wouldn't be such an anachronism) and perhaps if Ritchie really feels uncomfortable writing female characters maybe it is best he avoids them almost entirely. But it is conspicuous. The only female character who becomes something like a personality is unnamed, referred simply as "the mage"--played by Astrid Berges-Frisbey with an intriguing, smouldering performance, she too mostly functions as a damsel in distress, except when she unleashes a power near the end that makes you ask, "Why didn't she do this a long time ago?"

Maybe they avoided a warrior woman because that drip, Gal Gadot, was featured as Wonder Woman in two trailers. Good grief, how much longer is Warners going to have money to burn? Well, again, I did have a lot of fun watching King Arthur, so I wouldn't say they're consistently making bad movies but, judging from King Arthur's box office, they are making consistently bad business decisions.
setsuled: (Frog Leaf)


Normally gangsters only need to worry about cops and other gangs but one ganglord suddenly finds another, formidable thorn in his side in 1979's The Long Good Friday. The film obviously intends to use its story as an allegory for British politics and foreign relations in the late 70s but it's more entertaining now as a straight-forward gangster film dominated by a vigorous performance from Bob Hoskins.



The film begins with two seemingly unrelated sequences of scenes. One sequence in which Paul Freeman in an unspeaking role picks up a guy who gets beaten up by unidentified assailants before Freeman himself is beaten and killed by a guy pretending to flirt with him, and sequence in which gang lord Harold Shand (Hoskins) is getting ready to meet some U.S. mafia guys in the hopes of starting a partnership. The film is set during Good Friday and Harold's mother attends a church service where a bomb destroys her car. Eventually we learn than Freeman's character is named Colin and is Harold's best friend and associate so, along with the attack on his mother, it's starting to look like someone has a vendetta against Harold's operation right at the time such instability would look bad to his prospective American partners.



The fact that Harold knew Colin was gay and apparently had no problem with it seems remarkably progressive for a gangster, particularly in the 70s, which makes me wonder if a homophobic audience was meant to be repulsed by Harold's acceptance of his friend. Director John Mackenzie presents Colin and the first man he flirts with without any apparent condemnation, though, so it just comes off as normal, except one wonders why so much time is spent with Colin when he doesn't even have a speaking part. It might be part of the film's intended political allegory representing toleration in Britain. The police are almost totally absent from the film, even in scenes where one figures the police must have shown up and been something Harold would have to deal with. It seems a deliberate attempt to separate the story from reality and with a speech Harold gives at the end where he talks about the difference between Britain and the U.S. he seems as though he was meant to be a personification of British identity or administration.



Helen Mirren gets second billing but her part is relatively small as Harold's lover and second in command, Victoria. She's very good, of course, her best scene being essentially a miniature thriller film where one of their lieutenants, Jeff (Derek Thompson), seems to be threatening her in a lift.



But the main event in this film is Hoskins. Just watching him getting increasingly pissed off and violent as things go further and further south is great. He's short but his thick arms seem powerful and he moved very quickly, his wide eyes and flaring nostrils and the way he used his bottom teeth, he's like a were-badger on speed but restrained, like a kettle of rage always just on the point of boiling over.

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