setsuled: (Skull Tree)


The Wikipedia page for 1973's Battles Without Honour and Humanity (仁義なき戦い), the first in a famous series of yakuza films, says the film is "often called the 'Japanese Godfather'." The single source cited for this assertion is a one paragraph review that mentions the comparison briefly in order to say it's inaccurate. Though the review considers this a positive point, apparently believing the Japanese film displays greater realism, I would argue the two are certainly different but realism has nothing to do with it. The Godfather is filled with memorable characters and effective family drama while Battles Without Honour and Humanity features a collection of character types with leads played by a few remarkably handsome and rugged men. The film doesn't quite rise above a loving celebration of the genre established over the fifteen or so years preceding it, revelling in typical plot turns and deliberately invoking typical plot mechanics. Seijun Suzuki's Tokyo Drifter, released a few years earlier, almost feels like a parody of this film, so sincerely does Battles without Honour and Humanity devote itself to well worn devices, despite the fact that the film is supposedly based on a true story. But it has some nice bits of style and the actors are attractive.



This is my favourite shot in the film--the film's hero, Hirono (Bunta Sugawara), having sex with a prostitute and revealing to us in the process his massive fish tattoo. This is his last taste of freedom before he assassinates a rival yakuza boss at the behest of his own comically weak and sobbing boss, Yamamori (Nobuo Kaneko). I can imagine what Don Corleone would say about him.



Yamamori promises to make Hirono his heir after the long prison sentence. The protagonist going to prison for a hit reminds one of Pale Flower while the soldier's admirable loyalty to his unworthy boss is reminiscent of a number of yakuza films, most notably Tokyo Drifter.



Bunto Sugawara as Hirono is certainly an exceptionally good lead, charismatic and rugged. I'd like to see him in some more action films but his character is a bit weightless here. His loyalty doesn't feel very natural and then instances of his disloyalty feel less so.
setsuled: (Frog Leaf)


When thinking of yakuza, one does not normally think of contemplative, almost zen-like stillness. Yet Takeshi Kitano's 1993 film Sonatine owes more to Ozu than Suzuki with its tranquil, unhurried shots of characters sitting and talking about things that don't necessarily move the plot forward. Evidence of the characters' familiarity with violence and fear creeps into the substance of scenes, though, making this a peculiarly sedate and yet striking perspective on life in organised crime.



The film centres on Murakawa (Takeshi Kitano) who is caught up in some kind of intrigue with his own gang and another. Both seem to want him dead but Murakawa barely seems to care, for the most part expressing no emotion but a vaguely melancholy weariness. Eventually, he ends up hiding out at a beach house in Okinawa with a few of his subordinates.



Two of his younger subordinates discover they're from the same part of Tokyo and they have conversations about places and people they both know. A few moments suggest a suppressed homosexual attraction between the two, particularly a scene where the two play with a doll.



Murakawa seems to be keeping his true feelings suppressed as well as he explains to a girl named Miyuki (Aya Kokumai) that despite appearances he's in a constant state of fear and that's why he's so quick and sure with a gun.



He meets Miyuki after a witnessing a young man trying to rape her one evening. Murakawa doesn't seem to care very much about what he's witnessing and doesn't seem like he'd get involved except the would-be rapist becomes angry when he notices he's being watched and attacks Murakawa. We don't find out very much about Miyuki, who falls in love with him, her character seeming to exist to provide an alternate route into a more loving and stable lifestyle, but like the attraction between his two subordinates, he seems cut off from the possibility by his own ingrained patterns of thought and emotion.



Most of the movie consists of scenes of the group of misfits on the beach, playing games that would seem normal except eventually gunplay gets involved. A strange Russian Roulette scene early on on the one hand seems to show Murakawa's methods of inspiring fear are only a front but on the other hand it seems to confirm, along with what he said to Miyuki, that he's on a quiet, inexorable path of self-destruction.
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)


You can't talk through some problems and it's hard to say if it's better or worse when the person you're with knows this. 1957's I Am Waiting (俺は待ってるぜ) is like a great, classic noir in its first half as a suicidal opera singer and a washed up boxer bond over the similar emotional issues that also keep them acutely aware of the unnavigable distance between them. The second half disappointingly drifts into a more typical revenge film and both characters are flatted out, particularly the female lead. But the whole film's beautifully shot with a great, torchy score by Masaru Sato.



Trying to find a video clip of the opening song on YouTube, I see it became a big karaoke hit. Here's a more professional performance:



The film begins when tough guy restaurant owner, Joji (Yujiro Ishihara), comes across a woman who calls herself Saeko (Mie Kitahara) at night, contemplating dark waters.



He convinces her to come back with him and he feeds her, explaining to her he knows quite well there's nothing else he can do. She gradually warms to the idea of staying in the spare room and working in the restaurant.



They each slowly learn about each other's pasts and it turns out everyone's killed someone--Joji, Saeko, and a doctor who frequents the bar. And no-one's quite sure how guilty they ought to feel. When the unrelated plot about Joji's missing brother turns into a story about Joji needing to avenge him, I thought the film was going to go the Quiet Man route with Joji slowly accepting he needs to be a fighter again despite the unresolved feelings he has about the man he accidentally killed with his fists. But things get more straight forward than that--Joji commits to his mission and Saeko drifts into the sidelines, becoming a fairly typical girlfriend character.



Still, the action's pretty good and Yujiro Ishihara is good in fight scenes, cutting an imposing physical presence and possessed of quick reflexes. Saeko has a couple nice musical numbers. The fact that Joji actually whistles his theme tune at one point makes me feel this was another movie Seijun Suzuki had in mind when he made Tokyo Drifter, probably feeling, as I did, that I Am Waiting ought to have gone further with its characters.
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: (Skull Tree)


For an important message to all hitmen, see 1967's A Colt is My Passport (拳銃は俺のパスポート). That message; avoid finicky clients. The film's a simple story with some beautiful style and impressive, cleverly constructed action sequences.



A Colt is My Passport was directed by Takashi Nomura and not Seijun Suzuki despite starring Suzuki regular Joe Shishido and featuring cast members from Suzuki's Tokyo Drifter which had been released the previous year. The two films even have practically the same villain--Hideaki Esumi wearing the same enormous sunglasses.



The film begins with Shishido as hitman Shuji Kamimura accepting and carrying out a job from a yakuza boss to take out a rival yakuza boss. Shuji and his partner, Shun (Jerry Fujio), head for the airport afterwards but the rival syndicate and the cops both prevent the two from leaving. That's only the start of their troubles because afterwards they learn their client is angry because they didn't kill their target in precisely the right circumstances. So now everyone's after them.

For most of the film, the two guys in their crisp, cool suits lay low at a little dockside inn where a woman working there, Mina (Chitose Kobayashi), falls in love with them both.



The movie has a great soundtrack, mostly simple electric guitar reminiscent of Spaghetti Westerns. Like Tokyo Drifter, it has a lonesome musical number, performed by Shun.



Maybe this movie was an attempt by the studio to make a Seijun Suzuki movie but with all the weird stuff they hated taken out. Tokyo Drifter has plenty of cinematic and storytelling experimentation, A Colt is My Passport is a pretty straightforward story about handsome rogues ruled by a deeply felt sense of honour and the tender maiden whose heart they might break.

There are several well put together action sequences, though my favourite maybe isn't elaborate enough to be called an action sequence, just a simple, nicely understated shot of a stuntman jumping out of a car he sends into the bay.

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