A Long Goodbye (長いお別れ, Ryota Nakano, 2019)

Contemporary Japanese cinema has gone lukewarm on the idea of family, presenting it more often as a toxic rather than supporting presence. Among the few remaining positive voices, Ryota Nakano’s previous films Capturing Dad and Her Love Boils Bathwater never made any attempt to pretend that families are always perfect or that the family as a concept is one which must always be defended, but ultimately found warmth and solace in the mutual act of pulling together as the sometimes wounded protagonists found strength rather than suffocation in unconditional love. 

A Long Goodbye (長いお別れ, Nagai Owakare) finds something much the same as three women are forced to deal in different ways with their relationships with austere father Shohei (Tsutomu Yamazaki), once an authoritarian head master but now suffering from dementia and rapidly losing the ability to read. The first signs of decline are felt in 2007, prompting mum Yoko (Chieko Matsubara) to ring both of her increasingly distant, almost middle-aged daughters, and invite them to their father’s 70th birthday party, 

33-year-old Fumi (Yu Aoi) is in the middle of breaking up with a boyfriend who’s giving up on his dreams of being a novelist to take over the family potato farm. Fumi’s dream is owning her own restaurant, but somehow it seems a long way off. Older sister Mari (Yuko Takeuchi), meanwhile, is a housewife and mother living with her fish scientist husband Shin (Yukiya Kitamura) and son Takashi (Yuito Kamata) in California. Lonely in her marriage, Mari struggles with her English and finds it difficult to make friends with her husband’s colleagues who openly criticise her language skills from across the room while Shin makes no attempt to defend her. 

Meanwhile, Yoko carries the heaviest burden alone in trying to manage her husband’s decline even as he begins to wander off, forever asking to go “home” even when he is already there. The concept of “home” however may be difficult to define in a rapidly changing society. All the way across the sea, Mari frets about her parents and feels guilty that, as the older sister, she should be doing more and has unfairly left everything to Fumi just because she happens to be in closer proximity. She is then slightly perturbed to realise that Fumi hasn’t seen their parents since the previous New Year and is equally shocked at the noticeable change in her father who goes off on random tangents and suddenly loses his temper over trivial things. 

Mari flies back to Japan when crises occur but her husband is not as understanding as one might expect. His research concerns fish which adapt to their environment and it’s clear he’s begun to follow their example, falling wholesale for Western individualism. He criticises Mari’s anxiety for her parents’ health by reminding her that her “family” is her husband and son, bearing no responsibility for additional relatives. Shin now believes strongly in individual responsibility, that Shohei and Yoko need to look after themselves. As such he takes little interest in his family leaving all the childcare duties to Mari in somehow believing that children raise themselves. When the teenage Takashi (Rairu Sugita) goes off the rails and starts skipping school, Mari turns to the time old philosophy that he needs a good talking to from his father, but all Shin can come up with is that his son’s his own man and he’s sure he has his reasons. 

The young Takashi is acclimatising too, getting himself a red-haired Californian girlfriend who’s obsessed with J-pop and kanji, but later replaces him with another Asian guy when he goes back to Japan to spend time with Shohei while he’s still somewhat present. Meanwhile, Fumi works hard to realise her dream but encounters a series of disappointments both romantic and professional as she too reconsiders the idea of family and whether it’s truly possible to slide into one that has already fractured. Becoming responsible for her parents’ care shifts her into a maternal role she might not have expected, maturing in a slightly different direction while Mari remains trapped and lonely, neglected by her newly individualist husband who only cares about his research and shut out by her understandably angsty teenage son. 

Crises are, however, good for bringing people back together. Shohei it seems was a typical father of his times, distant and authoritarian, perhaps not always easy to be around. Fumi worries that she disappointed him, not becoming a teacher as he’d hoped while also failing to achieve her dreams of becoming a restaurateur, while Mari just wants what her parents had in a loving and supportive marriage surrounded by the warmth of  family. Shohei might not always have shown it, but there’s a lot unsaid in his constant desire to go “home” back to the time his kids were small. Home is where the heart is after all, even if you don’t quite remember the way. 


Original trailer (No subtitles)

Our Meal For Tomorrow (僕らのごはんは明日で待ってる, Masahide Ichii, 2017)

Eat, drink, and be merry, as they say, for tomorrow we may be gone. The hero of Masahide Ichii’s Our Meal for Tomorrow (僕らのごはんは明日で待ってる, Bokura no Gohan wa Ashita de Matteru) has committed himself to the first of those, is still too young to be much interested in the second, and is resolutely failing at the third. Somewhat gloomy and introverted, he has decided on a course of self-isolation, convinced that it’s better not to get attached because all attachment ends in heartbreak, but a life without sensation is barely a life at all and in the end all you can do is live while you’re alive taking your pleasure where you can. 

Young Ryota (Yuto Nakajima) is a dreamy high school boy with his head in the clouds. Bamboozled into participation in a sack race relay with pretty classmate Koharu (Yuko Araki) he approaches the matter in characteristically analytical fashion, eventually realising that he, taller and stronger (physically at least), will have to take the lead if they are to move forward. Off the track, however, that’s a lesson he finds difficult to learn. After their victory, Koharu stuns Ryota by confessing that she asked him to join her in the sack race precisely because she has a crush on him. He panics and apparently turns her down, but eventually reconsiders.

Their romance continues in typical high school fashion, only strengthening as they prepare to move on to new stages in their lives in heading off to uni while idly dreaming of an imagined future with the family they will forge together as adults. There is however a shadow hanging over their love. The reason Ryota is so brooding and contemplative is because he’s reeling over the death of his older brother from an illness, something he tries to “discuss” (or more accurately monologue) with Koharu but she abruptly cuts him off because she has more important things to do than listen to a long sad story she feels she already understands. He, meanwhile, never quite thinks to ask her very much about her life outside of him and is both hurt and slightly resentful when she casually mentions that she’s had her share of loss too which is why she’s so keen to start a family of her own. 

Ryota may be the contemplative sort, but he’s also the type that likes to talk out loud about his feelings without feeling the need to hold anything back. Koharu meanwhile is precisely the opposite. She might be upfront about what she wants and direct in stating her desires, but she’s also resolutely uncurious, dislikes talking about “unpleasant” things, and is content to let the mystery linger where Ryota wants to know absolutely everything (but without actually asking any questions). Taking a (solo) holiday, he finds himself alone among a gaggle of middle-aged women taking a break from their husbands who explain to him that small secrecies are an entirely normal and in fact essential element of a healthy relationship. Without them, their lives would not be possible.

It was a quest for self knowledge, however, which took him to Thailand. Ironically, he went “alone” but as part of a tour group, whereas Koharu took the opportunity to go to Australia and hunt gemstones entirely by herself only to be confronted by a sense of loneliness in wanting to turn to someone with whom to share the moment but finding no one there. In sync to a point, they are still not quite ready to act as one, Koharu confessing that it’s undoubtedly easier to do things on your own, laying bare the shyness that unpins her deceptively outgoing personality in her fear of the awkwardness that comes with shared intimacy. 

That intimacy is something Ryota craves but also fears. He’s afraid of getting attached, she’s afraid of getting bored. Ryota compares his fear of falling in love to the sense of emptiness one feels when a movie ends, or perhaps the act of enjoying a beautifully cooked steak but knowing that the meal will all too soon be over. Koharu points out that a never ending steak would be a hellish nightmare, implying that it’s better to just enjoy the steak until you’re full and then be thankful for a delicious meal. That’s something she too finds hard to accept, however, when she discovers that her dreams of a picture perfect family may be impossible to achieve. She pulls away, isolating herself, nobly trying to spare Ryota the pain of witnessing her suffering. An old lady (Hairi Katagiri) advises him to be foolish in love, make an uncharacteristically grand gesture. The future may not be quite the way you pictured it, but that’s no reason you can’t be happy with what you have while you have it. No one knows what may come. Savour the moment while the moment lasts, everything else is for another day.


Screened as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2020.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Our Blood Will Not Forgive (俺たちの血が許さない, Seijun Suzuki, 1964)

Our blood will not forgive posterIn Japan, “kaeru no ko wa kaeru”, or “a frog’s son is also a frog”, is an often heard idiom, sometimes disparaging but often affectionate. Can a yakuza’s son become anything other than a yakuza, or does your blood define you in ways you cannot defy? Our Blood Will Not Forgive (俺たちの血が許さない, Oretachi no Chi ga Yurusanai), an early semi-absurdist gangster drama from Seijun Suzuki’s mid-period at Nikkatsu, asks just that question as two brothers battle the legacy of their slain father whose dying wish it was that the yakuza line die with him.

After their father was assassinated at home by sword, the Asari brothers were raised by their mother, Hatsu (Chikako Hosokawa), who did her best to keep them out of the underworld. After the war, however, times were tough. Older brother Ryota (Akira Kobayashi) had to work as a delivery boy to keep the family fed, studying hard at the same time and getting in to a good university. Now grown up, he’s a smart suited night club manager. His younger brother Shinji (Hideki Takahashi), meanwhile, is a clownish goof-off with a good job at an ad agency he’s always in danger of losing (like a fair few jobs before). Today, Shinji was meant to collect his bonus, but he’s bunked off to take part in a local festival which is unfortunate, because he’s got a visitor – Tobita (Akifumi Inoue), the man who killed their father without knowing why and now regrets it. He’s managed to track Shinji down thanks to the fact he looks just like his dad and has a habit of doing stupid things that get his picture in the papers like winning eating competitions and getting lucky on the horses only to get mugged outside.

Tobita’s desire to apologise to the boys exposes their father’s sordid yakuza past and forces them to deal with the legacy of their gangster blood. Though Ryota is more sanguine and simply declares that he “hates all yakuza” before asking Tobita to leave and never come back, Shinji immediately attacks him but then becomes enamoured of the romanticism of the gangster life and considers restarting the Asari clan after getting fired when a picture of him fighting with thugs on the company away trip makes the papers with the headline “yakuza’s son”.

The central irony is that Ryota, who was his mother’s favourite and ostensibly the steady, respectable son, has secretly been a yakuza for quite some time. The club he runs is a yakuza front, which is why he tries to talk Shinji out of trying to get a job there, leading him to feel rejected enough to have too much to drink and start a bar fight, causing problems for Ryota with his boss.

“All yakuza are the same,” Ryota confesses to Shinji as they argue in a car incongruously surrounded by roaring waves, “they’re violent because they’re afraid”. Despite graduating from Tokyo University, Ryota couldn’t get an honest job because they always found out his dad was a yakuza. Out of other options, he decided he had no other choice but to become one too, that he could not escape his blood but might be able to make sure his brother could. Shinji has romantic dreams of the yakuza lifestyle (his bedroom wall’s covered in pictures of Al Capone et al), but Ryota knows what it means, which is why he hates all yakuza, including himself. He’s planning to marry his secretary girlfriend, Yasuko (Chieko Matsubara), but his emotions are so corrupted that he isn’t quite sure if he really loves her or is only making a bid for respectability as a kind of atonement to his mother. In any case, he also feels guilty, knowing that just as his father eventually made his mother miserable, no woman can be happy with a yakuza.

“Yakuza are so stupid, you’re all obsessed with dying – what’s the point?” Shinji eventually exclaims, finally thoroughly disillusioned as his brother goes out in search of an honourable ending rather than trying to escape from certain death at the hands of his vengeful boss. “It may not be easy to live, but there’s nothing honourable about dying!” he tells him, undercutting a series of cultural signifiers, but finally crawling out of the yakuza trap and vowing to live on muddling through with his mother and perky girlfriend, Mie (Yuri Hase) whose birthday party he’s currently missing. Blood does not forgive, but it does eventually release if only you can learn to see it for what it is and choose to be free of it.


Opening (no subtitles)

The Dragon of Macao (マカオの竜, Mio Ezaki, 1965)

Dragon of Macao DVD coverNikkatsu’s “borderless” action was famously internationalist, but as Japan’s place on the world stage began to change in the mid-60s, it also betrayed a slight anxiety in the nation’s new status as a burgeoning economic power in the Asian sphere. The Dragon of Macau (マカオの竜, Macao no Ryu), while indulging in the genre’s characteristically xenophobic vision of China as an exporter of criminality, is another attempt to cash in on James Bond cool as its suave, British passport-carrying hero tries to wrestle a precious gem away from fiercely amoral “pirates” while protecting a betrayed young woman trying to avenge the death of her parents at the hands of duplicitous gangsters.

Set in the bustling port town of Yokohama, the film opens with the harbour patrol forcibly boarding a ship to look for smuggled gold. However, it turns out that the two men they’re searching are members of the patrol themselves on an undercover mission trying to expose organised crime while the guys dressed as policemen are actually members of a gang trying to steal a precious diamond. Fearing the operation blown, the gangsters’ plant offs the lot of them and makes off with the loot.

Meanwhile, “Dragon of Macau” Ryu (Akira Kobayashi) lurks about on the harbour while rival gangster Tsukada (Asano Sano) tries to get the police onside and convince them that someone else is targeting his operation though the police are apt to wonder if he staged the whole thing himself to get rid of the undercover agents. The truth, however, is that ambitious harbour punk Aizu (Jo Shishido) is after a precious diamond known as the “Himalyan Star” which is rumoured to be cursed seeing as everybody who’s come into contact with it has ended up dead.

Unsurprisingly, Aizu gets his hands on the gem from a Chinese broker, Chen, who warns him that two gangsters, Gordon and Boomerang, will do “anything” to get their hands on it. Ryu later turns up a bar run by Tsukada and gets into a bar fight with a series “damn foreigners”, sailors who’d had too much to drink and started hassling the staff. The “damn foreigners” quip is especially ironic seeing as we later discover Ryu is a British citizen who seems to have grown up in Hong Kong after being rescued by a British vessel when the boat he and his parents were travelling on was torpedoed during in the war. Introducing himself to Tsukada, Ryu says that he works for the aforementioned “Gordon”, presumably an imperialist Brit engaged in shady colonial shenanigans out of Hong Kong. The truth about “Ryu” at least turns out to be slightly different, but for the moment he’s a Bond-inspired unflappable agent of cool complete with a fancy white three-piece suit and a collection of gadgets (a cigarette lighter blowtorch, pistol that dispenses matchstick flares, and a tiny nail gun) that would be the envy of any cold war spy.

Not to be outdone, however, Aizu has his own share of surprises including the tiny dagger hidden in the cigarette which permanently hangs from his lip. Temporarily entering this land of intense amorality, Ryu plays along but retains his nobility and remains permanently one step ahead as he attempts to get his hands on the Himalayan Star and return it to its “rightful” owners. Aizu’s main gambit is weaponising women – Aizu’s sister is a plant working at Tsukada’s bar and apparently also his mistress, while he also makes use of another young woman, Nami (Yukiyo Toake), whose late father was a patron of his. She believes Tsukada is responsible for the deaths of her parents and is participating in the plan as revenge, but eventually falls for Ryu’s suave nobility and refuses to betray him when faced with Aizu’s continuing duplicity.

A few narrative machinations later, we’re told that Ryu is “a person without a motherland” but also that he has always been a force for “good” or at least order in that he wants the gemstone not for himself but to get it away from the gangsters and back to its “official” owners (which sort of ignores the fact that the stone was “stolen” from the eye of a Buddhist statue which is presumably why people think it’s “cursed”, and that his primary motivation is avoiding a giant insurance payout). Having fallen for Nami, he leaves her a message that he’d have liked to take her back to Macau but is unsure she’d be happy with someone like him, asking her to look after another young woman who came all the way from Hong Kong to warn him that Gordon and Boomerang have finally taken each other out.

Perhaps in contrast to Nikkatsu’s other international crime dramas, the “threat” turns out to be wholly homegrown in Aizu’s rapidly individualist stance that “life is cruel”, “mercy is for fools”, and those who stand in one’s way must be eliminated. The solution comes, paradoxically, from destabilising internationalism at the hands of a man who is both Japanese and not, speaks several languages, and works as an agent for colonising imperial powers to whom he eventually exiles himself, job done. A rip-roaring spy drama complete with modern day pirates and an extremely ineffectual police presence, The Dragon of Macau is a surprisingly complex effort from Nikkatsu’s “borderless” action strand which makes the case for Japan as a part of wider world rather than a isolated island fearful of losing out in an increasingly globalised environment.


Gu Gu the Cat (グーグーだって猫である, Isshin Inudo, 2008)

Gu Gu the cat posterJapanese cinema has long been in love with the local flavour movie. It may be true that many otherwise fantastic examples of the small subgenre have a “sponsored by the tourist board” aesthetic, but then the pure “furusato” love is usually genuine enough and often proves infectious. Gu Gu the Cat (グーグーだって猫である, Gu Gu Datte Neko de Aru) is a case in point in its fierce determination to sell the benefits of trendy Tokyo suburb Kichijoji – an upscale bohemian neighbourhood well known for being home to artists and dreamers who take care to foster the kind of hometown spirit you wouldn’t normally associate with city living. The film is also, however, the story of a struggling middle-aged mangaka who is forced to deal with a long delayed existential crisis after her elderly cat passes away.

Ça Va had been living with Asako (Kyoko Koizumi) for the last 15 years but passed away while she and her team were working flat out on a special Christmas issue. Asako is of course devastated and not least because she feels guilty that perhaps she was too busy to notice that Ça Va was ill until it was too late. According to her assistant Naomi (Juri Ueno), Asako’s career had been faltering even before Ça Va passed away – the Christmas issue had been the only thing she’d produced all year leaving her team of assistants out of pocket and worried for the future. Grief-stricken as she is, Asako eventually decides to get a new cat, Gu Gu, enabling a rebirth in her professional as well as personal lives.

Based on an autobiographical story by mangaka Yumiko Oshima, Gu Gu the Cat wastes no time in reminding us that being a mangaka is a precarious business. Asako is well acclaimed as an artist and has inspired countless young women with her shojo manga (Naomi not least among them) but is still pressed into working insane hours to meet publication deadlines and is constantly badgered by her publishing company to provide new material. Her mother (Chieko Matsubara), meanwhile, just wants her to settle down and get married before it’s “too late”.

Asako’s mother’s nagging may seem like the usual kind of conservatism that is a little embarrassed by an unmarried middle-aged woman, as well as with the idea of a woman having a career and especially in manga which is a “popular” art and therefore less respectable than literature or painting. It is also, however, born of knowing her daughter and seeing that there is a part of her that hasn’t quite matured thanks to working on manga all her adult life which has left her feeling isolated and lonely in a way a cat might not be able to satisfy. This is perhaps why potential love interest Seiji (Ryo Kase) describes all her manga as “sad”, and why Asako is somewhat uncomfortable with being treated as a “famous author” rather than as a person.

Gu Gu the cat takes a back seat to most of the action (as cats are want to do) but does help engineer a meeting with Seiji who, despite being much younger than Asako, begins to reawaken in her a sense of desire if not exactly for romance then perhaps for life. Following a familiar pattern, however, Asako re-channels that desire into her manga – coming up with an idea in which a teenager suddenly grows old, neatly mirroring her sudden sense of having become “a woman of a certain age” overnight without really noticing. Having lost Ça Va, Asako attempts to come to terms with lost time in accepting that many choices have already been made and opportunities lost. In that sense there is something sad in Asako’s decision to remain alone in knowing that in the end she lost love because she was too timid to claim it, but then, the answer isn’t new romance but an acceptance of being happy in the present in the knowledge that things change and people leave but it will all be OK in the end.

Based on Oshima’s real experiences, Inudo’s film takes a turn for the melodramatic towards its conclusion which feeds back into his “live every day” message but is perhaps a little heavy for the cheerful slice of life drama surrounding it. Likewise, his strange decision to sell the joys of Kichijoji (which appear to be many) through an American Eikaiwa teacher narrating a journey through the area in the manner of a TV programme aimed at tourists is a particularly strange one which in no way benefits from its surreal plot revelation. Nevertheless, Gu Gu the Cat is a warm and affectionate tribute to this seemingly warm and quirky area which acts as a kind of coming of age story for its middle-aged heroine who, in a sense, births herself in coming to an acceptance that life goes on and the best you can do go along with it for as long as you can.


Original trailer (English/Chinese subtitles)

Cruel Gun Story (拳銃残酷物語, Takumi Furukawa, 1964)

cruel-gun-story-poster.jpgIn the history of Japanese noir, the name Haruhiko Oyabu looms large. Oyabu’s gritty, pulp infused tales of tough guy heroes found their clearest expression in the hardline ‘70s with Toru Murakawa’s unique brand of macho action as seen in Resurrection of the Golden Wolf or The Beast Must Die, but a decade earlier they were also finding fertile ground in Nikkatsu’s harder B-movie noir. Based on a novel by Oyabu, Cruel Gun Story (拳銃残酷物語, Kenju Zankoku Monogatari) seems to owe more than a little to Kubrick’s The Killing in its crime never pays tale of honest crooks undercut by their unscrupulous comrades but the central message is that the gun is a cruel master and those living under its control will pay a heavy price.

Togawa (Jo Shishido) has just been (unexpectedly) given early release from a prison sentence incurred when he took revenge on the truck driver who knocked down his little sister (Chieko Matsubara) and confined her to a wheelchair for the rest of her life. Middle rank gangster Ito – formerly a crooked lawyer with a pencil mustache a supercilious air, has a job for him the gang thinks only he can do. The payout is 120 million yen – not to be sniffed at, but Togawa has reasons to be suspicious. He takes some convincing but finally relents when he finds out an old and trusted friend, Shirai (Yuji Kodaka), has already agreed. The gang have another three guys lined up but Togawa rules the third one out when he tests him and confirms he’s an untrustworthy blabbermouth. The other two are a former boxer with mild brain damage whose girlfriend has just left him, and an unscrupulous but clever chancer named Teramoto (Kojiro Kusanagi).

Following the general pattern, Furukawa walks us through the heist as it’s supposed to go if everything goes to plan complete with a 3D diagram and plastic toy cars but, of course, not everything goes to plan. The job is to steal the ticket money from the Japan Derby (much like the race course robbery in The Killing). The gang will set up fake road signs and station a “policeman” to divert the armoured car onto a small country lane where they will kill the police motorcycle escort, get rid of the guards, and load the truck onto a bigger lorry that they will then take to a disused US airbase they’ll use as their lair.

Disused American airbase could easily apply to the entirety of the surrounding area. Jets fly ominously overhead while the world Togawa and his guys inhabit is one of noirish jazz bars filled with foreigners, grimy boxing clubs, signs in English and the relics of destruction everywhere. This is a place for those who’ve already fallen through the cracks, even the gangsters are only really small fry – not yakuza but hoodlums ripped straight from the Edward G. Robinson playbook. This giant heist is the most audacious in living memory, pulling it off would be the finest achievement any of them would ever make, taking them out of their dead end environments and catapulting them into the criminal high life.

Togawa knows there’s something not right about this – he almost turns it down because he wants to be around to take care of his sister, but he also wants the money to pay for an operation he hopes will restore her mobility to assuage his guilt over having sent her out on the fateful day she was injured. Rie now lives in the care of kindly nuns and is a goodhearted, religious woman hoping for her big brother’s reformation. Togawa and his sister are also victims of war having lost their parents during the evacuation from Manchuria and have been essentially on their own ever since. Rie has become a living symbol of Togawa’s failures – his inability to protect her, to keep them both safe and together, and to free them of the ruined post-war landscape within which they both remain trapped. Rie pins her hopes on God, but Togawa says to hell with that – where has He been so far?

Having pinned his hopes on the gun, Togawa intends this to be the heist to end all heists. After this, he’ll be free to give his sister the life she deserves away from crime and the rundown town strewn with mementos of a distant, dethroned occupying power. The gun, however, is a divisive weapon and engenders nothing but mistrust among men. Resentful of Togawa’s solid friendships, the other guys turn on him as do his shady employers sending Togawa even further along the dark path to moral ruination than he already was. All that’s waiting for Togawa is a hollow victory and the intense disappointment of those whose faith in him was ultimately misplaced.


Outlaw: Gangster VIP the Complete Collection

outlaw gangster collectionReview of the Outlaw: Gangster VIP the Complete Collection dual format box set from Arrow Films first published by UK Anime Network.


There are two distinct eras of yakuza movies in Japan – the “ninkyo eiga” strand of traditional, noble gangsters acting out of a sense of loyalty and honour and the “jitsuroku” approach exemplified by Kinji Fukasaku’s Battles Without Honour and Humanity series which sought to show yakuza life for what it was – short, bloody and ultimately pointless. The Outlaw series provides a perfect bridge between the two as it’s based on the true life memoirs of former yakuza Goro Fujita but opts for a genre hybrid by essentially reframing the popular youth movies of the day as gangster noir rather than the down and dirty naturalism of Fukasaku’s magnum opus.

The Outlaw series consists of six films though only the first two are in direct continuity with each other. Gangster VIP 1 & 2 begin the saga of noble hearted gangster Goro who was orphaned when his mother died of illness during the war leaving him to look after his younger sister who also later dies either of illness or of malnutrition becoming the first of the women Goro is unable to save. He ends up a street kid and is eventually sent to reform school from where he escapes with an older boy, Sugiyama, who later resurfaces as a member of a rival gang in Part 1. These two films also chronicle Goro’s ongoing romance with the innocent Yukiko who falls in love with him after he saves her from a gang of thugs.

However, after Gangster VIP 2, the series has little internal continuity and the saga of Goro and Yukiko falls silent. This is actually a little confusing as many of the actors from the other films in the series frequently turn up playing entirely different characters, not least Chieko Matsubara who plays Goro’s love interest in every film but is actually a similarly named yet entirely different woman each time even if she also has a very similar backstory to that of Yukiko in the very first film.

Each chapter follows the same basic pattern – Goro gets out of prison/moves/goes looking for someone and ends up getting into trouble with the local gangsters despite his intense desire to leave the yakuza world behind. The chance of salvation is always offered in the form of Chieko Matsubara who plays exactly the same character each time even though she has different names and falls in love with Goro a little quicker with each passing frame. Goro is the noble hearted wanderer so he always opts to sacrifice his own potential happiness rather than get other people mixed up in his bloody and unpredictable gangster world.

The first few films in the series are more deeply rooted in the post-war past with the major theme being the loss of family and the yakuza providing a home for those otherwise without hope. Having been orphaned and left to starve on the streets, cruelly ignored by passersby and the society at large, men like Goro were forced to form associations with each other for survival and to turn to crime through lack of other options. Given the perilousness of their times, even the yakuza brotherhood is uncertain and these relationships are hollow and ever changing – a far cry from the unconditional love and support supposedly offered by the traditional family unit.

Moving on slightly, the series grows up with Goro as he moves form lamenting his rootless nature to an inability to put down roots for himself as he knows that his dangerous lifestyle is not something he wants to bring a wife, and particularly children, into. Things never end well for the married yakuza in these films who often see their wives or girlfriends kidnapped, raped or used against them in some other way and the overriding message is that love is both a weakness and an irresponsible indulgence for those who live or die by the sword.

The series features three different directors with Red Pier director Toshio Masuda helming the first which is perhaps the most accomplished even if Masuda is often criticised for not having a distinctive style of his own. Keiichi Ozawa picks up for parts 2, 4, 5, and 6 which each more or less follow the style laid out by Masuda though he does add in a few flourishes of his own including a very groovy showdown in a contemporary nightclub in the final film. Part three, Heartless, is directed by Mio Ezaki and is perhaps the weakest in the series though does at least break with the style and direction a little more than might be expected whilst adding a few thrills along the way.

The Outlaw series has perhaps not been fully appreciated outside Japan but now hopefully will be thanks to this excellently put together set from Arrow. The series as a whole feels a little safe at times and often pulls its punches where it had the opportunity to push for something with more bite but its doom laded tale of a noble gangster with a ruined heart is the kind of effortless, nihilistic cool that is hard to beat. Another excellent offering of Nikkatsu Noir mixed with existential youth movie and yakuza trappings, the Outlaw series is a long overdue addition to the world of Japanese action movies and one that every genre enthusiast will be eager to explore.


Outlaw: Gangster VIP the Complete Collection is currently available in a region free dual format Blu-ray/DVD box set in both the US and UK.

Trailer for the series as a whole:

Links to reviews of all six films:

Outlaw: Kill! (無頼 殺せ, Keiichi Ozawa, 1969)

outlaw killGoro, Goro, Goro – will you never learn? Maybe he will because this is the last film in the series! Appropriately titled Outlaw: Kill! (無頼 殺せ, Burai Barase), this sixth and final film in the Outlaw series sees Goro once again moving to a new town and trying to lead a more honest life but unfortunately he’s wandered in at just the wrong time because a local gang boss has just been sent to prison after defeating a group of assassins leaving a dangerous vacuum and leading, therefore, to the outbreak of a turf war.

Goro’s first fight is with a gang of thugs who were hassling an elevator girl in a department store – the girl being Yumiko, played by Chieko Matsubara, becoming Goro’s love interest once again. Luckily or unluckily, Goro runs into an old friend from his prison days who is also one of the gang bosses involved in the turf war. After his friend promises him that he will incur no debt from him and he won’t get in the way of Goro finding a proper job, Goro agrees to move in with him and his wife – who only turns out to be the sister of elevator girl Yumiko which is not even the most predictable coincidence in this whole saga.

Despite his protestations about not getting involved in local gang politics, Goro’s attachment to his friend and his growing family means he can’t altogether avoid getting pulled back into the messy gangster world of violence and betrayal. Things end up going just about as well as they ever do and Goro is only able to clean up some of the chaos in this disputed area by creating even more counter chaos.

The format is becoming tired by the time we reach Outlaw: Kill! and it’s true that the film revisits exactly the same narrative beats as all of the other films, though it does so in a fairly exciting fashion. That said, there’s much less nuance here – we get that Goro sees himself as a lonely drifter who doesn’t deserve happiness, a self hating yakuza who is engaged on a long and hopeless walk to the grave. Perhaps it’s just because everyone’s getting older, but now it’s less about never having had a home or a proper place to belong than it is about the (im)possibility of building your own family. Goro’s friend, Moriyama, is married and going to be a father which Goro thinks is a nice thing, broadly, but also worries about what is means for a yakuza who may be killed at any second to have a wife and a child dependent upon him. Goro, being the noble sort of fellow he is, has decided that romance is irresponsible if you’ve already pledged your heart to the outlaw’s creed.

Once again directed by Keiichi Ozawa, Kill! sticks to the formula of his other offerings in the Outlaw series but opens with stylish series of colour filter stills rather than the action filled title sequences of the previous films. The fight scenes are exciting and actually quite bloody but perhaps not as innovative as some of those seen earlier in the series. In an interesting mix of old and new, Ozawa stages his final fight in a club but this time it’s a very contemporary night spot filled with guys and girls dressed in stylish, colourful outfits whilst a hippyish rock band play a cover of a famous pre-war ballad. Swooping around, notably shooting one sequence through a transparent floor/ceiling, Ozawa seems to be pushing forward more, breaking with the traditional ‘50s aesthetic for a new and crazy, youth counter-culture inspired moment which looks forward to the Stray Cat Rock series much more than back to the now ancient ninkyo eiga or sun tribe films.

Maybe Goro’s had his day too as Kill! ends in pretty much the same way as all but one of the previous films with Goro staggering away from the destruction he has wrought into a barren and snow filled landscape. Doomed to be a wanderer forevermore, Goro is a relic of the cruel post-war world which never gave him a break but his story’s now old hat. A man without a home is left forever alone, marching onward to the next confrontation or the final relief of a lonely grave.


Outlaw: Kill! is the six and final ( 😦 ) film included in Arrow Films’ Outlaw: Gangster VIP The Complete Collection box set (which is region free on DVD and blu-ray and available from both US and UK).

English subtitled original theatrical trailer:

Outlaw: Black Dagger (無頼 黒ヒ首, Keiichi Ozawa, 1968)

outlaw black daggerGoro (Tetsuya Watari) just can’t catch a break. He sends his one true love off on a train to safety only to see her dramatically return because she can’t bear to leave his side. Her devotion costs her her life as she places herself between Goro’s manly chest and an assassin’s knife. Heartbroken, Goro gets out of town only to run into another old flame who is now a mama-san and has apparently married another yakuza (despite the fact that Goro parted with her because of his chaotic yakuza lifestyle). As usual, the past won’t let him go – this time in a more literal sense as Goro encounters another woman who looks exactly like the girlfriend who died in his arms….

This time for the fifth instalment in the Outlaw series, Black Dagger (無頼 黒ヒ首, Burai Kurodosu), it’s not so much family as romance which takes centre stage as we witness just how dangerous it can be to fall in love with a yakuza. Yuri (Chieko Matsubara), the girlfriend Goro couldn’t save, died because she loved him too much.  Saeko loved him too – he succeeded in getting rid of her but she ended up rebound married to another guy who kind of looks like him but isn’t as good, and now there’s Shizuko (Chieko Matsubara again) – a warmhearted nurse who’s once again fallen for Goro’s noble tough guy act. Goro knows the price of love and he thinks he’s no good so he tries to avoid letting himself fall, both for his own safety and for his prospective love, but in the end the one fight he can never win is the one against his own heart.

Oddly Goro gets on quite well with Saeko’s husband, though he’s not keen to get involved with his troubles. He warns him that it might be better to let Saeko go as in the end yakuza only cause suffering for their women and soon enough Goro is proved right when the local gang become intent on pimping Saeko out leaving her husband pretty much powerless to resist.

Apparently this cuts both ways as a sad song from a band of street musicians recounts that a good wife can be a man’s weakness. Again it isn’t really clear how this instalment fits with the others but Yuri’s story is certainly very similar to Yukiko’s as seen in the first two movies and Goro’s guilt over not being able to protect her comes to colour the rest of his life. Once again Goro tries to say goodbye to love, advising Shizuko of the folly of falling for a man like him – she should just find someone nice and be happy. Full of nobleness and conviction, Goro strides out to clean up the town for good, knowing he may not return to see the fruits of his labours.

Black Dagger is once again directed by Keiichi Ozawa and is more or less in keeping with his other efforts in the series, mixing studio bound action with occasional forays into wider outdoor expanses. The film opens with an impressive montage title sequence and fight scene, but other than that the only set piece we get is the street singer sequence towards the end though the final fight is once again action packed and impressively filmed. Black Dagger perhaps doesn’t bring anything too new to the franchise, but it does improve on its already familiar narrative with another doomed love story and a series of shattered dreams for poor old Goro. Unlike the more hopeful ending of the last film, Black Dagger ends on exactly the same note as the other Outlaw movies as Goro staggers away from the crime scene, knife in hand and ready for the next crisis to come his way.


Outlaw: Black Dagger is the fifth of six films included in Arrow films’ Outlaw: Gangster VIP The Complete Collection box set (which is region free on DVD and blu-ray and available from both US and UK).

English subtitled original theatrical trailer:

Outlaw: Goro the Assassin (無頼 人斬り五郎, Keiichi Ozawa, 1968)

goro the assassinSo, once again Goro Goes Straight is sadly not the title of this fourth film in the tale of the noble hearted gangster “Goro the Assassin” (無頼 人斬り五郎, Burai Hitokiri Goro). After getting his friend out of a jam, the pair end up in prison. Goro is released three years later but his friend, Masa, is poor health and eventually dies a prisoner’s death with no one to collect his body meaning he’ll be buried in a lonely prison grave alongside the rest of society’s unwanted rubbish. On their final meeting, Masa asks Goro to find his sister for him and tell her that he’s doing alright. This message now well out of date, Goro decides to try finding Masa’s sister anyway if only to find out why she never came to see him even as he lay dying.

However, Goro once again runs up against another gang and some old enemies whilst trying to complete his quest and start an honest life at the same time. After taking a job working on the boiler at a hotel, he strikes up a friendship with the receptionist, Yuki (Chieko Matsubara again), whom he also bumped into a few times on his way there. She has some problems with the yakuza herself going back to the traffic “accident” which killed her father.

Family is once again the big key here. Goro is originally angry with Masa’s sister for abandoning her yakuza brother but the truth is more complicated. Having only each other in the world, Masa’s sister has been reduced to working in the red light district – in part to get some money together to help Masa. She never got the messages about his ill health because of moving around so much and was also ashamed to let him know where she’d been working. Now that Masa is dead, her sacrifice is meaningless.

It’s also family which gets Yuki into trouble, in an indirect way, after she accepts some money from the yakuza who killed her father. Perhaps intended to salve his conscience, the money brings Yuki to the attention of the other gangsters and their various extortion scams which eventually leads to her giving up her job at the hotel. Of course, by this point, she’s fallen in love with the noble and brooding Goro which also puts her in the line of fire as things heat up for him with the local tough guys.

Again it isn’t really clear how this film links in with the others in the series but this time around Goro is a much more playful character, bright and cheerful and only occasionally brooding. He’s cracking jokes all over the place and Yuki even refers to him as the “amusing guy from the bus” when he comes to ask about the boiler job. This only adds to his “cool” appeal as he appears somehow far above everything, looking down on the yakuza world with a sort of ironic eye that implies all of this is quite ridiculous but nevertheless inevitable.

Goro still dreams of going straight and leading a more normal life but once again it eludes him. Yuki again utters the phrase that he’s a yakuza in name only and doesn’t have a killer’s heart but Goro disagrees. Throwing down his short sword he declares he longs to live a life without it but it seems surgically attached to him now, he’ll never be free of it. Again, at the end of the movie he sends his chance of a way out of the gangster life off on a ferry to ensure her own safety at the cost of his personal happiness.

Directed again by Keiichi Ozawa who handled the second film in the series, Goro the Assassin has more outdoor scenes only sticking to the studio for the red light district sequences. It doesn’t quite have the visual style of the other instalments with fewer set pieces which tend to be centred around the fight scenes themselves rather than anything going on around the same time. By the time the ending rolls around there’s a kind of progress in standing still as, after taking care of the bad guys, Goro sees a vision of Yuki standing far off on the horizon. Rather than staggering off lonely and alone as in the other films, he stands and stares which, though not exactly a happy ending, is a little more hopeful than the doom laden conclusions the films have each featured so far.


Outlaw: Goro the Assassin is the fourth of six films included in Arrow films’ Outlaw: Gangster VIP The Complete Collection box set (which is region free on DVD and blu-ray and available from both US and UK).

English subtitled original theatrical trailer: