A recently released former gangster and the bored son of a CEO look for new directions in early ‘70s Japan in Toshiya Fujita’s Step on the Gas! (新宿アウトロー ぶっ飛ばせ, Shinjuku Outlaw: Buttobase). Released between his two instalments in the Stray Cat Rock series, Fujita’s freewheeling underworld drama is high on irony and shot in a surprisingly warm colour palate replete with pastels seemingly eschewing the seriousness of Nikkatsu’s earlier youth dramas for sense of youthful ennui eventually granting its mismatched heroes if not the direction they seek then at least possibility in their forever floating existence.
“Angel of Death” Yuji (Tetsuya Watari) waltzes out of prison to be met by no one, only for another man it later transpires he does not know to attempt to flag him down in his military jeep. Ignoring him, Yuji jumps in a taxi and asks to go to Shinjuku, presumably his old stomping ground, before changing his mind and travelling on to Yokohama instead. This would indeed be a fantastically expensive journey, Yuji ironically taking the cabbie for a ride only for the mysterious man to appear and pay his fare for him. Giving his name as Nao (Yoshio Harada), he eventually explains that he’s trying to recruit Yuji for a job hoping to make use of his fearsome reputation to help him recover some missing drugs and get a gang of bikers off his back.
As we later discover, however, Nao is not some street punk but the son of a wealthy businessman if one obviously at odds with this conservative father. That might be why he seems so hopelessly out of his depth in his relationship with the delinquent bosozoku motorcycle gang led by Rikki (Masaya Oki) who is perhaps equally in over his head in his rather naive approach to criminal enterprise. Nao and his friend Shuhei were supposed to handle a shipment of marijuana for the gang, but the deal went south and the drugs went missing along with Shuhei so now Nao owes them big time. He wants to use Yuji’s “Angel of Death” skills to find out what happened to Shuhei and retrieve the drugs to settle things with Rikki.
Inevitably, events have a connection to Yuji’s former Shinjuku life Nao employing a woman he used to know, Shoko (Meiko Kaji) who is also Shuhei’s sister, to run his bar, while the icy enforcer working for the big enemy, corporatised yakuza, also turns out to be someone he knew before in the aptly named and distinctly creepy “Scorpion” (Mikio Narita) a former policeman turned amoral gangster. “His power lies not in fearlessness or being a good shooter but in the fact he doesn’t care about anything” Yuji later explains, describing him as the kind of man willing to knock off anyone in his way without a second thought be it a woman or a partner. One might have thought the same of Yuji in his breezy insouciance, but he is at heart noble despite his fearsome nickname displaying compassion and empathy for those around him along with old-fashioned values like loyalty siding with Nao against the twin threats of Scorpion and the biker gang with whom he later proposes a mutually beneficial alliance.
Skipping between strangely whimsical folk music and a melancholy jazz score, Fujita’s freewheeling crime drama hints at a kind of aimless ennui Yuji and Nao both in differing ways emerging from a obsolescent past into a new and confusing world, Yuji realising the kind of life he lived before is no longer viable while Nao rejects his wealthy upbringing for a life of unglamorous crime engaging in drug use which he at one point hints has left him impotent. Meanwhile, the fading grandeur of old school yakuza is very much apparent in the cowardliness of the gang’s corporatised boss who hires a man like Scorpion to protect him because he cannot defend himself, planning to make off with the stolen money in a helicopter he has waiting rather than honourably facing off against Nao and Yuji in their quest to retrieve what was stolen from them. Constant red and white imagery recalling the Japanese flag clues us in to the sense of futility in their violence, but even so Fujita closes on an ironic note cementing the friendship of the two men but leaving them free floating with no clue how to land floundering for direction above an increasingly confusing society.