The Blood of Wolves (孤狼の血, Kazuya Shiraishi, 2018)

korou_honpos_0220_fin.aiJapanese cinema, like American cinema, is one of the few in which the hero cop is a recognisable trope. Though they may be bumbling, inefficient, obsessed with bureaucracy, or perhaps just lazy, police in Japanese cinema are rarely corrupt or actively engaged in criminality. Even within the realms of the “jitsuroku” gangster movie, the police maintain a fringe presence, permitting the existence of the underground crime world in order to contain it. “Jitsuroku” is, in a fashion, where we find ourselves with Kazuya Shiraishi’s throwback underworld police story, The Blood of Wolves (孤狼の血, Koro no Chi). Set in 1988, the end of the Showa Era which had seen the rebirth of post-war Japan and the ascendency of yakuza thuggery, The Blood of Wolves is based on a novel by Yuko Yuzuki rather than a “true account” of life on the frontlines of gangsterdom, but otherwise draws inspiration from the Battles Without Honour series in updating the story of nihilistic yakuza violence to the bubble era.

In 1988, a young accountant “goes missing” sending his sister to ask the police for help in locating him. The case gets passed to sleazy detective Ogami (Koji Yakusho) and his new rookie partner, Hioka (Tori Matsuzaka). Ogami leers disturbingly at the dame who just walked into his office before dismissing the newbie and extracting a sexual favour from the distressed relative of the missing man. Unfortunately, the accountant turns up dead and the bank he worked for turns out to be a yakuza front caught up in a burgeoning gang war between the Odani with whom Ogami has long standing connections and the gang from the next town over who are looking to increase their territory.

Ogami, a chain smoking, hard drinking, womanising detective of the old school, has one foot in the yakuza world and the other on the side of law enforcement. Hioka, a recent graduate from the local but also elite Hiroshima University (something of a rarity in his current occupation), is not quite sure what to make of his new boss and his decidedly “unorthodox” methods, becoming increasingly concerned about the way the police force operates in a town defined by organised crime. Deciding that Ogami has gone too far, he eventually makes the decision to go to IA with a list of complaints but there’s still so much he doesn’t know about Hiroshima and it is possible he may have picked the wrong side.

What he discovers is that the police force is so intrinsically rotten as to have become little more than a yakuza gang itself, only one with the legal right to carry guns and a more impressive uniform. Ogami, for all his faults, apparently has his heart in the right place. His “friendships” with gangsters are more means to an end than they are spiritual corruption, gaining leverage that will help him keep a lid on gang war – after all, no one wants a return to the turbulent days of the 1970s when the streets ran red with the blood of unlucky foot soldiers and that of the civilians who got in their way. Meanwhile Hioka, starting out as the straight-laced rookie, is himself “corrupted” by the corruption he uncovers, developing a complex mix of disgust and admiration for Ogami’s practiced methods of manipulation which, apparently, place public safety above all else.

Ogami, as he tells the conflicted Hioka, knows he walks a tightrope every day, neatly straddling the line between cop and yakuza, and the only way to stay alive is to keep on walking knowing one slip may lead to his doom. He may say cops can do whatever they like in pursuit of “justice” (and he does), but Ogami has his lines that cannot be crossed, unlike others in his organisation who care only for themselves and have long since given up any pretence of working for the public good.

Shiraishi channels classic Fukasaku from the noticeably retro Toei logo at the film’s opening to the voice over narration, garish red on screen text, and frequent use of freeze frames familiar from the Battles Without Honour series and associated “jitsuroku” gangster fare that followed in its wake. Moving the action up to 1988, the gangster world is once again in flux as it tries to corporatise itself to get in on the profits of bubble era prosperity which largely has no need for the thuggish gangster antics of the chaotic post-war years in which the yakuza could paint itself as a defender of the poor and oppressed no matter how ridiculous it might have been in reality. Ogami is a dying breed, a relic of the Showa era meeting its natural end, but perhaps you need to be a wolf to catch a wolf and guardian spirits can come in unexpected forms.


Screened at the 20th Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

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: Gangster VIP (「無頼」より大幹部, Toshio Masuda, 1968)

outlaw gangster VIP 1 posterBy 1968 the fate of the gangster movie was somewhat in flux as the old ninkyo style was on its way out yet the jitsuroku approach, later to find its zenith in the Battles Without Honour and Humanity series, hadn’t quite taken hold. Outlaw: Gangster VIP provides an essential bridge as it takes its inspiration from the writings of one time yakuza Goro Fujita but at the same time brings together many of the themes that were dominating Nikkatsu’s output at the time from their star led, youth appeal billboard cool to their noir inflicted, nihilistic crime thrillers as a kind of culmination of everything they had been producing up to that point.

The first film in the series, Outlaw: Gangster VIP (無頼」より大幹部, Burai yori Daikanbu) begins with a black and white prologue seemingly set around the end of the war in which a young boy endures firstly the death of his mother and then the younger sister who has been left in his care – presumably through hunger or at least ill heath exacerbated by malnutrition. Eventually he himself is arrested after being caught trying to steal food and is sent to a reform school from which he escapes alongside another boy, Sugiyama.

Flash forward to a grown up version of Goro (Tetsuya Watari) lounging around in a dingy apartment and the film expands into glorious, if garish color. Goro is summoned to a local drinking establishment where his yakuza boss is under attack. On getting to the bar and coming to his boss’ defence he finds that the aggressor is none other than Sugiyama. Saving his boss by stabbing his friend he nevertheless ensures Sugiyama’s survival with a carefully placed blow though both are sent back to prison. Goro gets out three years later to discover his girlfriend has married someone else and the yakuza world is just as dog eat dog as it was when he left it.

As in many other films of this burgeoning genre, the yakuza is more or less a surrogate family of grown up orphaned street kids who’ve bound together for increased odds of survival. There maybe strong bonds between brothers, but the old ways of samurai style honourable conduct are long gone (if they ever really existed at all). Suigyama’s gang have failed to protect his girlfriend who has been reduced to prostitution despite his sacrifices for them – an unthinkable act in traditional terms, but Sugiyama’s boss is the new kind of uncaring, ambitious yakuza who cares nothing for traditional ethics.

The yakuza as a home for waifs and strays is a theme which continues throughout the series with the constant references to “hometowns” and a desire to get out of the city for a simpler, more honest life. People keep telling Goro that he’s not a real yakuza, that deep down he doesn’t have a gangster’s heart. This is true, to an extent, as Goro is the kind of noble criminal seen in the ninkyo genre who clings fast to the old ways – loyal to his friends and his clan, seeking to protect those who need it over choosing to further exploit the already vulnerable. He’s a gangster because life left him with no other options. For a street kid and reform school escapee, what possible other place could there be for him to survive than in the arms of his yakuza brothers?

An exile from the world of conventional society, Goro cuts a lonely path which ties into the nihilistic noir themes of the genre as he wanders around in very cool looking leather jacket. Mostly still studio bound, Masuda opts for a fairly straightforward approach yet with some noir-esque canted angles and a few interesting set pieces. The unusual finale in which Goro faces the treacherous yakuza kingpins against the background of a cabaret act serves as impressive highlight of the film, perfectly contrasting its garish technicolor world with the darkness underneath as Goro staggers off along a street dark with something more night and towards an eventual salvation of one kind or another.


Outlaw: Gangster VIP is the first of six films available as part of Arrow’s amazing new blu-ray and DVD box set which is released in UK and USA and is completely region free (hurrah!).

I’ve also written a full writeup of the box set as a whole over at UK Anime Network which you can read right now if you’re the sort of person who likes to skip to the end. Otherwise, get ready for five more tales of broken hearted tough guys….

English subbed version of the original theatrical trailer:

Angels of Evil (Vallanzasca – Gli Angeli Del Male)

Angels of Evil (Vallanzasca – Gli Angeli Del Male) sets out to tell the story of an infamous criminal demonised and idolised in equal measure in the Italy of the 1970s/80s. However, the film largely fails to convey the sort of charisma that would have young women sending fan mail and risqué photographs to a man whose crimes have no other justification. We see glimpses of Vallanzasca’s seemingly happy childhood (single traumatic episode excepted, though even this is not clearly explained) followed by brief stints in juvenile detention and his eventual evolution into a sort of lovable gangster, a down and dirty not-quite-a-gentleman thief, but the film at least  lacks the charm to allow us to buy into Vallanzasca’s lifestyle choices or even really care very much about him at all. Things proceed in a very episodic way that prevents any of kind insight either into the characters themselves or into the larger political landscape and any connections between the two. The direction is also very hit and miss, there are some nice montages and skillful editing but overall bland, even the action sequences which seem as if they ought to be thrilling, aren’t. It’s also very loud, the pounding glam rock which cuts in and out of the action is presumably meant to ramp up the tension but really fails to do so, instead it just reinforces the brashness of film. In fact, ‘brash’ would sum up the film entirely. It’s sleazier than it needs to be and only narrowly escapes exploitation territory, it’s in your face but then has nothing to say. Disappointing, not recommended.

Masahiro Shinoda’s Pale Flower (Kawaita Hana) Criterion Collection Blu Ray

Masahiro Shinoda’s 1964 film Pale Flower (Kawaita Hana) is a total break from the romanticised yakuza films that had been common prior to its release. Heavily influenced both by American Film Noir and by the French New Wave, Shinoda’s gangster underworld is dark and empty. There maybe pretty girls and oh so shiny fast cars but these yakuza spend their off time in bowling alleys and in other ordinary daily pursuits not so different from your average salaryman. As the film begins we meet recently released Muraki (Ryo Ikebe) who is traveling back to Tokyo having completed a three year sentence for committing a murder ordered by his gang boss. We hear him reflect less than fondly on his crime, but at the same time wonder why he’s been punished for ‘slaughtering one of these stupid animals’ which crowd around him, seemingly barely alive. On arrival he pays a visit a to an old girl friend who seems to be much more fond of him than he is of her. Then he goes gambling and sees the young, beautiful but perhaps just as empty as he is, Saeko (Mariko Kaga). Presumably from a wealthy background, Saeko spends her nights gambling vast sums of money, little caring if she wins or loses, living only for the brief thrill of chance. Together Mariko and Saeko wander aimlessly through night time Tokyo desperately trying to find some kind of meaning to this chaos but pushing each other ever further down into a spiral of thrill and transgression.

Shinoda’s direction and Masao Kosugi’s photography are really fantastic here. The Noirish light and shadows perfectly depict this murky, uncertain and claustrophobic world the protagonists are constrained by and totally establish this mood of alienation which is so central to the film. This is further assisted by the wonderful score provided by Toru Takemitsu. Relying heavily on dissonance and incorporating exaggerated or found sounds – tap dancing over the sound of the cards for example, the score brilliantly brings out the underlying menace of this environment. Indeed, the sound design is one of the most distinctive attributes of this film and is extraordinarily important in establishing the mood. The final set piece accompanied by a section from Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas is absolutely pitch perfect and has obviously become hugely influential.

This new blu ray release from the Criterion Collection is absolutely stunning, the picture quality and clarity are excellent. The contrast in the black and white photography is beautiful to behold. The remastered lossless sound is also richly delivered, with no problems of audibility. This fascinating film is a must for any fan of Japanese Cinema, Film Noir or New Wave. Highly recommended.