Sympathy for the Underdog (博徒外人部隊, Kinji Fukasaku, 1971)

Toei’s stock in trade through the 1960s had been the ninkyo eiga, chivalrous tales of noble gangsters set before the war and implicitly in a less corrupt Japan in which jingi could still triumph over the giri/ninjo conflict if at great personal cost to the idealistic hero. By the end of the decade, however, audiences were growing tired of yakuza romanticism particularly in the wake of grittier youth dramas produced by Nikkatsu. Originally conceived as a kind of sequel to Japan Organised Crime Boss, Kinji Fukasaku’s Sympathy for the Underdog (博徒外人部隊,  Bakuto Gaijin Butai) marks a shift towards the jitsuroku or “true account” trend of the 1970s which would come to dominate the genre following the success of his Battles Without Honour and Humanity cycle two years later, employing many of the same techniques from onscreen text to shaky handheld photography but doing so within the confines of moody noir as the hero emerges from a 10-year prison sentence into a very different Japan. 

When Gunji (Koji Tsuruta) gets out, he steps into an empty, windswept street his incongruous zori sandals clashing with his smart suit and sunshades and marking him out as a relic of a bygone era. He’s met only two loyal underlings, his gang apparently now disbanded following the death of his boss who refused to take his advice as regards the big name gang from Tokyo attempting to muscle in to their Yokohama territory. Part of the missing post-war generation, Gunji has no illusions about going straight, wandering into their former HQ now a derelict building and calling the guys, who’ve since moved on to more legitimate occupations, back together. He knows he can’t take on Daitokai with his meagre forces and so settles for extracting from them some compensation money to get out of town, later teaming up with Kudo (Noboru Ando) a similarly orphaned former member of a rival Yokohama gang wiped out by Daitokai, and resolving to relocate to Okinawa where he is convinced the post-war gangster paradise is still very much in existence. 

Okinawa was only “returned” to Japanese sovereignty in 1971, having been governed by the Americans since the end of the war, and of course maintains a large American military presence up to the present day. As such to Gunji, and in a yakuza movie trope which persists right into Takeshi Kitano’s Boiling Point, it exists in a permanent post-war present in which the conditions of the occupation are still very much in play. Gunji knows that he and his guys are products of the post-war era, they cannot adapt to the “new” world of corporatising yakuza in which street brawls and petty thuggery have given way to more sophisticated kinds of organised crime, and so they retreat into an Okinawan time warp, determining to steal turf from under two rival gangs who control between them the ports and the red light district mediated by black market booze from the American military.  

Fukasaku was apparently inspired by Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers, intending to make a comment on resistance to American imperialism on the mainland though it has to be said that this is extremely ironic given that Japan is itself a coloniser of the Okinawan islands where there has long been a demand for self-determination and recognition of a distinct identity which has often been subject to oppression in the face of conformist Japanese culture. Nevertheless, the film continues the persistent theme that the chaotic post-war era which has come to a close thanks to rising economic prosperity in the time Gunji was inside is inextricable from the American occupation, implying that Okinawa is in a sense the last frontier and the only viable territory for men like Gunji who, like the melancholy ronin of the Edo era, lack the skills to live in time of peace.  

Nevertheless, modernity is also on its way to Okinawa and where there’s money there are gangsters so as expected Daitokai eventually rear their heads on the island pushing Gunji towards the revenge he didn’t want to take. The Okinawa he inhabits is one of loss and nostalgia, taking up with a sex worker who reminds him of the Okinawan woman who left him when he went to prison and perhaps playing into the slightly complicated political dialogue which positions Gunji as an ironic “migrant worker” salmoning back to Okinawa as many Okinawan youngsters are forced to travel to the mainland for work while the islands themselves remain, it’s implied, mired in poverty and crime economically dependent on the American military. Indeed, the head of the dock gang brokers a deal with Daitokai predicated on the fact that there is plenty of cheap labour available at the harbour. “Good place for a long life” he ironically adds, shortly before all hell breaks loose. Shot with typical Fukasaku immediacy, Sympathy for the Underdog looks forward to jitsuroku nihilism but does so through the prism of film noir cool as its fatalistic hero submits himself to his inexorable destiny.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Tale of Japanese Burglars (にっぽん泥棒物語, Satsuo Yamamoto, 1965)

“Even the cops wouldn’t keep innocent people in prison” a prisoner ironically exclaims in Satsuo Yamamoto’s farcical crime drama Tale of Japanese Burglars (にっぽん泥棒物語, Nippon Dorobo Monogatari), displaying a strange sense of faith in the system for one who’s already been caught out by it. It is in many ways the system at which Yamamoto takes aim, refusing to blame even the guilty for their crimes while condemning the society that forever tars not only them but their entire families with the criminal brush, similarly defaming the innocent while the mechanisms of the State actively abuse their power to ensure they continue to maintain it. 

Set in 1948, the action takes place as the opening voiceover explains in an exaggerated accent which at times lends itself to lowkey comedy, at a moment of societal collapse in which cash has become almost worthless and the only items of value are clothing and rice. Yet Gisuke (Rentaro Mikuni) it seems was living a life of crime even before the war, the youngest of five brothers left to look after his mother and sister after his father’s death. While operating as an amateur unlicensed dentist having picked up the basics from his dad, Gisuke makes his living peddling black market kimonos stolen from local warehouses. After bungling one particular job he finds himself spotting a strange site on the railway tracks, overwhelmed by shadowy figures of nine men he first fears have come to tackle him but in the end simply pass by even calmly returning his call of good evening as they discuss among themselves the best way to the local hot spring. Taking refuge in a haystack, it’s not until the next morning that Gisuke learns of a train derailment that took the lives of the engineer and two crew members. He realises that the men he saw must have been the ones who sabotaged the track but he’s not a snitch and it’s none of his business so he decides to keep quiet. 

That is until he gets arrested for the botched burglary and ends up incarcerated alongside a member of the accused, Kimura (Mizuho Suzuki), who quickly befriends him and in fact becomes something of a labour activist even inside the prison negotiating better conditions for prisoners. Indebted, Gisuke maintains his silence strangely certain that Kimura and the others will soon be released because they are innocent despite already knowing that the judicial system is infinitely corrupt. The case at hand takes inspiration from the Matsukawa Derailment, a real life incident which Yamamoto had already dramatised in 1961’s Matsukawa Incident, in which suspicion had fallen on the Railway Union who, in the film, are seen leading a protest agitating for better working conditions. Kimura, a prominent unioniser, is picked up along with other members of the rail workers union and left-wing activists on largely spurious grounds solely to discredit their movement at the behest of an overly authoritarian police force. 

The irony is that Gisuke ends up in prison for a crime that he technically is not quite guilty of in that he’s arrested after his wife, a geisha he redeemed with his ill-gotten gains, unwittingly sells some stolen kimonos which he was storing for a friend on the run. Kimura by contrast is in prison for something of which he is entirely innocent, in effect a political prisoner. Yet the force that imprisons both of them is not so much the law as social censure in the stigmatisation of crime. Gisuke feels acutely guilty knowing that his family members continue to suffer because of his criminality, his sister unable to marry as each of her engagements is eventually broken off when they find out her brother’s been in jail. After getting out and vowing to go straight, Gisuke marries again and has a child but is perpetually worried that someone will find out about his past and that his son will forever be stigmatised as a “burglar’s kid”. It’s for this reason that he finds himself torn, refusing to help Kimura by testifying as to what he saw that night even after hearing that he’s been sentenced to death, unwilling to risk his newfound happiness even at the expense of another man’s life. 

Strangely, it’s the injustice of the situation which later changes his mind though in an unexpected way when he realises that his own son has escaped being tainted with his father’s criminal legacy while Kimura’s is bullied at school because his dad’s in jail even though he’s innocent. Pursued by authoritarian police officer Ando (Yunosuke Ito) who attempts to blackmail him into changing his story to incriminate Kimura he eventually decides to free himself by telling the truth despite realising that another witness was most likely murdered for signalling an intention to do the same. “But how is it that the police who are charged to catch us are even bigger liars than the thieves?” Gisuke asks the judge during his improbably humorous testimony, earning rapturous applause from the court in a touch of the absurd with even his wife, hitherto stoney faced despite the laughter all around her, cracking a smile seemingly warming up to his decision to play the hero even if it has taken him rather a long time to decide to do the right thing. 

Yamamoto doesn’t hang around to hear the verdict, perhaps because it’s Gisuke who’s really on trial and the judge appears to be his wife whose forgiveness is the only acquittal necessary. His crimes are in a sense not really his fault, Yamamoto seems to argue, but the fault of an indifferent society which left him with no other choice in order to support himself, the same society which then frustrates his attempts to live an “honest” life by forever tainting him as a “burglar” and tarring his entire extended family with the same brush. Only by owning his stigmatisation can he free himself of it, rejecting the illusionary power corrupt authority has over him while refusing to be complicit in their constant battle to hang on to it by levelling his marginalisation against him. Extremely ironic in terms of tone, often employing archaic screen wipes for comic effect, Yamamoto’s strangely hopeful tale implies that justice can in fact prevail but only when imperfect men commit to it even at the expense of their personal happiness. 


Graveyard of Honor (仁義の墓場, Kinji Fukasaku, 1975)

“Like hell you’re free” the “hero” of Kinji Fukasaku’s Graveyard of Honor (仁義の墓場, Jingi no Hakaba) coolly snaps back in squaring off against a rival gang in a crowded marketplace. Perhaps a familiar scene in the jitsuroku eiga, a genre Fukasaku had helped usher into being and later solidified in the hugely influential Battles Without Honour and Humanity series. A reaction against the increasingly outdated ninkyo eiga and their tales of noble pre-war gangsterdom, the jitsuroku or “true account” movie claimed a higher level of authenticity, inspired by the real lives of notorious gangsters and depicting the chaotic post-war period as it really was, a Graveyard of Honor. 

Based on another true crime novel by Battles Without Honour and Humanity’s Goro Fujita, Graveyard of Honour charts the slow self-implosion of reckless gangster Rikio Ishikawa (Tetsuya Watari). In keeping with the jitsuroku mould, Fukasaku opens in documentary mode, onscreen text giving us Rikio’s pregnant birthdate of 6th August, 1924 before giving way to the voices of, we assume, real people who actually knew him when he was child. They describe him alternately as shy, an oversensitive crybaby, and an evil genius in waiting who was always different from the others and had a lifelong ambition to become a yakuza. They wonder if it was the chaos of the post-war world which turned him into a “rabid dog” but note that he was in fact just as crazy before the war and after.

A cellmate during his time in juvenile detention recalls that Rikio would often liken himself to a balloon, intending to rise and rise until he burst but his trajectory will be quite the opposite. A mess of contradictions, he repeatedly tells his remarkably understanding boss Kawada (Hajime Hana) that whatever it is he’s done this time it was all for the gang but all he ever does is cause trouble, picking fights with the rival area gangs in an obsessive need for masculine dominance over his surroundings. His trip to juvie was apparently down to getting into a fight defending Kawada’s honour, implying that he was “the sort of kid who genuinely respected his godfather”, yet it’s in transgressing this most important of unwritten yakuza rules that he damns himself. Beaten up as punishment for setting fire to the car of a gang boss he felt slighted him, Rikio is asked for his finger but gets so drunk psyching himself up that he eventually turns on his own side and is exiled from the capital for a decade. 

That gang boss, meanwhile, Nozu (Noboru Ando), is currently running for political office in Japan’s new push towards democracy. He eventually loses but only by a small margin, bearing out that in this extremely difficult post-war environment, the yakuza is still a respected, if perhaps also feared, force providing services which ordinary people are sometimes grateful for in that they provide a buffer against other kinds of threat. Meanwhile, the first of Rikio’s gang raids is undertaken against so called “third country nationals” a dogwhistle euphemism for Zainichi Koreans, Chinese, Taiwanese, and other citizens from nations colonised by Japan during in its imperialist expansion who entered the country as Japanese citizens but have now been “liberated” only to face further oppression while those like Rikio accuse them of looking down on and taking revenge against the Japanese for the abuse they suffered as imperial subjects. When both sides are arrested a racist policeman allows the yakuza to escape, thanking them for helping him round up all the Chinese businessmen who will now go to jail for illegal gambling allowing the local gangs to seize their turf. 

The greatest irony is, however, that the American occupation forces may be the biggest gang of all, willingly collaborating with Kawada in peddling blackmarket whiskey (amongst other things) from the local base. The yakuza is also in collaboration with the local sex workers who use their connections with American servicemen to facilitate yakuza business. When Rikio starts a fight with a rival gang in a local bar that threatens to spark a war, it’s the Americans who are called in as neutral third party mediator, Nozu being unable to fulfil that role in having an affiliation with Kawada. The Americans, however, merely issue a loudspeaker announcement for the gang members to disperse or face possible arrest, keeping the peace if somewhat hypocritically. 

Rikio, meanwhile, continues to flounder. Exiled from his gang, he becomes addicted to hard drugs and gets a problematic minion of his own, Ozaki (Kunie Tanaka), not to mention contracting tuberculosis. In a particularly morbid moment, he has his own gravestone carved, perhaps detecting that the end is near or at least that an ending is coming for him. In another somewhat inexplicable turn of his life, though a common trope in jitsuroku, he eventually marries the sex worker who fell in love with him after he raped her, presumably touched by his concern after he burned a hole in her tatami mat floor. Wearied by grief and already out of his mind, a final act of nihilistic craziness sees him approach his former boss for the turf and capital to form his own gang, crunching his late wife’s bones as hardened gang members look on in utter disbelief. 

Rikio’s desire for freedom, to be his own boss, is elusive as the red balloon we often see floating away away from him, free in a way he’ll never be. “Don’t these young people respect the code anymore?” Kawada exasperatedly asks on hearing that Rikio has broken the terms of his exile and returned only a year into his sentence. But Rikio’s tragedy may in a sense be that he understood the code too well. On the side of his tombstone he writes the word “jingi”, honour and humanity, full in the knowledge that such concepts in which he seems to have believed no longer exist in the cruel and chaotic post-war world which forces even true believers to betray themselves in a desperate bid for survival. “We all live by a code” his friend echoes, “there’s just no way around the rules”. 

A case of printing the legend, Fukasaku’s take on the life of Rikio Ishikawa may not quite be the “true account” it claims but is in its own strange way a tale of frustrated gangster nobility, a cry baby’s failure to become the man he wanted to be in the complicated post-war landscape. Capturing the confusion of the era through frantic, handheld camera Fukasaku nevertheless takes a turn for the melancholy and mediative in his shifts to sepia, the listless vacant look of a drugged up Rikio somehow standing in for the nihilistic emptiness of a life lived in honour’s graveyard. 


Original trailer (English subtitles)

A Fugitive from the Past (飢餓海峡, Tomu Uchida, 1965)

Fugitive from the past“There’s no way back” intones a spirit medium in the throws of a possession early on Tomu’s Uchida’s three hour police procedural, A Fugitive from the Past (飢餓海峡, Kiga kaikyo, AKA Straits of Hunger). Her message will be repeated frequently throughout the journeys of our three protagonists – a guilty man seeking escape from himself, the hooker with a heart of gold who thinks of him as a “kind person”, and the obsessive policeman whose quest to find him threatens to destroy his own family and chance of ongoing happiness. Beginning in 1947, Uchida’s adaptation of the novel by Tsutomu Minakami is a cutting indictment of post-war inequalities but is also keen to remind us that the war was merely a symptom and intensifier of problems which existed long before and are likely to survive long after.

In 1947, three men in military uniforms attempt to escape from Hokkaido after committing a crime while the island is subject to a typhoon warning. Using a ferry disaster in which hundreds of people have been killed as cover, the men steal a boat and try their luck on the stormy seas. Only one of them makes it. Once all the bodies from the ferry are accounted for, two more are discovered and later identified as recent parolees from Abashiri prison. The dead convicts are then linked to a local robbery, murder, and arson case in which a large amount of money was stolen leaving the third man, described by witnesses as bearded, tall and imposing, the prime suspect in the deaths of the two prisoners as well as the original robbery.

Calling himself “Inugai” (Rentaro Mikuni), the “third man” takes off with all the money and ends up forging an unexpectedly genuine connection with a cheerful prostitute just on the way back from her mother’s funeral. Yae (Sachiko Hidari), claiming to have seen through to Inugai’s kindly soul, seems to reawaken something within him but the next morning he moves on leaving only a vast a mount of money and some nail clippings behind him. Meanwhile, Yumisaka (Junzaburo Ban), the dogged policeman who discovered the convicts’ bodies, tracks him at every turn.

The world of 1947 is a hellish one in which perpetual hunger is the norm and crushing impossibility all but a given. Inugai is starving. With rationing in place the black market is flourishing while the unscrupulous profiteer off the back of other people’s desperation. This is a land of defeat where to survive at all is both shame and victory, yet somehow you have to go on living. Inugai, like many a hero of golden age Japanese cinema, is engaged in an internal war to erase the dark past, drawing a veil over what it took to move from post-war privation to economic prosperity. He does however take his unseeing further than most in adopting a new, more respectable persona, remaking himself as self-made man and wealthy philanthropist keen to “pay back” the society which has been so supportive of his “success”.

Thus when Yae, whose attempt to remake herself in the capital has fared far less well, spots Inugai’s photo in the papers and decides she just must track him down, it’s not that Inugai fears blackmail or even really that she poses a threat but that she shatters the integrity of his carefully crafted post-war persona and reminds him who he really is. A climactic storm mirroring that which illuminated their first meeting also graces their last as “Inugai” finally resurfaces, committing an impulsive act of animal violence which tugs at the strings of his new life and sets the whole thing unravelling.

Yae used Inugai’s money to pay off her debts and get out of the brothel, but even if the Tokyo of 1947 was warmer than that of Hokkaido it was no more kind and her attempt to lead an “honest” life was quickly derailed by underworld crime and unforgiving law enforcement. Realising there’s nowhere left for her to go she resigns herself to life in the red light district but does at least manage to find a “nicer” establishment run by a kindly older couple where the girls are like one big family. Her meeting with Inugai has come to take on mythical proportions in her mind – she even worships a tiny relic of him in the form of one of his nail clippings. Hoping to repay his kindness she commits herself to hard work and barely spends any of her money on herself, dreaming of the day she will one day see him again.

Yumisaka, however, mirrors Yae’s devotion in his all encompassing “hate” for Inugai as his obsession consumes him, costs him his job, and threatens to ruin his family. Alerted by two more bodies washing up out of the sea, a young detective (Ken Takakura) puts two and two together and gives Yumisaka a chance to vindicate his long held convictions but what they discover through the shifting sands of invented truths and corrupted memories is a legacy of suffering and resentment which runs far further back than the recent wartime past. As Yumisaka later puts it, those who’ve never been poor or miserable cannot understand the desperation felt by those who have in the presence of money. Inugai, poor and trapped by circumstance, longed to escape the drudgery of Hokkaido life but couldn’t live with what he did to do it and so conjured up another history for himself.

Still, the truth will out and there really is “no way back”, not for Inugai or for his nation which seems determined to continue unseeing the darkness of the previous 30 years as it begins to find a degree of comfort once again. Incorporating strong spiritual overtones from the sutras Yumisaka is so strangely adept at reciting to the gloomy intoning of the spirit medium, Uchida imbues all with a heavy sense of dread as a man attempts to outrun his fate by running from himself only to be tripped up by sudden moment of panic born of a lack of faith in his only true believer. A chronicle of the post-war era, A Fugitive From the Past makes poverty its ultimate villain but attempts to paper over spiritual corruption with the pretty trappings of conventional success will only end in ruin as the unresolved past eats away at the foundations of a brave new world.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Female Prisoner Scorpion: #701’s Grudge Song (女囚さそり 701号怨み節, Yasuharu Hasebe, 1973)

The saga seemed complete with the end of Beast Stable but inevitably Matsu returns in the bonus instalment, Female Prisoner Scorpion: #701’s Grudge Song (女囚さそり 701号怨み節, Joshu Sasori – 701 Go Urami Bushi). Original director of the series Shunya Ito agreed that the ballad of Matsu was sung through, and so Yasuharu Hasebe reteams with star Meiko Kaji after their previous collaborations on Retaliation and the Stray Cat Rock series during their time at Nikkatsu. Hasebe’s style is the polar opposite of Ito’s arthouse inspired painterly majesty and heavily favours the groovy, ‘70s youth inspired aesthetic he employed in the Stray Cat Rock series. Coming as it does after Ito’s genre rocking visual tour-de-force, Grudge Song can’t help feeling a little regressive and a reminder of what a considered cash grab this fourth instalment really is but that isn’t to deny the fact that it can prove an enjoyable, genre skewing, effort when considered in isolation.

The end of Beast Song told us that Female Prisoner Scorpion served her sentence, was released and disappeared into the ether like the legendary creature she was. However, Grudge Song provides another episode to her history and begins with Matsu (Meiko Kaji) being re-arrested by police during someone else’s wedding (you have to feel sorry for the happy couple – could the police not have done this outside at least?). She fights them off in grand fashion and manages to escape though is gravely injured and not able to run very far. Luckily she is found by a damaged former protester working at a cabaret club who helps her hide out from the police. Soon the pair enter into a kind of romance but it’s not long before Matsu has some names to add to that ever increasing grudge list.

Along with the change of director comes a slight refocusing. Both the original trilogy and this fourth instalment have definite political undercurrents but Grudge Song allows these to be more overt with its constant references to the student protests of the late ‘60s and ’70s as well as to police corruption and brutality. Matsu’s ally and sometime lover, Kudo (Masakazu Tamura), had been a prominent protester picked up and repeatedly tortured by police leaving him with both physical and mental scarring. Obviously distrustful of authority but also made fearful, Kudo has been keeping his head down until he finds a kindred spirit in Matsu and decides to fight back.

The enemy here is the police – as it was to a degree in some of the other films, but Matsu’s concerns are playing second fiddle to her male saviour’s psychological traumas. This is the first film where Matsu has any kind of male help, and she’s essentially in an assisting role as Kudo attempts to defend her from the police (her injuries meaning she can’t exert the same kind of preternatural power as in the other instalments). There may be a kind of spiritual connection between Matsu and Kudo but the fact that she trusts him so quickly is strange given her behaviour throughout the series, though perhaps she has little choice given her physical condition. This is also the first time where Matsu allows an innocent woman to be killed in front of her – ironically another victim of male violence whose life is lost through no fault of her own. The other Matsu would at least find this upsetting, but this new Matsu who’s now more of an accomplice to a borderline terrorist protest cell consisting of one male member, is entirely indifferent.

Though Hasebe mimics some of Ito’s cinematography notably in the opening and his iconography of “Scorpion”, he abandons his stylistic concerns in favour of something very much more directly contemporary. In keeping with his work on the very groovy, youth orientated Stray Cat Rock movies, Hasebe turns Female Prisoner Scorpion into a standard ‘70s exploitation pic complete with gratuitous lesbianism, nudity, and random violence. Zooms, whip pans, and anarchic camera action are accompanied by jazzy electric guitar and a stoner vibe that is designed to appeal to the youth of the day but appears hopelessly dated now unlike Ito’s approach which is still of its era but manages to take on a timeless quality. As an example of ‘70s exploration cinema, Grudge Song pays its dues but as a Female Prisoner Scorpion movie, it falls far short of its predecessors.

Grudge Song marked the last outing for Kaji as the titular Scorpion, though this Matsu is not the Matsu of the rest of the series. Hasebe doesn’t seem so attached to the cult of Scorpion and more or less reboots her for a fairly straightforward genre affair which lacks the subtle intelligence of Ito’s vision. Still, taken alone Grudge Song is not without its charms though it loses the feminist edge of the rest of the series and recasts its heroine as a bit player in a game of revenge against the authorities in the name of vengeance for the death of the student movement.


Original trailer (English subtitles, NSFW)