North Sea Dragon (北海の暴れ竜, Kinji Fukasaku, 1966)

north sea dragon dvd cover.jpgAt the beginning of the 1970s, Kinji Fukasaku’s Battles Without Honour and Humanity would put the ninkyo eiga firmly to bed, but in the mid-1960s, they were still his bread and butter. Fukasaku’s earlier career at Toei leant towards the studio’s preference for youthful rebellion but with a stronger trend towards standardised gangster tropes than the countercultural thrills to be found in similar offerings from Nikkatsu. For Fukasaku the rebellion is less cool affectation than it is a necessary revolt against increasing post-war inequality and a constraining society though, as the heroes of If You Were Young, Rage or Blackmail is My Life find out, escape can rarely be found by illicit means. Jiro, the prodigal son of North Sea Dragon (北海の暴れ竜, Hokkai no Abare-Ryu), finds something similar even whilst conforming almost entirely to Toei’s standard “young upstart saves the village” narrative.

Jiro (Tatsuo Umemiya), dressed in white with jet black sunshades, nonchalantly walks into his childhood fishing village filled with a sense of nostalgia and the expectation of a warm welcome. The village, however, is much changed. There are fewer boats around now, and the fishermen are all ashore. Arriving at his family home he discovers they now live in the boat shed and his mother doesn’t even want to let him in. Jiro, as his outfit implies, has spent his time away as a yakuza, and his family want little to do with him, especially as his father has been murdered by the soulless gangsters who are currently strangling the local fishing industry.

The local fishermen are all proudly tattooed but they aren’t yakuza, unlike the tyrannical son of the local boss, Gen Ashida (Hideo Murota), who carries around a double barrelled shotgun and fearsome sense of authority. The Ashidas have placed a stranglehold around the local harbour, dictating who may fish when and extracting a good deal of the profits. An attempt to bypass them does not go well for Jiro’s mother who is the only one brave enough to speak out against their cruel treatment even if it does her no good.

When Jiro arrives home for unexplained reasons he does so happily, fully expecting to be reunited with his estranged family. Not knowing that his father had died during his absence, Jiro also carries the guilt of never having had the opportunity to explain himself and apologise for the argument that led to him running away. An early, hot headed attempt to take his complaint directly to the Ashidas ends in disaster when he is defeated, bound, and whipped with thick fisherman’s rope but it does perhaps teach him a lesson.

The other boys from the village – Jiro’s younger brother Shinkichi (Hayato Tani) and the brother of his childhood friend Reiko (Eiko Azusa), Toshi (Jiro Okazaki), are just as eager as he is both to avenge the death of Jiro’s father and rid the village of the evil Ashida tyranny. Jiro tries to put them off by the means of a good old fashioned fist fight which shows them how ill equipped they are in comparison with the older, stronger, and more experienced Jiro but their youth makes them bold and impatient. The plot of Toshi and Shinkichi will have disastrous consequences, but also acts as a galvanising force convincing the villagers that the Ashidas have to go.

Jiro takes his natural place as the hero of a Toei gangster film by formulating a plan to undermine the Ashidas’ authority. His major strategic decision is to bide his time but he also disrupts the local economy by attempting to evade the Ashida net through sending the fisherman to other local ports and undercutting the Ashida profit margin. As predicted the Ashidas don’t like it, but cost themselves a crucial ally by ignoring the intense bond between their best fighter and his adorable pet dog. Things do not quite go to plan but just as it looks as if Jiro is about to seal his victory, he stays his sword. The Ashidas’ power is broken and they have lost enough already.

Fukasaku’s approach tallies with the classic narrative as the oppressive forces are ousted by a patient people pushed too far finally deciding to fight back and doing so with strategic intelligence. It is, in one sense, a happy ending but not one without costs as Jiro looks at the restored village with the colourful flags of fishing boats enlivening the harbour and everyone going busily about their work. He knows a sacrifice must be made to solidify his mini revolution and he knows who must make it. Like many a Toei hero before him, he prepares to walk away, no longer welcome in the world his violence has saved but can no longer support.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

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:

Outlaw: Gangster VIP 2 (大幹部 無頼, Keiichi Ozawa, 1968)

Outlaw Gangster VIP 2So, as it turns out the end of Outlaw: Gangster VIP was not quite as final as it might have seemed. Outlaw Gangster VIP 2 (大幹部 無頼, Daikanbu Burai) picks up not long after the end of the first film when Goro (Tetsuya Watari), having recovered from his injuries, takes a train to go and find Yukiko (Chieko Matsubara) with the intention of starting an honest life with her away from the temptations of the big city. However, as often happens, his past follows him.

Like the first film, Outlaw: Gangster VIP 2 also begins with a black and white flashback sequence reminding us of Goro’s childhood only this time with a voice over from Goro himself who goes on to include the first film’s events in his recap. Goro might have come to the country to get away from the gangster life but as soon as he steps off the train he gets himself into trouble with a local gang by interfering with a few tough guys who are trying to entrap a group of actresses and force them into their employ. One of the leading actresses is just as taken with Goro as Yukiko was in the first film and gives him her red scarf as a thank you. Goro is still very much with Yukiko though and trudges off through the snow to find her.

She and Yumeko, Sugimoto’s former girlfriend, are living in a small hut but Yumeko has fallen ill and is refusing to see a doctor out of fear of the expense. Goro gets a legitimate logging job but before long the company hits trouble and he’s let go. All the while Yumeko’s condition is weakening and the three are in desperate need of money. One of the local gangsters Goro runs into trouble with turns out to be an old friend who offers him a job. Goro was hoping to leave the Yakuza world behind forever but it seems it isn’t finished with him yet…

In many ways this second instalment in the Outlaw: Gangster VIP series is very much more of the same as noble outlaw Goro battles the ever more cruel and corrupt forces of the Yakuza underworld in defence of women folk and underdogs everywhere. Directed this time by Keiichi Ozawa the film is disappointing only where it begins to feel like a rehash by following the familiar story beats of the first film with its betrayed underlings and treacherous bosses yet still manages to feel fresh and exciting for most of the running time.

The action this time around takes place in the vast snowy expanses of Northern Japan and has a much more open feeling overall with greater use of location shooting rather than the studio bound atmosphere of the first film. Ozawa follows Masuda’s lead but angles for a few expressive sequences of his own such as attempting to cut a flamenco dance sequence (starring a young Meiko Kaji acting under her original name) with a potential stand off and less successfully by playing a high school girl volleyball game against the final fight to the death which is going on in the waterway below.

The concept of home and having a home town is once again emphasised as a recurring motif where the desire for a normal life and family can get a man killed – the recurrent message being that a yakuza is a man without ties to the normal world. Such relationships are now denied him by his bond to his gangster brothers and will not only place in danger those you most love, but will ultimately lead to your own downfall too. Once again Goro wrestles with his desire to build a more normal life with Yukiko and the self knowledge that his yakuza past will never let him rest and perhaps the best thing for her is to make her go.

Outlaw: Gangster VIP 2 can’t quite match the power of the first film’s finale and often feels as if it’s retreading the same ground yet it is quite interesting ground to retread. Even if there weren’t another four films in the series, one gets the feeling that fate hasn’t finished toying with Goro yet and even if the yakuza world continues turning in the same ancient cycles of violence and revenge, Goro at least will be standing on the side of right, perpetually and ironically fighting in an attempt to put an end to it all for good.


Outlaw: Gangster VIP 2 is the second 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: