Velvet Hustler (紅の流れ星, Toshio Masuda, 1967)

Perhaps overlooked in comparison with his better known contemporaries, Toshio Masuda was a bankable talent at Nikkatsu directing some of the studio’s biggest box office hits largely thanks to his long association with tentpole star Yujiro Ishihara. Nine years on from their collaborative debut Rusty Knife, however, times had perhaps begun to change. Featuring vibrant colour production design by Tokyo Drifter’s Takeo Kimura, a frequent Seijun Suzuki collaborator, 1967’s Velvet Hustler (紅の流れ星, Kurenai no Nagareboshi, AKA Like a Shooting Star) is a reworking of Masuda’s own Red Pier, itself inspired by Julien Duvivier’s 1937 French thriller Pepé le Moko, with Tetsuya Watari in the role originally filled by Ishihara. Apparently drawing inspiration from Godard’s Breathless, Velvet Hustler is a thoroughly post-modern retake, a parodic tale of gangster ennui and post-war emptiness in which rising economic prosperity has brought with it only despair. 

When we first meet petty gangster Goro (Tetsuya Watari), he’s coolly standing by, leaning on a fencepost like a bored gunslinger as he waits for the perfect getaway vehicle. Jumping into a fancy red convertible which it seems has already been stolen by the young man who parked it in this packed car park, the wires handily hanging striped and exposed, Goro barrels along the highway and and performs an infinitely efficient drive-by shooting on a rival gang boss. According to the man who hired him, Goro was only supposed to cause serious injury, not death, but as he points out if the guy insists on dying that’s hardly his problem. Taking his paycheque, Goro agrees to lie low in Kobe for the next six months after which his boss will come and get him. A year later, however, and he’s still there doing not much of anything, hanging out with the local kids and acting as a procurer dragging sailors on shore leave into gang-run clubs where Americans get into fights with Vietnamese émigrés. So desperate for escape are they that Goro’s underling even suggests they go to war, later thinking better of it when he remembers seeing horrific photos from the front.  

In a convenient but unsatisfying relationship with bar hostess Yukari (Kayo Matsuo), Goro explains that it’s not that he doesn’t like her, but he’s bored, “bored with fooling around with women”, but also of the business of living. The sun comes up, the sun goes down, and then it comes up again, every day all the same. His life has become completely meaningless and he has no idea what to do about it. He longs to go back to Tokyo, but is trapped in this strange Kobe limbo land, an end of the line sea port in which there is ironically no sense of escape. He doesn’t know it yet, but there’s a killer (Jo Shishido) on his trail, a killer who eventually reminds Goro that even if he kills him first another man will come. The bullets you fire are aimed squarely at yourself, Goro’s destiny is already set. There is only one way out of Kobe and it doesn’t lead back to Tokyo. 

Meanwhile, another possibility presents itself in the beautiful Keiko (Ruriko Asaoka), a temporary visitor from the capital looking for her missing fiancé presumed to have done a bunk with her father’s money. Keiko is a distinctly cool yet self-assured figure, generating an instant connection with the affable gangster at once reassured by a sympathetic mama-san that Goro is good but also warned that he’s still a yakuza and as such no good for a smart young woman like her. Keiko thinks that Tokyo is pretentious and boring, confused by Goro’s insistence on getting back there but like him perhaps in waiting. “I love you to death” she later ironically confesses while simultaneously insisting that men and women are different. There is no escape for her. Goro is tired of running but refuses to be handcuffed, choosing perhaps the only path to freedom presented to him. 

A nihilistic tale of gangster ennui in which life itself no longer has value, Velvet Hustler is a curiously cheerful affair despite its essential melancholy, Goro and Keiko sparring in a romantic war of attrition while he almost flirts with the dogged detective (Tatsuya Fuji) determined to bring him down. The kitschy production design gives way to Antonioni-esque shots of a strangely empty city while an ethereal sequence of dissolves eventually leaves the pair alone on the dance floor as if to imply their single moment of romance is but a brief dream of emotional escape. The trappings of post-war success are everywhere from Keiko’s elegant outfits to the cute red sports car and the weird club where Goro dad dances in front of his minions, not so much older than them but clearly out of place in this distinctly unhip seaside bar, but finally all there is is a dead end and an infinite emptiness the embrace of which is, perhaps, the only viable path to freedom. 


Tokyo Bay (東京湾, Yoshitaro Nomura, 1962)

Yoshitaro Nomura is most closely associated with the thriller and particularly with its lower end as a purveyor of B-movie noir, yet look a little closer and his films are perhaps not really about crime at all but about the complicated relationships between people in the ever changing post-war society. Just as Stakeout is really about a policeman’s marriage, Tokyo Bay (東京湾, Tokyowan) is less concerned with the radiating corruption of the smuggling ring at its centre than with frustrated male friendship and the wartime legacy.

Opening with an aerial pan over post-war Tokyo, a title card informs us that this is just one frame in the “intense struggle for existence” in a city of 10 million before we arrive at the titular bay and a boat which is presumably carrying drugs later passed from one hand to another. The fixer, Takeyama (Kei Sato), talks to a man in a car and instructs him to be in front of the Taiyo building before 10am to pick up a golf bag from his contact. Gazing up at a post-war construction site, however, the man, Saeki (Jun Hamamura), is shot in the head and killed by a bullet piercing the roof of his car, Nomura suddenly switching to a disorientating POV shot as he twists in a sudden death spiral. 

As it turns out, Saeki was a plant, an undercover cop with the drugs squad sent to expose the smuggling ring the shadowy owners of which will predictably turn out to have Chinese connections in another echo of post-war cinema’s continuing Sinophobia. Two officers are assigned to the case, the young and earnest Akine (Jiro Ishizaki), and the veteran Sumikawa (Ko Nishimura) who acts largely on a series of inexplicable policeman’s hunches. Their major lead, however, comes as a stroke either of dumb luck or dark fate as Sumikawa, dodging into a dodgy mahjong parlour while tailing Takeyama, runs into an old army buddy, Inoue (Isao Tamagawa), who just happens to be a left-handed sniper perfectly matching the profile of the man they’ve been looking for. 

While Sumikawa keeps tabs on his old friend, somehow feeling he has something to do with all this but ambivalent in his torn responsibilities, Akine travels to Inoue’s hometown of Onomichi and sympathetically concludes that he was merely “rather unfortunate”. His life derailed by the war, Inoue returned to discover the girl he hoped to marry had married someone else. Giving evidence at Inoue’s trial for pulling a knife on her husband, the young woman remarks that she never promised him anything and did not consider their relationship to be serious, merely treating him with the politeness due to someone about to leave for war. In any case, she asks, even if she had been in love and intended to wait for him, as an orphaned woman there were only two choices open to her to survive, marriage or sex work, what else could she have done?

Back in Tokyo, Sumikawa begins to catch up with his old friend, realising that his romantic disappointment set him on a dark course of bad relationships and a drift towards crime but that he seems to have turned himself around. He is now happily married to a woman he describes as “simple” who seems devoted to him and if he did this, he did it to start again. His one last job intended to take him back to Onomichi, a pleasant coastal town the bay of which he describes as far more beautiful than that of the grimy, industrial Tokyo and largely untouched by urban corruption. Sumikawa feels himself torn, not least on account of the debt that exists between the two men because Inoue once saved his life, but also knowing that he may have to arrest this man and destroy his attempt to return to a more innocent world leaving his wife alone. Disapproving of the nascent relationship between his younger sister Yukiko (Hiromi Sakaki) and his partner, Sumikawa worries Akine may be becoming the kind of man who cares more for making an arrest than friendship, a conflict presumably weighing on his mind, even as he agrees he’s a good man and a good police officer. Yukiko meanwhile fires back that Sumikawa’s wife left him not because he is a policeman but because he is selfish and arrogant, and more to the point incapable of understanding a woman’s feelings. 

Nevertheless, he’s acutely aware of the effect his actions or inactions may have on Inoue’s wife Yoshiko (Kyoko Aoi), especially as it’s suggested she may need a degree of looking after. Inoue, careful to admit nothing, reveals that the man who carried out the hit may not have known he was killing a police officer but may have assumed the target was fair game being, like themselves, a denizen of the underworld. Largely a MacGuffin, the smuggling ring is not as important as one might assume, the two men locked into a cycle of guilt and retribution each marked by wartime trauma and in a sense unable to claim their place in the post-war society. Twin betrayals lead to a fateful, train-bound showdown shot with fraught claustrophobia as each man engages in an intense struggle for his survival but also perhaps already defeated in a shared sense of fatalistic nihilism. Trekking through the half-constructed streets of the post-war city with shaky handheld Nomura hints at the radiating corruption exemplified by the growth of the trade in drugs, but perhaps one corruption is merely the result of another which may in turn be far less easy to cure. 


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:

Gate of Flesh (肉体の門, Seijun Suzuki, 1964)

nikutai_no_mon_2_film-1600x900-c-defaultWhat are you supposed to do when you’ve lost a war? Your former enemies all around you, refusing to help no matter what they say and there are only black-marketers and gangsters where there used to be merchants and craftsmen. Everyone is looking out for themselves, everyone is in the gutter. How are you supposed to build anything out of this chaos? Perhaps you aren’t, but you have to go one living, somehow. The picture of the immediate post-war world which Suzuki paints in Gate of Flesh (肉体の門, Nikutai no Mon) is fairly hellish – crowded, smelly marketplaces thronging with desperate people. Based on a novel by Taijiro Tamura (who also provided the source material for Suzuki’s Story of a Prostitute), Gate of Flesh has its lens firmly pointed at the bottom of the heap and resolutely refuses to avert its gaze.

A nervous young woman, clearly tired, starving and alone wanders through a marketplace in desperation before a yakuza offers to buy her something to eat. She is wary but has little choice. Soon after she meets toughened prostitute Sen who is the de-facto head of a small group of streetwalkers committed to supporting and protecting each other. They have few rules but the biggest one is no giving it away for free. Maya joins their “merry” band and things are going OK for them until they make the fateful decision to take in a wounded ex-soldier on the run from the American military police. Shin puts a great big wedge between the members of the group, deepening the cracks which were present all along. Sure enough, Maya starts to fall for this damaged man threatening to fall foul of the gang’s single taboo. When you’ve lived like this, without hope, without a future, can you ever go back to being a “real human being” ever again?

Make no mistake, this is a ruined world. Almost post-apocalyptic, it’s populated by the starving and the desperate. The sweet potato seller is king here – the working girls are depicted like packs of rabid animals, descending on any passing male ready to extract any amount of loose change which they immediately run out to thrust into the hands of anyone who has food. The great horror is hunger.

The other great horror is, of course, violence and particularly male violence against women. Maya is assaulted early on and a truck carrying two army officers and a priest tries to make a quick escape after noticing her lying wounded by the roadside. The Americans aren’t going to help her, she’s just another raped Japanese woman after all, but the priest stops and offers another kind of salvation shining from his dangling crucifix. He repeatedly turns up later and tries to convince Maya to come back to church but you can’t live on a communion wafer alone and eventually Maya puts a definite end to the idea of any kind of religious solution to her predicament.

Sex is business for the woman under Sen’s command. They sell their bodies, hence the prohibition on giving them away. Breaking the rules will get you cruelly beaten and humiliated before being thrown out of the group and it’s near impossible to survive alone. The other women have all been injured by the war, they’re all among those left behind. One of them, Machiko, stands a little to the side as a middle class war widow rigidly sticking to her kimono and dreaming of becoming someone’s wife again. Needless to say, she and Sen do not always see eye to eye as Machiko’s desire to return to a more innocent age conflicts with Sen’s hard nosed pragmatism.

This is Japan in defeat. The girls live in a warren of ruined buildings haunted by visions of the past. Shin has returned from the war to a land devoid of hope. He’s a broken man and, as the woman have been “reduced” to prostitution, he has been “forced” into crime. There aren’t any real people here anymore, just animals willing to do whatever it takes just to stay alive.

When Suzuki was given this assignment, they wanted him to make a soft-core exploitation pic full of the sleazy lives of the red light district. Suzuki doesn’t give them that, he gives them another round of beautifully composed, surrealist social commentary in which the downtrodden citizens of Japan are defeated for a second time by the corrupting influences of the American occupation. The final shot of the ascendant Stars and Stripes flapping in the wind while the Japanese flag lies drowned in the muddy river speaks for itself and though Suzuki shows us those defiantly trying to live his prognosis for them is not particularly hopeful. He uses multiple exposure here more than in any other film as the past continues to haunt the traumatised populace in quite a literal way where one scene of degradation leads on to another. Extended metaphor, surrealist examination of the post-war world and also the low level exploitation feature Suzuki was hired to direct (albeit in more ways than one) Gate of Flesh proves one of his most complicated and accomplished features even given his long and varied career.


Gate of Flesh is available with English subtitles on R1 DVD from The Criterion Collection.