Big Shots Die at Dawn (顔役暁に死す, Kihachi Okamoto, 1961)

“Assassins make the world an unfit place to live in” according to a random gas station attendant clueing our errant hero in to the fact his small-town home is now a “den of yakuza” and unlikely tourist hotspot. An early, delightfully absurdist yakuza romp from Kichachi Okamoto, Big Shots Die at Dawn (顔役暁に死す, Kaoyaku Akatsukini Shisu) is part Nikkatsu parody, part ironic western, and all cartoonish fun as a prodigal son returns to find his father murdered and his uncle on the throne. Sound familiar? 

Jiro (Yuzo Kayama) has been working for the forestry commission in Alaska and has not returned to his small-town home of Kuraoka in some time which is why he didn’t even know his father, the mayor, was dead let alone that he was apparently assassinated in a manner which strongly anticipates the Kennedy assassination though the film was released in 1961. He also had no idea his father, a widower, had remarried and his family home is now occupied by his stepmother Hisako (Yukiko Shimazaki), a former secretary who scandalously lounges around in her underwear all day. His uncle Imamura (Eijiro Yanagi) is now the mayor, and as he explains to him, the town is a hotbed of gangster activity apparently a consequence of his attempt to turn it into a tourist hotspot. In trying to find out who killed his father, Jiro finds himself quite literally in the middle of a petty yakuza gang war aided and abetted by corrupt police. 

Quite clearly influenced by American cinema, Big Shots Die at Dawn situates itself in the new frontier of small-town Japan in which a war is being fought over the spoils of the post-war era. Uncle Imamura’s legacy is apparently a children’s theme park with the distinctly pregnant name Dreamland. Apparently a man who just loves the children but was unable to have any of his own, he’s also opened a pre-school for the local kids. Meanwhile, in the yakuza-backed casino, obsessive gamblers brush their teeth at the tables while local kingpin Goto (Akihiko Hirata) attempts to fend off the incursion of the rival Handa gang. Jiro’s return puts the cat among the pigeons as both sides attempt to use him as a way to take out the other.

The dark heart of small-town Japan is however present in the greed and double dealing which extends even to the police, a corrupt officer offering to sell Jiro a key piece of evidence he had concealed in the hope of profit. Just about everyone tries to sell the evidence to someone else at one time or another, leveraging an idea of justice alongside greed and self-interest. Meanwhile, Yoshiko (Kumi Mizuno), a quasi-love interest and former girlfriend of a fallen foot soldier, reports that she gave the police valuable evidence that her fiancé’s death wasn’t a suicide but they ignored her.

Jiro’s come to clean up the town, but the showdown takes place incongruously in the children’s theme park complete with its cutesy mascot characters and adverts for chocolate in the background making plain that these venal gangsters are really just boys playing war, taking pot shots at each other from tiny trains. What could be a dark comment on a loss of innocence is more cartoonish irony from Okamoto who shoots in extreme closeup with intentionally humorous composition and slapstick choreography. Nevertheless the message is unmistakable as we piece together the connections between small-town government and organised crime underpinned with a rather creepy all for the kids justification. 

Then again, the world has its share of misogyny, everything coming down to the incursion of transgressive femininity as one duplicitous woman manipulating her feminine wiles becomes the common link between each of the warring factions, as if this is all her fault and Jiro’s return is a way of clearing up the pollution her arrival provoked. Nevertheless as even he says, his father, and implicitly his father’s generation, must share some of the blame. Filled with stylish action sequences, car chases, self-consciously cool dialogue, and scored with a mix of moody jazz and dreamy childlike melodies, Okamoto’s cartoonish takedown of the zeitgeisty youth movie is very much in keeping with Toho’s spoofier side but chock full of charm even if its hero’s particular brand of smugness occasionally borders on the insufferable.