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. 


A Colt is My Passport (拳銃は俺のパスポート, Takashi Nomura, 1967)

colt is my passport posterJo Shishido played his fare share of icy hitmen, but they rarely made it through such seemingly inexorable events as the hero of Takashi Nomura’s A Colt is My Passport (拳銃は俺のパスポート, Colt wa Ore no Passport). The actor, known for his boyishly chubby face puffed up with the aid of cheek implants, floated around the lower end of Nikkatsu’s A-list but by 1967 his star was on the wane even if he still had his pick of cooler than cool tough guys in Nikkatsu’s trademark action B-movies. Mixing western and film noir, A Colt is My Passport makes a virtue of Japan’s fast moving development, heartily embracing the convenience of a society built around the idea of disposability whilst accepting the need to keep one step ahead of the rubbish truck else it swallow you whole.

Kamimura (Joe Shishido) and his buddy Shiozaki (Jerry Fujio) are on course to knock off a gang boss’ rival and then get the hell out of Japan. Kamimura, however, is a sarcastic wiseguy and so his strange sense of humour dictates that he off the guy while the mob boss he’s working for is sitting right next to him. This doesn’t go down well, and the guys’ planned airport escape is soon off the cards leaving them to take refuge in a yakuza safe house until the whole thing blows over. Blowing over, however, is something that seems unlikely and Kamimura is soon left with the responsibility of saving both his brother-in-arms Shiozaki, and the melancholy inn girl (Chitose Kobayashi) with a heart of gold who yearns for an escape from her dead end existence but finds only inertia and disappointment.

The young protege seems surprised when Kamimura tosses the expensive looking rifle he’s just used on a job into a suitcase which he then tosses into a car which is about to be tossed into a crusher, but Kamimura advises him that if you want to make it in this business, you’d best not become too fond of your tools. Kamimura is, however, a tool himself and only too aware how disposable he might be to the hands that have made use of him. He conducts his missions with the utmost efficiency, and when something goes wrong, he deals with that too.

Efficient as he is, there is one thing that is not disposable to Kamimura and that is Shiozaki. The younger man appears not to have much to do but Kamimura keeps him around anyway with Shiozaki trailing around after him respectfully. More liability than anything else, Kamimura frequently knocks Shiozaki out to keep him out of trouble – especially as he can see Shiozaki might be tempted to leap into the fray on his behalf. Kamimura has no time for feeling, no taste for factoring attachment into his carefully constructed plans, but where Shiozaki is concerned, sentimentality wins the day.

Mina, a melancholy maid at a dockside inn, marvels at the degree of Kamimura’s devotion, wishing that she too could have the kind of friendship these men have with each other. A runaway from the sea, Mina has been trapped on the docks all her adult life. Like many a Nikkatsu heroine, love was her path to escape but an encounter with a shady gangster who continues to haunt her life put paid to that. The boats come and go but Mina stays on shore. Kamimura might be her ticket out but he wastes no time disillusioning her about his lack of interest in becoming her saviour (even if he’s not ungrateful for her assistance and also realises she’s quite an asset in his quest to ensure the survival of his ally).

Pure hardboiled, A Colt is My Passport is a crime story which rejects the femme fatal in favour of the intense relationship between its two protagonists whose friendship transcends brotherhood but never disrupts the methodical poise of the always prepared Kamimura. The minor distraction of a fly in the mud perhaps reminds him of his mortality, his smallness, the fact that he is essentially “disposable” and will one day become a mere vessel for this tiny, quite irritating creature but if he has a moment of introspection it is short lived. The world may be crunching at his heels, but Kamimura keeps moving. He has his plan, audacious as it is. He will save his buddy, and perhaps he doesn’t care too much if he survives or not, but he will not go down easy and if the world wants a bite out of him, it will have to be fast or lucky.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Fossil (化石, Masaki Kobayashi, 1975)

fossilThroughout Masaki Kobayashi’s relatively short career, his overriding concern was the place of the conscientious individual within a corrupt society. Perhaps most clearly seen in his magnum opus, The Human Condition, Kobayashi’s humanist ethos was one of rigid integrity in which society’s faults must be spoken and addressed in service of creating a better, fairer world. As might be expected, his often raw, angry social critiques were not always what studios were looking for, especially heading into the “difficult” 1970s which saw mainstream production houses turning on the sleaze to increase potential box office. Reluctantly, Kobayashi headed to TV on the condition he could retain some of his footage for a feature film. Adapted from the 1965 novel by Yasushi Inoue, The Fossil (化石, Kaseki) revisits many of Kobayashi’s recurrent themes only in a quieter, more contemplative way as an apparently successful man prepares to enter the final stages of his life, wondering if this is all there really is.

Itsuki (Shin Saburi), a selfmade man who hit it big in Japan’s post-war boom town by founding his own construction firm which currently employs over 1000 people, is about to catch a plane to Europe for a trip that’s pleasure disguised as business. As he leaves, his younger daughter informs him he may be about to become a grandfather for the second time after the birth of her niece, though she is worried and is not sure she wanted a child at this precise moment. Brushing aside her nervousness with an odd kind of fatherly warmth, Itsuki seems pleased and states that he hopes it’s a boy this time. Nevertheless he leaves abruptly to catch his plane. During the flight he begins to become depressed, reflecting that since his wife has died and both of his daughters have married and have (or are about to have) children of their own he is now totally alone. Never before has he faced a sensation of such complete existential loneliness, and his arrival in Paris proves far less invigorating than he had originally hoped.

Wandering around with his secretary, Funazu (Hisashi Igawa), who has accompanied him on this “business” trip, Itsuki catches sight of an elegant Japanese woman in a local park and is instantly captivated. Improbably spotting the same woman several times during his stay, Itsuki later discovers that she is the wife of a local dignitary though not universally liked in the Japanese ex-pat community. At this same work dinner where he discusses the merits of Madame Marcelin (Keiko Kishi), Itsuki experiences a severe pain in his abdomen which makes it difficult for him to stand. Feeling no better back at the hotel, Funazu arranges a doctor’s visit for him. The doctors seem to think he should head straight home which Itsuki is not prepared to do but when he masquerades as Funazu on the phone to get the full verdict, he finds out it’s most likely inoperable intestinal cancer and he may only have a year or so to live.

This unexpected – or, perhaps half sensed, news sends him into a numbing cycle of panic and confusion. At this point Itsuki begins his ongoing dialogue with the mysterious woman, arriving in the guise of Madame Marcelin only dressed in the traditional black kimono of mourning. Telling no one, Itsuki embarks on a contemplative journey in preparation for a union with his dark lady in waiting which takes him from the Romanesque churches of the picturesque French countryside back to Japan and the emptiness, or otherwise, of his settled, professionally successful life.

Like the hero of Kurosawa’s similarly themed Ikiru, Itsuki’s profound discovery is that his overwhelming need for personal validation through work has led him to neglect human relationships and may ultimately have been misplaced. On his return to Japan, Itsuki makes the extremely unusual decision to take a day off only to receive a phone call regarding an old friend and former colleague who, coincidentally, has aggressive cancer and has been asking to see him. Not wanting to mention his own illness, Itsuki parts with his friend feeling it may be for the last time but eventually returns for a deeper conversation in which he probes him for his views about his life so far and what he would do if he had, say, another year to live. His friend has come to the same conclusion, that his working life has largely been a waste of time. What he’d do differently he couldn’t rightly say, things are as they are, but if he had more time he’d want to do “good” in the world, make a positive change and live for something greater than himself.

Itsuki isn’t quite as taken with the idea of “goodness” as a life principle, though he does begin to re-examine himself and the way he has treated the people in his life from apologising to the stepmother he failed to bond with as a child to reconnecting with an old army buddy who maybe the closest thing he’s ever had to a “true friendship” – something which the mysterious woman reminded him he’d been missing for a very long time. Meeting Teppei again, Itsuki is introduced to his walls of fossilised coral and all of their millions of years of history frozen into one indivisible moment. Feeling both infinite and infinitesimal, Itsuki is reminded of his immediate post-war moment of survivor’s guilt in which he and his friend agreed that they’ve each been living on borrowed time ever since.

Given a sudden and unexpected chance of reprieve, Itsuki is even more confounded than before. Having made a friend of death, he may now have to learn to live again, even if his mysterious lady reminds him that she will always be with him, even if he can no longer see her. Though he’d wanted nothing more than to live to see the cherry blossoms in the company of the living Madame Marcelin whose vision it was that so captivated him, his old life is one he cannot return to and must be preserved in amber, frozen and perfect like Teppei’s fossilised coral.

Tonally European, perhaps taking inspiration from Death in Venice, and bringing in a Christianising moral viewpoint pitting the values of honest hard work against genuine human feeling, The Fossil is the story of a man realising he has been sentenced to death, as we all have, and makes his peace with it only to learn that perhaps his sentence will be suspended. Yet for a time death was his friend and her absence is a void which cannot be filled. This life, this new life so unexpectedly delivered, must be lived and lived to the full. Itsuki, who had prepared himself to die must now learn to live and to do so in a way which fulfils his own soul. Originally filmed as a 13 part TV series now reduced to three hours and twenty minutes, The Fossil’s only consolation to its medium is in its 4:3 frame which Kobayashi’s unobtrusive style fully embraces with its ominous distance shots, slow zooms and eerie pans backed up by Toru Takemitsu’s sombre score. Kobayashi, who’d given us a career dedicated to railing against the injustices of the system, suddenly gives us the ultimate rebellion – against death itself as a man who’d prepared himself to die must judge the way he’s lived on his own terms, and, finding himself wanting, learn to live in a way which better fits his personal integrity.


 

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:

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: