A Slope in the Sun (陽のあたる坂道, Tomotaka Tasaka, 1958)

Slope in the sun posterYujiro Ishihara had become the face of the “Sun Tribe” movement thanks to roles inspired by his brother Shintaro’s novels including the seminal Crazed Fruit in which he starred opposite his later wife, Mie Kitahara. Tomotaka Tasaka’s A Slope in the Sun (陽のあたる坂道, Hi no Ataru Sakamichi), adapted from the novel by Yojiro Ishizaka, is a much less frenetic affair than Nakahira’s famously intense youth drama, but retains the Sun Tribe’s world of purposeless youth whose inherited wealth has driven them to a life of listless ennui. Like Crazed Fruit, Slope in the Sun is the story of two brothers chasing the same girl, only this time one looks bad and is really good, while the other looks good but is really no good at all.

Beginning on the titular sun beaten slope, the film opens with a young woman, Takako (Mie Kitahara), entering the frame as she searches for an address on a piece of paper she is carrying. She finds the house – a large Western-style mansion, but is prevented from entering by a young man who mistakes her for a saleswoman and instructs her to use the tradesman’s entrance. The young man, Shinji (Yujiro Ishihara), continues to taunt her with lewd language before poking at her breast. Takako tries to leave but is persuaded to come inside to meet the lady of the house and the young woman, Kumiko (Izumi Ashikawa), whom she has come to tutor.

The Tashiro household is a strange one. There are three almost grown up children – oldest brother Yukichi (Yuji Odaka) who is a medical student, middle brother Shinji who is a painter, and the youngest daughter Kumiko who is approaching the end of high school and is a little over sensitive about a mild limp which is the consequence of a childhood accident. Takako nearly turns the job down when she realises that the family want less a teacher to help with Kumiko’s studies, than a kind of big sister to help her navigate her way into the adult world, but eventually warms to the Tashiros and decides to give it a go. A college student in need of money, Takako is currently living in a boarding house where she is friends with the older lady next door, Tomiko Takagi (Hisako Yamane), and her 18 year old musician son Tamio (Tamio Kawachi).

In contrast to the earlier Sun Tribe films, A Slope in the Sun is much more subdued though it does maintain an upperclass atmosphere filled with bored young people who struggle to find purpose in their lives through having no particular economic or social worries thanks to the protective cushioning of their wealth. The central issue is a common one to the familial melodrama – middle child Shinji has always felt disconnected from his family and has discovered that the woman who raised him is not his birth mother. He wants to know the truth of his family history but is also a kinder soul than his outward behaviour may suggest and does not want to hurt anyone or risk destroying the otherwise pleasant enough family life he enjoys as a Tashiro.

As expected coincidences abound though the truth is obvious seconds after Takako tells someone the name of her new employer causing them to gasp and draw pale with shock. It seems that everyone in the family already knew that Shinji is only a half brother except Shinji himself – their overcompensation in treating him kindly was the initial tipoff for his suspicions, but this question of blood relation turns out to have a surprising dimension. Oldest brother Yukichi is, outwardly, the model son – handsome, clever, gentlemanly, but on closer inspection his veneer of respectability turns out to be just that. The boys’ mother, Midori (Yukiko Todoroki), knows this well and partly blames herself for allowing Shinji to take the blame for a childhood accident rather than forcing her own son to confess. For all his seeming goodness, Yukichi is an amoral coward, womaniser, and habitual liar whereas there’s a kind of honesty in Shinji’s lewd speech and even in his own lies which he indulges partly out of a sense of smug superiority, as Midori puts it, but also because of the inferiority complex which has marred his life as he feels himself somehow lesser than either of his siblings.

Takako vacillates between the two brothers, taken in by the manipulative Yukichi but strangely drawn to the provocative Shinji. Unlike Nikkatsu’s other youth films, Slope in the Sun ends on a note of happy resolution rather than nihilistic suffering as each member of the family is encouraged to embrace their true natures, putting secrets to one side, and becoming closer in the process. Tanaka’s approach is a more classical one than Nikkatu’s usual fare, making use of silent cinema-style closeups and dissolves but veers towards the avant-garde in a brief flashback sequence offered in dreamlike widescreen. Despite the jazz clubs and subplots about misused geishas, this is a more innocent world than the post-war melodrama would usually allow, finding space for happiness and forgiveness in each of the conflicted protagonists once they each agree to submit themselves to the truth and meet the world with openness and positivity.


Detective Bureau 2-3: Go to Hell Bastards! (探偵事務所23 くたばれ悪党ども, Seijun Suzuki, 1963)

detective-bureau-2-3Before Seijun Suzuki pushed his luck too far with the genre classic Branded to Kill, he bided his time adding his own particular brand of zany absurdism to Nikkatsu’s standard cool guy fights crooks and gets girl formula. Detective Bureau 2-3: Go to Hell Bastards! (探偵事務所23 くたばれ悪党ども, Tantei Jimusho 23: Kutabare Akutodomo) is just one of these efforts. Made around the time of Suzuki’s major turning points such as the similarly named The Bastard, and relatively better known Youth of the Beast, the film follows Nikkatsu’s standard pattern but allows frequent Suzuki leading man and Nikkatsu A-lister Joe Shishido to swan about the place in grand style, effortlessly manipulating everything and everyone to come out on top once again. Filled with snappy dialogue and painted with an irony filled noirish aesthetic, Detective Bureau 2-3 does not care about its plot, and wants you to know you shouldn’t either.

The action kicks off when a low level yakuza, Manabe (Tamio Kawachi), is captured by the police following a bloody turf battle. Manabe isn’t talking, the police can’t hold him much longer, and a bunch of gangsters from all factions are already waiting outside to eliminate him as soon as he’s released. Enter Tajima (Jo Shishido) – private detective and head of Detective Bureau 2-3. Managing to convince his “buddies” in the regular police that he’s exactly the right guy to sort all of this out, Tajima constructs an undercover ID, stages a daring rescue of Manabe, and worms his way into his gang to find out what’s going down in yakuza land. Whilst there he begins romancing the boss’ cold hearted girl and attempting to find out the whereabouts of a cache of stolen weaponry before getting all of the bad guys together in one place so the police can arrest them with maximum efficiency.

Even more so than Suzuki’s other films from the period, Detective Bureau 2-3 moves like a rocket with barely anytime to follow the plot even if there was one. Tajima is like some cartoon hero, half Lupin III and half Top Cat, always landing on his feet or speeding away from danger in a swanky sports car. Even when trapped (along with his love interest) inside a burning basement with no means of escape, he comes up with an ingenious solution to get the all important evidence out there in the hope that his police buddies will come and rescue him. Tajima is the guy you can always rely on to get you out of a fix, even if it gets you into an even bigger fix.

Unexpectedly, Detective Bureau 2-3 also has a mild Christmas theme as the seedy dive bar Tajima and the crooks hang out in attempts to get into the festive spirit. This is a world of gamblers and showgirls where the glamour of the smokescreen underworld undercuts the less savoury aspects the men who people it. Suzuki gives us a fair number of cabaret numbers set against the Christmassy decorations and creates an awkward situation for Tajima as his on and off cabaret star girlfriend threatens to blow his cover, even dragging him up on stage for a pointed duet about useless boyfriends who never keep their promises. Actually that all kind of works for him too because it annoys the boss’ girl, who is definitely starting to at least develop complicated feelings towards him. Trapped with her cruel yet supposedly impotent gang boss boyfriend-cum-jailer, she’s about eight different kinds of frustrated and has been waiting for someone like Tajima to come and set her free (in about eight different ways), so all of this is really going very well for him.

Detective Bureau 2-3: Go to Hell Bastards! is just as zany and frenetic as the title suggests, moving from one bizarre action set piece to another filled with exploding coke bottles and weaponised cement trucks all while Shishido grins wildly and poses in his sharp suit and trench coat. Inconsequential, yes, but Detective Bureau 2-3 never claims to be anything other than cartoonish fun as Shishido and co offer up a series of wacky one liners and breeze through the action with an effortless kind of glee. Filled with Suzuki’s visual flair, Detective Bureau 2-3 is among his lesser efforts but is undeniably good fun and another colourful outing for the increasingly cool Shishido.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Outlaw: Black Dagger (無頼 黒ヒ首, Keiichi Ozawa, 1968)

outlaw black daggerGoro (Tetsuya Watari) just can’t catch a break. He sends his one true love off on a train to safety only to see her dramatically return because she can’t bear to leave his side. Her devotion costs her her life as she places herself between Goro’s manly chest and an assassin’s knife. Heartbroken, Goro gets out of town only to run into another old flame who is now a mama-san and has apparently married another yakuza (despite the fact that Goro parted with her because of his chaotic yakuza lifestyle). As usual, the past won’t let him go – this time in a more literal sense as Goro encounters another woman who looks exactly like the girlfriend who died in his arms….

This time for the fifth instalment in the Outlaw series, Black Dagger (無頼 黒ヒ首, Burai Kurodosu), it’s not so much family as romance which takes centre stage as we witness just how dangerous it can be to fall in love with a yakuza. Yuri (Chieko Matsubara), the girlfriend Goro couldn’t save, died because she loved him too much.  Saeko loved him too – he succeeded in getting rid of her but she ended up rebound married to another guy who kind of looks like him but isn’t as good, and now there’s Shizuko (Chieko Matsubara again) – a warmhearted nurse who’s once again fallen for Goro’s noble tough guy act. Goro knows the price of love and he thinks he’s no good so he tries to avoid letting himself fall, both for his own safety and for his prospective love, but in the end the one fight he can never win is the one against his own heart.

Oddly Goro gets on quite well with Saeko’s husband, though he’s not keen to get involved with his troubles. He warns him that it might be better to let Saeko go as in the end yakuza only cause suffering for their women and soon enough Goro is proved right when the local gang become intent on pimping Saeko out leaving her husband pretty much powerless to resist.

Apparently this cuts both ways as a sad song from a band of street musicians recounts that a good wife can be a man’s weakness. Again it isn’t really clear how this instalment fits with the others but Yuri’s story is certainly very similar to Yukiko’s as seen in the first two movies and Goro’s guilt over not being able to protect her comes to colour the rest of his life. Once again Goro tries to say goodbye to love, advising Shizuko of the folly of falling for a man like him – she should just find someone nice and be happy. Full of nobleness and conviction, Goro strides out to clean up the town for good, knowing he may not return to see the fruits of his labours.

Black Dagger is once again directed by Keiichi Ozawa and is more or less in keeping with his other efforts in the series, mixing studio bound action with occasional forays into wider outdoor expanses. The film opens with an impressive montage title sequence and fight scene, but other than that the only set piece we get is the street singer sequence towards the end though the final fight is once again action packed and impressively filmed. Black Dagger perhaps doesn’t bring anything too new to the franchise, but it does improve on its already familiar narrative with another doomed love story and a series of shattered dreams for poor old Goro. Unlike the more hopeful ending of the last film, Black Dagger ends on exactly the same note as the other Outlaw movies as Goro staggers away from the crime scene, knife in hand and ready for the next crisis to come his way.


Outlaw: Black Dagger is the fifth 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:

The Yakuza Papers Vol. 1: Battles Without Honour and Humanity (仁義なき戦い, Kinji Fukasaku, 1973)

Snapshot-2015-12-07 at 11_06_36 PM-930280086When it comes to the history of the yakuza movie, there are few titles as important or as influential both in Japan and the wider world than Kinji Fukasaku’s Battles Without Honour and Humanity (仁義なき戦い, Jingi Naki Tatakai). The first in what would become a series of similarly themed movies later known as The Yakuza Papers, Battles without Honour is a radical rebooting of the Japanese gangster movie. The English title is, infact, a literal translation of the Japanese which accounts for the slightly unnatural “and” rather than “or” where the “honour and humanity” are collected in a single Japanese word, “jingi”. Jingi is the ancient moral code by which old-style yakuza had abided and up to now the big studio gangster pictures had all depicted their yakuza as being honourable criminals. However, in Fukasaku’s reimagining of the gangster world this adherence to any kind of conventional morality was yet another casualty of Japan’s wartime defeat.

The story begins with a black and white image of a mushroom cloud with the film’s bright red title card and now famous theme playing over the top. This is Hiroshima in 1946. Things are pretty desperate, the black market is rife and there are US troops everywhere. Shozo Hirono (Bunta Sugawara) has just returned from the war (in fact he’s still in his uniform). He gets himself into trouble when he intervenes as an American soldier attempts to rape a Japanese woman in broad daylight in the middle of a crowded marketplace. He manages to cause enough of a commotion for the woman to escape but the Japanese cops just tell him not to mess with the GIs. Things don’t get much better as one of Hirono’s friends is assaulted by a yakuza. They get some rival yakuza to help them get revenge and in the commotion Hirono accidentally kills someone and is sent to prison for 12 years. In prison he meets another yakuza who wants to escape by pretending to commit harakiri and promises to get his yakuza buddies to bail Hirono out if he helps. From this point on Hirono has become embroiled in the new and dangerous world of the Hiroshima criminal underground.

Battles Without Honour and Humanity has a famously complicated plot entered around the various power shifts and machinations between different groups of yakuza immediately after the end of World War II. The film begins in 1946 and ends in 1956 though many of its cast of tough guys don’t last anywhere near as long. The picture Fukasaku paints of Japan immediately after the war is a bleak one. Even if some of these guys are happy to have survived and finally reached home, they’ve seen and done terrible things. Not only that, they’ve been defeated and now they’re surrounded by foreign troops everywhere who can pretty much do what they want when they want. They just don’t have a lot of options – if they don’t have connections to help them find work when there’s not enough to go around then it isn’t surprising if they eventually fall into to crime. Also, having spent time in the military, the yakuza brotherhood provides a similar kind of camaraderie and surrogate family that you might also find in an army corps.

It all gets ugly quite fast. Largely the yakuza are making their money profiting from the political instability, resenting the US occupation yet reaching deals with them to support their efforts in the Korean war and then selling new and untested drugs at home (with less than brilliant results). Betrayals, executions, assassinations in previously safe places like a bath house or the barbers – these are a long way from the supposedly honourable gangsters of old. One minute Hirono is offering to cut off his finger as a traditional sign of atonement (though no one knows exactly what you’re supposed to do in this situation and it all ends up seeming a little silly) and taking the rap for everyone else’s mistakes, but his friend faked harakiri to get out of jail and everyone is double crossing everyone else whichever way you look.

The whole thing is filmed in an almost documentary style with captions identifying the various characters and giving the exact time of their demise (if necessary) as well as a voice over giving background information about the historical period. The film is inspired by real life yakuza memoirs and there are parts which feel quite like a bunch of old guys sitting in a drinking establishment and recounting some of their exploits.

This new postwar world of heartless gangsters is a tough one and almost devoid of the old honour-bound nobility, however somehow Fukasaku has managed to make it all look very cool at the same time as being totally unappealing. You wouldn’t want to live this way and you definitely don’t want to get involved with any of these guys but somehow their self determined way of life becomes something to be admired. That said, there’s a sadness too – that even in the criminal underworld there used to be something noble that’s been obliterated by the intense trauma of the war. You can rebuild, you can move on from the destruction left by the war’s wake but there’s no going back to those days of “honour and humanity” – if they ever existed, they’re gone forever now.


Battles without Honour and Humanity is available in blu-ray in the UK as part of Arrow Video’s Battles Without Honour and Humanity: The Complete Collection box set.