Rub Out the Past (日本暗黒街, Masaharu Segawa, 1966)

A former yakuza’s attempts to shed his old identity and start again as an upscale restaurateur are disrupted by the unwelcome appearance of an old acquaintance in Masaharu Segawa’s noirish drama, Rub Out the Past (日本暗黒街, Nihon Ankokugai). Another “akokugai” or “underworld” film, Segawa’s surprisingly subversive Toei crime story involves not only the drugs trade but hints of Manchurian transgression as the hero tries to forget his past while unable to realise his love for the daughter of a man he killed on the order of his boss. 

Now calling himself Yashiro, Kageyama (Koji Tsuruta) runs a swanky bar in Kobe and is in love with his pianist Yoko (Eiko Muramatsu) who is also, though she doesn’t know it, the daughter of a former associate back in his yakuza days whom he apparently killed for otherwise unclear reasons leaving Yoko and her mother alone and defenceless in Manchuria during the evacuation at the end of the war. When a mysterious man arrives and explains he’s from “Hayami Industries”, Kageyama is reluctant to listen but eventually forced to accompany him to Tokyo where he is led into Hayami’s rather swanky new office complete with electronic displays and workers positioned in tiny booths. Since the end of the war, Hayami has become a “respectable” businessman running some of Asia’s most prestigious hotels in addition to a chain of casinos. Yet his real business is of course in drug smuggling, which is a problem because the guy he put in charge of the Hong Kong route has drawn the attention of the police. He makes Kageyama an offer he can’t refuse ,much as he tries, to take it over. He accepts on the condition it’ll just be a one time thing. 

In any case, Kageyama’s involvement with Hayami soon costs him his relationship with Yoko, who is aware of Kageyama’s criminal past but blames Hayami for her father’s death, and with it a potential for redemption. Details are few, but there are constant references to the gang’s illegal and immoral dealings in Manchuria, a time that Kageyama is keen to leave in the past having made a new more honest life for himself in the post-war society while Hayami has shifted into the increasingly corporatised realms of contemporary organised crime. Yet despite himself Kageyama is good at being a gangster, effortlessly subduing the bumbling head of “Sekiya Industries” and realising that part of the problem is that too many of his men are getting high on their own supply. To streamline the business he lays off drug users telling them to come back when they’re clean and temporarily pauses the business while he reorganises it at street level. This however leaves a small vacuum in the underworld economy which is soon filled by “alternative” suppliers. 

More akin to one of Toho’s spy spoofs, Hayami Industries seems to be incredibly keen on zany gadgets like cigarette lighters that double as secret radios and guns which shoot listening devices not to mention the panel wall which hides Hayami’s secret control room or the knuckle dusters and belt swords sported by the Sekiya guys. All of which is slightly at odds with the seriousness of the constant reminders of abuses in Manchuria and on the Mainland, and the frankness with which drugs are treated onscreen with frequent shots of syringes and powder. As usual in these films, the main villain is from Hong Kong, an unhinged maniac who kidnaps Yoko and gets her hooked on drugs partly at the instigation of Hayami who seems to be making something of a strategic blunder in his attempts to manipulate Kageyama. Yet Kageyama can only get his redemption through reassuming his wartime persona to face Hayami if indirectly in trying to engineer a gang war between middlemen with Hong Konger Tei caught in the middle. 

Segawa adds to the noir feel through the melancholy jazz score reinforcing the fatalism and futility that seems to define Kageyama’s life as he tries but fails to escape from his violent past. A product of wartime misuse he finds himself at odds with the contemporary society, inconveniently falling in love with the daughter of a man he killed and therefore unable to move on from the shadow of his life of crime only granted a second chance after losing everything and paying his debt to society by destroying the system he himself helped to create. 


Datsugoku Hiroshima Satsujinshu (脱獄広島殺人囚, Sadao Nakajima, 1974)

DVD coverSadao Nakajima had made his name with Toei’s particular brand of violent action movie, but by the early seventies, the classic yakuza flick was going out of fashion. Datsugoku Hiroshima Satsujinshu (脱獄広島殺人囚, AKA The Rapacious Jailbreaker) follows in the wake of seminal genre buster, Battles Without Honour and Humanity, but also honours the classic Toei ganger movie past in its exploitation leaning, cynically humorous tale of a serial escapee and his ever more convoluted schemes to avoid the bumbling police force’s noose.

Kobe, 1947. Ueda (Hiroki Matsukata) and his buddy kill a drug dealer and his girlfriend in a robbery gone wrong. Landing himself a twenty year sentence, Ueda resigns himself to spending his prime years behind bars in a Hiroshima prison but then he starts getting a few ideas and his first escape attempt is a moderate success, until he’s recaptured after stupidly going home to his wife.

Nakajima spends quite a long time exploring the unusual environment of the prison in Hiroshima. The life is strictly ordered and run with precision but the prisoners are also forced to do a strange dance for the guards, waving their hands and shouting their ID numbers to prove there’s nothing interesting inside their mouths – a gesture which is hilariously turned back on the warden when a prisoner begins a mini riot after a sports game is turned off at crucial moment. The warden submits himself to the degrading dance but once the man surrenders, he does not honour any of the promises he made to convince him to come down from the tower he was occupying. The guards are corrupt, violent, and untrustworthy whereas the majority of prisoners are docile, resigned, and going mad through inactivity.

Ueda, like many “heroes” of yakuza films is a man who’s had a hard life, left to fend for himself after his father died and his mother left. He appears to love and care for his wife who pledges to wait for him, starting her own seamstressing business in the meantime, but his subsequent escape attempts take him further and further away from his home. Nevertheless, home is the first place he decides to go despite the danger even if his reunion with his wife is anything but romantic.

After being recaptured, Ueda’s desire for escape intensifies, requiring ever more complicated schemes to make it happen. These range from the traditional file hidden inside a lovingly prepared meal delivered by his wife, to simply running away when arraigned for a court date after committing another murder while inside. Seeing as Ueda intends to escape, he cares little for the prison rules and his 20 year sentence is soon doubled thanks to his ongoing crimes both inside and outside of the prison walls.

Other than his wife the other source of support Ueda turns to is his estranged sister with whom he’s had no contact since his mother left sixteen years previously. What he discovers is that the now widowed Kazuko (Naoko Otani) is involved in some dodgy business of her own concerning the local black market meat trade. Ueda decides Kazuko is not getting her fair share and more or less takes over, bending the local petty gangsters to his will, but once again he messes everything up for himself after getting into a fight at a brothel which lands him back at the police station.

Nakajima follows Fukasaku’s jitsuroku aesthetic using frequent onscreen text detailing names and conviction records for each of the major players though his approach owes far less to realism than b-movie action in its willingness to linger on blood and gore even if scenes of violence are generally few and executed quickly. Scenes of a cow being butchered in the woods, blood, skin, and bones dominating, introduce a note of sickening horror but are then echoed in Ueda’s animalistic murders committed with makeshift tools and an unforgiving heart. Despite this frightening coldness, Ueda’s humorous voiceover turns him into a roguish figure whose bumbling acts of self destruction and stubborn attempts to regain his freedom take on an oddly cartoonish quality.  The situation may be hopeless, but Ueda does not give up. His story remains unfinished as he makes another (apparently) successful escape after being betrayed by a fellow criminal who is then himself betrayed by the police he mistakenly thought would help him, but as for how long he’ll manage to keep himself on this side of the bars, that remains to be seen…


 

Aesthetics of a Bullet (鉄砲玉の美学, Sadao Nakajima, 1973)

aesthetics of a bullet1973 is the year the ninkyo eiga died. Or that is to say, staggered off into an alleyway clutching its stomach and vowing revenge whilst simultaneously seeking forgiveness from its beloved oyabun after being cruelly betrayed by the changing times! You might think it was Kinji Fukasaku who turned traitor and hammered the final nail into the coffin of Toei’s most popular genre, but Sadao Nakajima helped ram it home with the riotous explosion of proto-punk youth movie and jitsuroku-style naturalistic look at the pettiness and squalor inherent in the yakuza life – Aesthetics of a Bullet (鉄砲玉の美学, Teppodama no Bigaku). This tale of a small time loser playing the supercool big shot with no clue that he’s a sacrificial pawn in a much larger power struggle is one that has universal resonance despite the unpleasantness of its “hero”.

Kiyoshi Koike is a former chef with a gambling problem and a living room full of rabbits that he bought hoping to sell as pets but his sales patter could use some work and the business is not exactly taking off. Getting violent with his girlfriend after borrowing money from her to play mahjong and then getting annoyed when she doesn’t seem keen to lend him more to change his rabbit business into a dog business, Kiyoshi is at an impasse. So, when the local gangsters are looking for a patsy they can send into enemy territory as a “bullet” Kiyoshi’s name is high on the list. They need someone “hotblooded, must have daredevil courage, when he flips he should make a huge racket” – Kiyoshi more than fits the bill, and more to the point he has no idea what he’s doing.

Given a large amount of money and a gun, Kiyoshi gets a haircut and buys some fancy suits to play his part as a super cool gangster who doesn’t take any shit from anyone. He goes around telling everyone his name and gang affiliation very loudly, waving his pistol and acting like a big shot despite the fact he obviously has no name and no reputation. The plan is he fires his gun, gets killed, his gang swoop in for a gang war and wipe out the opposition. Only, when Kiyoshi gets too invested in his part and beats up a rival gangster, the local boss apologises and offers him a knife to make things even with the guy who just disrespected him…

If he fires his gun, it’s game over but what exactly is keeping his finger off the trigger – fear, or self preservation? Either way, Kiyoshi is way over his head in a game he never understood in the first place.

This is no ninkyo eiga. There’s no nobility here, these men are animals with no humanity let alone a pretence of honour. Kiyoshi is a loser, through and through, but once the gun is in his hand he transforms into something else. The gun becomes an extension of himself, a symbol of his new found gangster hero status. A fancy suit and a fire arm are handy props for a method actor but the performance only runs so deep, what is Kiyoshi now, a man, or a bullet?

Whatever he is, he’s no hero. In his untransformed state he violently beat his girlfriend whom he also forced to work as a prostitute, and even after getting the gun he witnesses a woman being gang raped yet appears to be more amused than anything else. He ends up getting into a fight with the other two guys waiting for their go and seems to feel heroic after the woman gets away but his intention was never to rescue her. Indeed, bumping into her again he makes a clumsy attempt at subtle blackmail though she gets a kind of revenge on him in the end. Even his “romantic” encounter with the glamorous former photo model girlfriend of the rival gang boss ends with a bizarre sex game in which he makes her get on all fours and bark like a dog.

When the time comes, Kiyoshi can’t contemplate the idea of returning to his old loser self and is fixated on reaching the peak of Kirishima which is said to be the place where the gods descended to Earth. When the bullet finally emerges, it heads in the wrong direction. Self inflicted wounds are the name of the game as an aesthetically pleasing, poetic end to this tragic story follows the only trajectory available for a classic yakuza fable.

After beginning with a montage of people sloppily eating junk food set against a proto-punk rock song dedicated to the idea of living the way you please and not letting anyone get in your way, the film contrasts the independent, non-conformist yakuza ideal of total freedom with Kiyoshi’s lowly status in an increasingly consumerist environment. The yakuza life would indeed prove a passport for a man like Kiyoshi to jump into the mainstream, but this fantasy world is one that cannot last and one way or another the curtain must fall on this expensive piece of advanced performance art.

Aesthetics of a Bullet has, like its hero, been abandoned on the roadside. Whereas the Battles Without Honour series has become a landmark of the yakuza genre, Aesthetics of a Bullet has never even received a home video release in Japan and has received barely a mention even the histories of ATG movies. This is surprising as its noir style and art house approach ought to have made it one of ATG’s more commercially viable releases even with its sleazy, nihilistic tone. Opting for a more naturalistic approach, Nakajima nevertheless breaks the action with expressionistic sequences as Kiyoshi fantasises a glorious death for himself, climaxes through gunshot, or remembers the student riots through a blue tinted sequence of still photographs. A complex yet beautifully made, genre infused character piece, Aesthetics of a Bullet is a long lost classic and one in urgent need of reappraisal.


Title sequence and first scene (unsubtitled)