Rusty Knife (錆びたナイフ, Toshio Masuda, 1958)

rusty knife posterPost-war Japan was in a precarious place but by the mid-1950s, things were beginning to pick up. Unfortunately, this involved picking up a few bad habits too – namely, crime. The yakuza, as far as the movies went, were largely a pre-war affair – noble gangsters who had inherited the codes of samurai honour and were (nominally) committed to protecting the little guy. The first of many collaborations between up and coming director Toshio Masuda and the poster boy for alienated youth, Yujiro Ishihara, Rusty Knife (錆びたナイフ, Sabita Knife) shows us the other kind of movie mobster – the one that would stick for years to come. These petty thugs have no honour and are symptomatic parasites of Japan’s rapidly recovering economy, subverting the desperation of the immediate post-war era and turning it into a nihilistic struggle for total freedom from both laws and morals.

Public support is, largely, behind this new force of order as seen in the local uproar when top gangster Katsumata (Naoki Sugiura) is arrested in connection with an assault. Things being what they are, Katsumata is soon released to laugh at law enforcement from a safe distance but the past is coming for him. Some years ago Katsumata killed a local councillor, Nishida (Ikunosuke Koizumi), and made it look like suicide but three guys from a local gang saw him do it. He paid them to keep quiet, but now one of them feels like talking and thinks Katsumata might like to pay a little more to reseal the deal.

Chatty Tokyo thug Shima (Jo Shishido) gets pushed off a train for his pains but Katsumata is worried enough about the other two to send his guys out to make some enquires. He’s particularly worried about Tachibana (Yujiro Ishihara) – a “sleeping lion”, Tachibana is a hot head who’s now gone straight after coming out of jail for murdering a guy he thought was a direct cause of his girlfriend’s death. Luckily enough, Tachibana now runs a bar where he employs the other witness, Terada (Akira Kobayashi), to whom he acts as a stern big brother hoping to keep them both on the straight and narrow. Tachibana is unlikely to talk, he wants out of the gangster world for good, but Terada is young and ambitious with a girlfriend to impress. He takes more hush money from Katsumata, not realising what he’s getting himself into, and then lets it go to his head.

Tachibana is the rusty knife of the title. After letting his rage consume him in murdering a petty mobster in revenge for the rape of his girlfriend who later committed suicide, Tachibana has vowed to quell his anger and live a decent, peaceful life. Angry outbursts are, however, never far from the surface and following recent revelations, a rusty knife may find its cutting edge once again.

Keiko (Mie Kitahara), a customer at Tachibana’s bar, is making a documentary about violence in the city which coincidentally turns up a few clues as to Tachibana’s past, not to mention her own. The daughter of the murdered councilman, Nishida, and the niece of another powerful politician, Keiko is a figure of righteousness, charting her own course through the difficult post-war world and attempting to do so with dignity and elegance while refusing to abandon her sense of decency and compassion. Later a real life married couple, Kitahara and Ishihara were a frequent on screen romantic pairing though this time around the connection is more subtle as Keiko begins to sympathise with Tachibana’s plight and commits herself to saving him from destroying himself in becoming consumed by his barely suppressed rage.

Tachibana is indeed raging, though his rage is understandable. As someone later puts it “nothing in this city makes sense”. The systems are corrupt, the wartime generation continue to run the show and run it badly, or at least for their own ends, robbing youth of its rightful place at the forefront of economic recovery. Yet even if Ishihara is a symbol of youthful alienation, his rage is one which must be quelled. Even in this city where nothing makes sense, self control is one’s greatest weapon. If youth is to walk forward into the exciting post-war future, it will have to drop its rusty knives.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

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)

Outlaw: Gangster VIP the Complete Collection

outlaw gangster collectionReview of the Outlaw: Gangster VIP the Complete Collection dual format box set from Arrow Films first published by UK Anime Network.


There are two distinct eras of yakuza movies in Japan – the “ninkyo eiga” strand of traditional, noble gangsters acting out of a sense of loyalty and honour and the “jitsuroku” approach exemplified by Kinji Fukasaku’s Battles Without Honour and Humanity series which sought to show yakuza life for what it was – short, bloody and ultimately pointless. The Outlaw series provides a perfect bridge between the two as it’s based on the true life memoirs of former yakuza Goro Fujita but opts for a genre hybrid by essentially reframing the popular youth movies of the day as gangster noir rather than the down and dirty naturalism of Fukasaku’s magnum opus.

The Outlaw series consists of six films though only the first two are in direct continuity with each other. Gangster VIP 1 & 2 begin the saga of noble hearted gangster Goro who was orphaned when his mother died of illness during the war leaving him to look after his younger sister who also later dies either of illness or of malnutrition becoming the first of the women Goro is unable to save. He ends up a street kid and is eventually sent to reform school from where he escapes with an older boy, Sugiyama, who later resurfaces as a member of a rival gang in Part 1. These two films also chronicle Goro’s ongoing romance with the innocent Yukiko who falls in love with him after he saves her from a gang of thugs.

However, after Gangster VIP 2, the series has little internal continuity and the saga of Goro and Yukiko falls silent. This is actually a little confusing as many of the actors from the other films in the series frequently turn up playing entirely different characters, not least Chieko Matsubara who plays Goro’s love interest in every film but is actually a similarly named yet entirely different woman each time even if she also has a very similar backstory to that of Yukiko in the very first film.

Each chapter follows the same basic pattern – Goro gets out of prison/moves/goes looking for someone and ends up getting into trouble with the local gangsters despite his intense desire to leave the yakuza world behind. The chance of salvation is always offered in the form of Chieko Matsubara who plays exactly the same character each time even though she has different names and falls in love with Goro a little quicker with each passing frame. Goro is the noble hearted wanderer so he always opts to sacrifice his own potential happiness rather than get other people mixed up in his bloody and unpredictable gangster world.

The first few films in the series are more deeply rooted in the post-war past with the major theme being the loss of family and the yakuza providing a home for those otherwise without hope. Having been orphaned and left to starve on the streets, cruelly ignored by passersby and the society at large, men like Goro were forced to form associations with each other for survival and to turn to crime through lack of other options. Given the perilousness of their times, even the yakuza brotherhood is uncertain and these relationships are hollow and ever changing – a far cry from the unconditional love and support supposedly offered by the traditional family unit.

Moving on slightly, the series grows up with Goro as he moves form lamenting his rootless nature to an inability to put down roots for himself as he knows that his dangerous lifestyle is not something he wants to bring a wife, and particularly children, into. Things never end well for the married yakuza in these films who often see their wives or girlfriends kidnapped, raped or used against them in some other way and the overriding message is that love is both a weakness and an irresponsible indulgence for those who live or die by the sword.

The series features three different directors with Red Pier director Toshio Masuda helming the first which is perhaps the most accomplished even if Masuda is often criticised for not having a distinctive style of his own. Keiichi Ozawa picks up for parts 2, 4, 5, and 6 which each more or less follow the style laid out by Masuda though he does add in a few flourishes of his own including a very groovy showdown in a contemporary nightclub in the final film. Part three, Heartless, is directed by Mio Ezaki and is perhaps the weakest in the series though does at least break with the style and direction a little more than might be expected whilst adding a few thrills along the way.

The Outlaw series has perhaps not been fully appreciated outside Japan but now hopefully will be thanks to this excellently put together set from Arrow. The series as a whole feels a little safe at times and often pulls its punches where it had the opportunity to push for something with more bite but its doom laded tale of a noble gangster with a ruined heart is the kind of effortless, nihilistic cool that is hard to beat. Another excellent offering of Nikkatsu Noir mixed with existential youth movie and yakuza trappings, the Outlaw series is a long overdue addition to the world of Japanese action movies and one that every genre enthusiast will be eager to explore.


Outlaw: Gangster VIP the Complete Collection is currently available in a region free dual format Blu-ray/DVD box set in both the US and UK.

Trailer for the series as a whole:

Links to reviews of all six films:

Nikkatsu Diamond Guys Vol. 1

nikkatsudg_av037Review of Arrow’s Nikkatsu Diamond Guys Volume 1 first published on UK Anime Network.


“Diamond Guys” is the name given to the top line of A-list stars at Japan’s oldest film studio Nikkatsu during their period of relaunching themselves as a major production house during the 1950s. At this time, Japanese studios, like their Hollywood counterparts, worked largely on a star system where they held a number of actors and actresses under contract and slotted them into their productions as and where they saw fit. Of the three stars in these pictures, Yujiro Ishihara perhaps burned brightest as a James Dean style apathetic hero and icon of the “sun tribe” era. Hideaki Nitani ultimately carved a niche for himself as a second lead rather than in starring roles and is a little more on the soulful side than the other guys. Akira Kobayashi who’s still fairly young here is probably the most familiar to overseas audiences later starring in a number of gangster pictures including Arrow’s previous releases Retaliation and the Battles Against Honour and Humanity series.

The first film included in the set, Voice Without a Shadow, is a notable inclusion as it’s a little seen, early effort from the notorious master of the surreal, Seijun Suzuki. In a significantly restrained mood here, Suzuki adapts a Seicho Matsumoto short story with noirish overtones as a telephone switchboard operator accidentally connects a wrong number and unwittingly hears the voice of a murderer at a crime scene. Hideaki Nitani plays a conflicted reporter who’s fallen in love with the switchboard operator who is, alas, already engaged. Three years later she hears the voice again in a gangster her husband unwisely becomes involved with only to have him killed and her husband become the prime suspect.

Film number two, Red Pier, comes from Toshio Masuda and stars pinup of the day Yujiro Ishihara in a characteristically cheeky, nihilistic gangster role. Dressed in a bright white suit and sunglasses, “Jiro the Lefty” is a petty yakuza street kid who found a home in a gang but dreams of a better life somewhere else. After witnessing the strange death of a potential target who gets crushed by a crane at the docks, Jiro ends up meeting the man’s sister and, of course, falls for her. Unfortunately, just about everyone now has it in for Jiro and his happily ever after seems very far off indeed.

The Rambling Guitarist, by contrast, is the only film in the collection to be filmed in colour but makes fantastic use of its super bright, psychedelic look. Starring Akira Kobayashi as a drifter with a guitar, the film starts out like a western but ends as a yakuza pic with a little youth drama thrown in for good measure. It’s fighting, music, and gunplay with Jo Shishido lending grinning support as a late addition hitman.

In some senses each of these films was built around its star – men want to be them, women want to be with them, you get the picture. The Rambling Guitarist is sort of the odd one out here as it’s of a slightly different strand than the other two with a lighter emphasis on crime and a shift from noir to western in terms of its overseas influences. Both Voice Without a Shadow and Red Pier lean much more towards film noir with Red Pier leaning a little more towards Europe than America. That said, The Rambling Guitarist is perhaps the weakest film on offer simply because of its up to the moment youth orientation which leaves it feeling a little more dated than the other two which can rely on their more classical style to find a modern appeal.

Each of these little seen gems would have been worthy of a solo buy in any case but finding them all offered in this fantastic new package from Arrow is a real treat. Each offered in stunning HD re-masters on blu-ray, even if they show their age in a couple of places the transfers are particularly fine and are likely to be the best these films will ever look. The Nikkatsu films from this era offered crowd pleasing thrills and good looking actors, but they were often also made by interesting directors who injected a little of their own individual, often youthful, flair to lift them well above the generic genre movies also on offer. That isn’t to say that each of their pictures was a smash hit, but the three on offer as part of this set are certainly each worthy of consideration even if for quite different reasons and if the included trailers for Vol. 2 are anything to go by we have even more undiscovered gems to look forward to in the future!


Nikkatsu Diamond Guys Volume 1 is out now on dual format DVD/blu-ray in the UK and USA courtesy of Arrow.

 

Red Pier (赤い波止場, Toshio Masuda, 1958)

Snapshot-2016-01-24 at 11_01_43 PM-1747507265Loosely inspired by Julian Duvivier’s 1937 gangster movie Pépé le Moko, Toshio Masuda’s Red Pier (赤い波止場, Akai Hatoba) was designed as a vehicle for Nikkatsu’s rising star of the time, Yujiro Ishihara – later to become the icon of the Sun Tribe generation. On paper it sounds like a fairly conventional plot – young turk of a gangster comes to town to off a guy, sees said guy killed in an “accident”, and shrugs it off as one of life’s little ironies only to accidentally become acquainted with and fall head over heals for the dead guy’s sister. So far, so film noir yet Masuda adds enough of his own characteristic touches to keep things interesting.

“Jiro the Lefty” (Yujiro Ishihara) is a sharp looking petty yakuza type in a bright white suit and sunglasses. Another of Japan’s post-war abandoned street kids, he found a home in a gang and has never known anything one could call a “normal” way of life. Other than his obvious talent with a gun, he has a cheerful and ironic personality that has him even almost respected by the police and is generally well liked in the area.

Early on Jiro rescues a little boy from almost being hit by a car and later when playing the harmonica for him gets hit by a thunderbolt of love when catching sight of the boy’s aunt, Keiko (Mie Kitahara). This causes him several problems at once: to begin with, she’s the sister of the guy he saw get hit by a crane and she doesn’t seem to know her brother was a gangster, two – Keiko is obviously of a much higher social class and a little out of his reach even if he managed to go straight, three – he can’t go straight, he doesn’t know how to do anything else, four – Mami, his current nightclub dancer “girlfriend” who’s invested a little more in the relationship than he has. Actually this is only the start of a long list of problems Jiro has to deal with, he just doesn’t know about them yet.

The story is set around the docks of Kobe where the living is hard and life is cheap. The local policeman is a fairly laid-back, ironic chap who’s made an odd sort of friendship with Jiro wherein he doesn’t really want to see anything too bad happen to him. He can see this thing with Keiko is not a very good idea and is constantly lurking in the shadows trying to control the situation as much as he can. Jiro, doesn’t know it yet but his own guys are out to get him too and after one of his sworn brothers ends up paying the price for Jiro’s rising profile in the yakuza world, he finds himself on the run from pretty much everyone.

This sounds like quite a complicated set up but Masuda manages to martial everything into a coherent order and even adds a hearty dose of realistic emotion too. As far as the aesthetic goes, Masuda takes his cues from American film noir with harsh lighting and canted angles all employed to show us the crookedness of this underground world but he also makes sure to add occasional touches of artistic flair such as the light bouncing off Jiro’s sunglasses during a night time cab ride or the sheer shock on Ishihara’s face as he first sees Keiko framed against the bright sunshine of Kobe’s harbour.

The too noble for his own good gangster who wants to go straight but knows he has a crooked heart – it’s an old story, but a good one. Red Pier pushes a lot of these ideas to the max but handles them well and adds a traditional “crime doesn’t pay” ending which is both endlessly sad and completely appropriate at the same time. You can’t help feel for Jiro and his small scale existential crisis in which the reluctant gangster wants to jump ship for more peaceful climes but can’t for both personal and societal reasons. Red Pier may not be the best Masuda/Ishihara collaboration but it is certainly an excellent example of everything its genre has to offer.


Red Pier is the Second film included in Arrow’s Nikkatsu Diamond Guys Vol. 1 collection.