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. 


I Hate But Love (憎いあンちくしょう, Koreyoshi Kurahara, 1962)

I hate but love posterDoes “pure love” exist in the Japan of 1962, and if so what does it look like? Yujiro Ishihara, the poster boy for youthful rebellion, might not be the best person to ask but it’s his unfulfilled media superstar that ultimately determines to find out. In I Hate But Love (憎いあンちくしょう, Nikui Anchikusho) Koreyoshi Kurahara puts the jazz clubs and delinquency of The Warped Ones to one side for a Technicolor romp that owes more to Day/Hudson than it perhaps does to James Dean or Marlon Brando. Yet there is something mildly subversive in its low level criticism of Japan’s lurch towards the consumerist future, finding only emptiness in fame and success while the central couple’s deliberately repressed desires push them towards a point of both spiritual and physical exhaustion.

Daisaku (Yujiro Ishihara) and Noriko (Ruriko Asaoka) have been a couple for two years. Noriko is also Daisaku’s manager and has been with him since he was broke and an aspiring poet. Now he’s one of Japan’s top DJs and she looks after his schedule which is packed in the extreme – in fact it leaves him no time for sleeping between his radio show, TV appearances, and meetings in bars, not to mention a late night date starting at 2am! Raiding the local papers for a suitable human interest story they can flag up on the show, Noriko stumbles over the tale of a local woman who is looking for a “driver who understands humanism”. Intrigued, Daisaku and his producer Ichiro (Hiroyuki Nagato) set off to interview her but the woman doesn’t want to be involved with the media – she doesn’t want to sully her love! The fact of the matter is, Yoshiko (Izumi Ashikawa) has kept up a romance with a doctor in a rural town by letter alone and used all her savings to buy a jeep to help transport his patients more effectively. Yoshiko doesn’t need to see Toshio (Asao Koike) – her dashing doctor fiancé, she believes in their love and that’s good enough for her. She just needs someone to actually take the jeep to Kyushu where it is most needed.

Just at this point, Daisaku’s relationship with Noriko reaches a crisis point. Lovers for two years, they each feared the sparks would fade and so to keep them popping they’ve committed to a rule of no physical contact. Spark they do (though not always in a good way), but when trapped in Daisaku’s apartment one rainy afternoon and bored out of their minds they nearly give in – damaging the fragile balance they’ve managed to build through mutual rejection of their equally mutual attraction. Though Noriko remains committed to their plan for long term romance, the non-encounter pushes Daisaku into a profound state of crisis in pondering the nature of his relationship – does “pure love” exist, does he really “love” Noriko, what is the point and the purpose of their central bond of negation? Hoping to find all of that out, Daisaku makes a surprise on air announcement that he himself will drive Yoshiko’s truck to Kyushu and see what her Toshio does with that.   

Yoshiko and Noriko set themselves up as rivals – not for Daisaku’s heart but for the true nature of “love”. “Reclaiming” Daisaku’s Jaguar so she can chase after him, Noriko has a few words for Yoshiko, pointing out that she’s been patiently “building” her love with Daisaku for 737 days. Yoshiko looks at her pityingly – you don’t “build” love, she tells her, you just believe it. For Yoshiko her letters were enough, her love an act of faith, but for Noriko love is a process and an almost scientific endeavour filled with recordable and quantifiable data. Yet everything Noriko says about Daisaku is correct – she knows who he is and truly understands him, every part of him is welcome to her and so she is perfectly placed to find him off on his magic quest even if her desire to bring him back to the city is misplaced.

Daisaku’s journey puts them both through the ringer though their bond is never seriously in question. He runs and she follows, though neither of them can quite escape the net of the society in which they live. Daisaku’s flight is perhaps more from his micromanaged yet extremely comfortable life than it is just of a difficult romance. Taking to the road he wants to feel something, to know that there is something real out there. Unfortunately, even his attempt to embrace something “real” is subverted by his media buddies who secretly film him and air the footage like it’s all been a giant publicity stunt. Fearing that their cash cow is “drunk on humanism”, they ready a contingency plan to bring him back into the fold.

Ichiro tells Noriko that her desire to “tie Daisaku down” is not love but “female egotism”. What drives Noriko isn’t really a desire for control (Daisaku seemingly allows her enough of that), but a need to be needed and fear that Daisaku, now rich and famous, will eventually leave her. Paranoid their love will fail, she rejects its consummation. Yet faith alone is not enough, as Yoshiko painfully finds out on witnessing the disconnect between her imagined love created through her letters and the real flesh and blood man before her to whom she essentially has no real connection. Reaching the end of their journey, Daisaku and Noriko are forced together again, each abandoning some part of their Tokyo lives and personas to break through to something deeper and more essential. Their path takes them straight into a bizarre summer festival complete with giant floats and excited men in traditional Japanese underwear throwing water everywhere. When they finally reach their destination, their love transcends faith to become ritual, their ennui somehow transformed into an ironic celebration of life in fulfilled desire.   

Ichiro categorises Noriko and Daisaku as stingy children – defiantly saving the best for last. There is certainly something immature in their constant bickering and bargaining, the superstition that they can keep their love alive by continually rejecting it and repressing their desire for each other, but there’s also something faintly realistic in the messy grown-up commitment phobia of it all even if it joyfully strays into the absurd. Light and bright and breezy, Kurahara works in the darknesses of early ‘60s Japan from the destructive effects of celebrity and media manipulation to the emptiness of a life of excess but even if he doesn’t quite find “pure love” he does find something close to it in a perfect merger of faith and industry.


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: