The main reason I wanted to watch Kinji Fukasaku’s Battles Without Honour and Humanity series is that I’d heard they were the turning point between the old-fashioned ninkyo eiga (chivalry movies) that portrayed the yakuza as honourable heroes, and more modern, gritty, arguably more realistic takes where the criminals are actually the bad guys. Outlaw: Gangster VIP (1968) came out a few years before Battles Without Honour and Humanity, but it’s going in the same direction.
It’s not as interesting or well-made, for sure, but it’s still got some charms. It feels like it uses the style of older movies – and I’m inferring here, because I haven’t actually seen any yakuza movies made before it – with everything being set in the mid-1950s, lots enka playing, lots of guys in ill-fitting suits. But instead of the yakuza being heroes, everyone knows they’re bad news, and keeps telling them that to their faces; except for the movie, which treats them like idiots. Barely a scene goes by without someone being incompetent, greedy, violent, or all of the above.
The main character, Goro (Tetsuya Watari), is also a yakuza, and he pays lip-service to the idea that being a yakuza is bad and telling the love interest not to get involved with a guy like him. Except he’s based on the writings of an actual yakuza, and it’s pretty thinly veiled when you consider he’s the only character who seems to have any idea of honour or doing the right thing (where doing the right thing can include going on a revenge killing spree).
Mostly, I like watching stuff like this for how it informs my understanding of other things. Watching Battles Without Honour and Humanity I could go okay, it’s movies like this where the Yakuza games get their splash screens full of text whenever a character is introduced, giving their name and rank and organisation. Watching Outlaw, it’s hard not to draw a line between it and the Yakuza series; Goro and Kiryu are both thrown out of their gangs and have hearts of gold while being really violent, there are familiar moments of “we’re enemies, but we want to fight each other properly, so I’ll help you escape the rest of my gang”, and so on.
If nothing else, the final fight, taking place in silence while the soundtrack is entirely focused on a lounge singer in the club where it takes place, is surprisingly stylish when the rest of the film is so workmanlike.
So for total pulp, it’s kind of neat, and short enough (at 93 min) that it doesn’t outstay its welcome. On the other hand, there are five more Outlaw movies to watch, so we’ll see if the series improves or becomes completely unwatchable.
Outlaw: Gangster VIP / 「無頼」より 大幹部 (Burai yori daikanbu)
Director: Toshio Masuda
Japanese Release Date: 13th January 1968
Version Watched: Arrow Video’s Outlaw: Gangster VIP The Complete Collection, 93 min