Sitting down to watch Outlaw: Heartless (1968), I wondered if I was being too harsh on the series. After all, I was treating them as B-movies between the films of Akira Kurosawa: not just one of Japan’s most acclaimed directors but one of the most acclaimed directors of all time. Funny story: the first Outlaw film was directed by Toshio Masuda who, along with Kinji Fukasaku and Richard Fleischer, directed Tora! Tora! Tora! Masuda and Fukasaku were brought in to direct the Japanese side of the production after Kurosawa dropped out. While Keiichi Ozawa directed most of the other instalments, for Heartless, Mio Ezaki took the reigns.
Perhaps, then, Outlaw is just a straightforward yakuza action film series. The release dates, spaced out every few months, might not mean these are B-movies in the original sense of throwaway, low-budget filler for the second half of a double bill. Then again, the best explanation I had for the release schedule was that I had just read about “programme movies”, Japanese B-movies the studios pumped out for exactly that purpose. Nikkatsu, the studio behind the Outlaw films, had a B-movie shooting schedule of just one week of pre-production and 25 days of filming.
My suspicions were all but confirmed when I realised the cast was the same as last time, but now they were in new roles – most glaringly, Chieko Matsubara reprises her role as the love interest. Just not the same love interest as in VIP and VIP 2. Actually, the whole movie feels oddly disconnected from the previous two (despite, again, coming out only months after the last one).
Protagonist Goro is still the one yakuza with a heart of gold, now in a new gang, where he doesn’t make it as far as the opening credits before breaking loose for reasons of honour and lots of stabbing. At least Heartless manages to hit some different story beats along the way to the now essential closing scenes (Goro even has his own Sad Walking Away Music).
It might sound like I’m being particularly hard on Heartless, but actually, it’s put together a little better than the VIPs were – again, despite being shot so close together. The fights are more ambitious, the camera angles chosen better. In fact, it’s kind of a shame – leading man Tetsuya Watari isn’t terrible, but not much is asked of him, either. One can only imagine a more memorable lead could have made these quite special in spite of the material. On the other hand, digging through his filmography, he’s supposed to have appeared in a few more well known and better received yakuza movies, so it’s hard to judge where the problem lies.
Special mention must go to new character Kenji, determined to get revenge on Goro due to a misunderstanding. I couldn’t look at his white suit and fantastically bright red shirt without thinking of Yakuza series lead Kiryu all over again. Bonus Yakuza connection: IMDB notes Watari actually plays Shintaro Kazama in Yakuza 2 and the prequel Yakuza Zero.
Outlaw: Heartless / 無頼 非情 (Burai Hijo)
Director: Toshio Masuda
Japanese Release Date: 1st August 1968
Version Watched: Arrow Video’s Outlaw: Gangster VIP The Complete Collection, 92 min