Review: Outlaw: Goro the Assassin (1968)

Four films in and the Outlaw VIP series is beginning to creak. As I noted in reviews of hitokiri-goroprevious instalments, Nikkatsu put out no less than six Outlaw movies starring Tetsuya Watari in 1968 and 1969. The fourth, Outlaw: Goro the Assassin (1968), sees the titular anti-hero Goro Fujikawa as a drifter without a yakuza family who gets involved in yet another feud involving local criminals and innocent civilians.

Much like the previous film, Heartless, only Watari seems to be playing the same role. Despite that a number of actors from the other films return, but as fresh characters. Once again, Chieko Matsubara plays the love interest. This recycling of familiar faces in new roles is increasingly a little jarring and confusing. I’m not yet sure whether this was something common in Japanese productions of the time or something limited to lower budget ‘programme movies’, but it looks like everyone will be back again for the fifth and sixth films of the series, so it’s something I’m going to have to get used to.

It’s also unclear whether this film actually fits into any kind of intended overall narrative. Using the same actors in different roles confuses matters, but it doesn’t rule out that this meant to be an actual sequel to the other films. On the other hand, there are no real narrative threads tying them together. Where Outlaw VIP and VIP 2 were essentially one narrative, Heartless and Goro the Assassin stand completely alone. The only constant is the character of Goro. This time his reputation as ‘Goro the Assassin’ is key. The story begins with him offing a yakuza boss and, along with a sidekick or ‘younger brother’ type character, being thrown in jail. When he gets out, he’s something of a drifter; his main goal is to deliver a last letter from his fellow prisoner to the dead man’s estranged sister. In the course of this he finds himself pinned between Chieko Matsubara’s deer-in-headlights hotel receptionist, the low rent hood running a local strip joint, and the Meishinkai – the very yakuza organisation whose previous head he killed in the opening sequence.

Much like the original Outlaw Gangster VIP, the film has characters pay lip service to the idea that the yakuza are bad – greedy, violent, and morally bankrupt. It’s the first time in the series though that it feels like the film really embraces this concept. There is a high degree of romanticism towards the yakuza in Japanese pop culture, with yakuza representing a kind of return to traditional, hyper-masculine values of honour, duty, camaraderie, and adventurousness. That was at the heart of ninkyo eiga, movies that portray the yakuza as chivalrous outlaws coming to the protection of defenceless civilians against marauding hoodlums or corrupt governments. The yakuza themselves practiced a kind of self-mythologising, seeing themselves this way, with a feedback loop where they would fund Japan’s flourishing postwar entertainment industry to put out exactly that sort of film. In Goro the Assassin, the overwhelming majority of yakuza are violent criminals, but more importantly because that’s not very new, they’re also violent and abusive towards non-yakuza civilians.

Part of the myth of the yakuza, and the reason that until relatively recently the Japanese government did little to really crack down on their existence, is that Japanese organised crime is somehow internally focused – that violent crime will only occur between gangs, and that crime will not spill over into ‘ordinary’ society. Outlaw: Goro the Assassin harbours no such illusions, with the yakuza using civilians as pawns, caring little if they lose their jobs or about threatening them with harm, and the fallout from some ‘incident’ between the Meishinkai and Chieko Matsubara’s family casts a shadow over the whole film.

Of course as usual, all of this is somewhat undermined by Goro himself, a cheerful, friendly, helpful man who jokes with bus drivers, helps women carry their children, and steps in to protect the innocent.

With two movies left in Arrow Video’s Outlaw VIP collection, I’m unsure what to expect. Will there be a tie between further films beyond Watari’s recurring character? Will the series have a definitive end, or did Nikkatsu simply stop making them? So far, no film in the series has been unwatchable, but neither have any been outstanding. Despite that, I’m glad to have to the opportunity to watch them. I recently started listening to film critics Drew McWeeny and Scott Weinberg’s 80s All Over podcast, and in the February 1980 episode, McWeeny makes an impassioned case for preserving these pieces of film history even if it doesn’t seem like the films themselves are especially well made, memorable, or otherwise deserving. It doesn’t matter that the Outlaw movies are clearly popcorn fodder – I’m still unsure whether they were intended to run as B-movies in double bills or if they were actually main features – or that they are not the most thrilling relics from the history of Japanese cinema. To watch them now is to be able to experience a little piece of Japan in the late 1960s.

Outlaw: Goro the Assassin / 無頼 人斬り五郎 (Burai Hitokiri Goro)

Director: Keiichi Ozawa

Japanese Release Date: 2nd November 1968

Version Watched: 88 min (Arrow Video)

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