Each time I fire up another movie from the Outlaw series, I’m struck by the question of how I’m going to find something meaningful to comment on in a review that I haven’t already said about one of the previous films. Then Outlaw: Black Dagger (1968) did something unexpected: it commented on its recycling of the same actors over and over again.
This review contains spoilers for events in the film’s opening scenes
For a brief moment early on, I thought that Chieko Matsubara was reprising her role from the first two movies. The film opens with Goro reminiscing, mid-knife fight, about a civilian woman who had loved him but he had ordered to go away, lest she get drawn into and hurt by his chaotic yakuza lifestyle. This woman, Yuri (not Yukiko, the first character Matsubara portrayed), somehow manages to stumble into the middle of the fight and is accidentally killed by the heir of the Buso yakuza group. The story jumps ahead several years, putting it in December 1962 judging by the Christmas trees in one bar catering to American forces, and Goro has all but given up on the yakuza lifestyle, refusing an offer to intervene between the warring Shimaoka and Buso groups.
So far, so typical of previous films in the series – until Chieko Matsubara appears again, this time portraying local nurse Shizuko. I found it literally incredible that she returns not just portraying a new character, but that she portrays no less than two unrelated characters in the same film. Unlike Heartless and Goro the Assassin, Black Dagger actually acknowledges this bizarre turn of events, with both Goro himself and the Buso heir recognising her and wondering why she looks so similar to Yuri who was killed off in the opening scenes. It doesn’t go as far as having Goro wonder why she looks so similar to the string of women who have thrown themselves at him over the course of the series, but that might have been too much, even for Outlaw.
The farce surrounding Chieko Matsubara’s character(s) aside, Black Dagger remains a disappointingly by the numbers take on the Outlaw series. I wrote at the start of my review of Goro the Assassin that “[f]our films in and the Outlaw VIP series is beginning to creak”. That hasn’t changed. Now-familiar tropes keep popping up alongside familiar faces (including rubber-faced Kunie Tanaka, this time as a doctor with amusingly poor bedside manner for his yakuza patients): the antagonist who comes to respect Goro, the friend who betrays him, the love interest portrayed by Matsubara who flings herself at him for no apparent reason. In fact, Black Dagger has perhaps the most egregious version of this: in previous films, Watari’s Goro has at least rescued Matsubara from some incident or otherwise shown himself to be a decent human being, but here, she’s declaring her love for him having done nothing more than bandaging his head wound after he’s taken to her clinic. It’s not that the films, or Black Dagger in particular, are terrible, but they’re all in some way built around this relationship between Goro and whoever Matsubara is playing, and they never have the slightest bit of chemistry or any kind of understandable arc. It’s also not that the series is incapable of portraying that kind of emotional connection, as previous films managed to include several pairs of young, typically doomed lovers with far more believable passion than Watari and Matsubara deliver.
A few passing comments then, to close. There’s a fight on a moving train that came as a pleasant surprise. A scene where Buso thugs trash a Shimaoka bar is a reminder of how impressively frangible Japanese set dressing can be. A fight near the end of the movie spills into a ‘60s pachinko parlour, complete with ancient-looking machines. Again – it’s not that the movies lack in delightful, era-appropriate gangster imagery, it’s just that the stories it tells wear increasingly thin. With just one film left in the series, Outlaw: Kill!, it remains to be seen whether it can pull off a last minute success or fade into obscurity.
Outlaw: Black Dagger / 無頼 黒匕首 (Burai Kurodosu)
Director: Keiichi Ozawa
Japanese Release Date: Late 1968
Version Watched: 86 min, Arrow Video release