Get ready for a dose of late ‘60s yakuza action with Yasuharu Hasebe’s Massacre Gun (1967). Like a few of the other Japanese gangster movies I’ve reviewed here on Kino 893, it’s a title that Arrow have rescued from relative obscurity; it only got its Western debut at the Fantasia film festival in 2012. I’ve already written about Hasebe’s work on Stray Cat Rock: Delinquent Girl Boss, a surprisingly fun action movie with an unexpectedly anti-authoritarian vibe. It was through Massacre Gun that I discovered he had trained under (in)famous director Seijun Suzuki as an assistant director, and unlike Delinquent Girl Boss, that heritage is readily apparent here. From the way the film is staged, shot in monochrome, and features Suzuki collaborators Joe Shishido (Branded to Kill) and Hideaki Nitani (Voice Without a Shadow), Massacre Gun positively screams Seijun Suzuki. With that in mind, how does it hold up?
The plot is fairly rote, though I feel like I was missold on the specifics. From the title (a fairly direct translation of the Japanese, みな殺しの拳銃 / Minagoroshi no kenjū) and the rough outline, I was expecting a straightforward revenge movie: Shishido is Kuroda, a yakuza wronged by his own boss and organisation, taking revenge with the titular weapon. My only question was how the film would be weighted. Would it be a lot of build up, insult piled upon insult, before Kuroda snaps? Or would there be some quick exposition to set things up, and then 80 minutes of violence? If it’s anything, it’s the former; as the movie opens, Kuroda is ordered by his boss to execute his own girlfriend, for reasons never fully explained. It feels like that might be enough of an inciting incident, but no, Kuroda endures. When his hot-headed younger brother Saburo, an aspiring boxer, berates the boss and gets his hands broken for it, destroying his career, Kuroda quits working for the yakuza, but still, he endures. Insult after insult are piled upon him, some large, some small, to the point where you start to question what, exactly, is going to lead to him breaking out the ‘massacre gun’. When the film finally comes to its conclusion, it feels earned, but it was not at all what I was expecting; something more complicated and reluctant than simple revenge.
The cast is packed with faces that will be instantly familiar to anyone watching Japanese gangster movies of the 50s and 60s. Nikkatsu had a stable of talent, and deployed them across its slate of films. Joe Shishido – instantly, bizarrely recognisable by his prominent cheek implants – is the lead here, playing Kuroda with a kind of long-suffering stoicism. Hideaki Nitani is Shirasaka, Kuroda’s estranged acquaintance, still allied with the yakuza boss Kuroda finds himself pitted against. It’s their relationship – former friends, now enemies – that lends the end of the movie some pathos. Saburo is played by a fresh-faced Jiro Okazaki, who pops up in a few of the Outlaw VIP films. I was most surprised by Ken Sanders, a mixed race Japanese/African-American actor I recognised from Delinquent Girl Boss. Here, he plays a musician working at Kuroda’s club, with his performances a recurring presence through the film. Socio-politically, it’s interesting seeing Sanders’ characters presented without comment; contemporary Japan sees itself as incredibly racially homogenous, but Sanders is presumably representative of the mixed-race children born during the American occupation (as Jasper Sharp notes, he was born in 1946).
It’s a real shame that the action sequences fail to land, because despite the fairly straightforward story, it’s told well. Too many Japanese films, especially from this era, seem to hit a moment where the story devolves into confusion; Branded to Kill is notorious for making no sense, but it’s hardly the only example. Everything that happens in Massacre Gun makes sense, it’s just that the action beats rarely live up to expectations. In one scene, Kuroda and his associate are ambushed in the hold of a ship, and apparently the dozen pistol-wielding thugs bearing down on them couldn’t hit a barn door if they tried. In another, a man is gunned down against a wall in a firing squad-like moment, but he spends so long flailing around under the comically over-the-top hail of bullets it starts to look like a parody – think Homer’s possessed toupé meeting its end in an old Simpsons Halloween story, except it actually lasts longer in Massacre Gun. The final sequence where the massacre occurs is better, but not especially memorable; the location is more interesting than the action or cinematography.
For fans of the era, the talent, or the filmmakers involved, Massacre Gun is worth checking out, but it’s not the best example of its genre. Hasebe’s later Delinquent Girl Boss was a much more positive experience, so it’s clear he can do more than is on show here. He’d team up again with Shishido and Nitani for a follow-up to Massacre Gun in Retaliation in 1968, so let’s see if this creative team can do better a second time around.
Massacre Gun / みな殺しの拳銃 / (Minagoroshi no kenjū)
Director: Yasuharu Hasebe
Japanese Release Date: 6th September 1967
Version Watched: 89 min, Arrow Video Blu-Ray Disc