Review: Retaliation (1968)

Director Yasuharu Hasebe and Nikkatsu star Joe Shishido return for another yakuza collaboration in Retaliation (1968). Shot in colour, a year after their monochrome work in Massacre Gun, their follow-up has a completely different tone, energy, and style. Shishido, speaking in an interview in his seventies, ruefully commented that all these movies were the same – two gangs fight, and they just had to find a way to make it interesting and different each time. He’s not wrong, but he does himself and his collaborators a disservice: Retaliation is a far superior film to either Massacre Gun or the contemporary Tetsuya Watari vehicle Outlaw VIP, a pitch-perfect take on the late ‘60s yakuza action movie format.

Retaliation Titles

Notably, Shishido (Massacre Gun, Branded to Kill) isn’t actually the leading man in Retaliation. That role belongs to Akira Kobayashi (Battles Without Honour and Humanity) as the just-out-of-prison Jiro Sagae, released after eight years for a yakuza-related murder. Shishido’s Hino confronts him at the gates and reveals the man Sagae killed was his brother and a scuffle ensues, the action already echoing the brawling, streetfight style seen in Nikkatsu’s Outlaw movies. Hino’s girlfriend interrupts the fight, but it clearly isn’t over, and his desire for revenge is a running thread through the movie. When Sagae is put to work by his ailing, hospitalised godfather and the ruthless Hazama gang paying his bills, he ends up in a boomtown trying to buy out the local farmers to facilitate a land deal between the yakuza and a factory consortium. While Sagae is teamed up with a who’s-who of yakuza character actors, it’s Shishido who ends up stealing every scene; Hino reappears and is warned he can’t have his revenge while the yakuza still need Sagae, so he winds up hanging around their office, deadpanning about their problems and doing nothing to help. It’s easily the best performance I’ve seen from Shishido to date.

The translation is perfectly adequate to follow the story that unfolds as Sagae is tasked with uniting or getting rid of the two, rival gangs already operating in the area, but in Japanese, there’s an extra layer of detail that ties together with the overall arc of the film. The town is being torn up between a group of old ‘bakuto’ and new ‘gurentai chinpira’. Bakuto are gamblers, one of the two traditional yakuza archetypes (the other being tekiya, or peddlers). Gurentai are more like thugs, and chinpira is often translated as ‘punks’. In other words, the old, traditional yakuza are being pushed out by young, violent thugs, mirroring the way the traditional Japanese rice farmers are being pushed out by the modern factory concern. Much of the film is about this clash between the traditional and modern, with a young Meiko Kaji (still credited as Masako Ota) as a farmer’s daughter, lamenting what will become of the land that could have been farmed for centuries, or the farmers that worked it. The only remaining dream of Sagae’s elderly godfather is to have his family’s wooden crest displayed proudly again; the modern Hazama gang has a sprawling compound with metal gates and security cameras watching visitors’ every move. Retaliation is not shy about working this symbology through the film, or tying the weather to its characters’ fortunes. Much of the movie takes place in baking summer heat, and this is a perfect depiction of it; everyone is drenched in sweat, whole conversations are drowned out by the roar of cicadas, the rice paddies are unbelievably green. When the storm finally breaks at a narratively-appropriate moment, it’s the kind of incredible downpour I closely associate with a Japanese summer.

The way the movie’s plot revolves around tricking two rival gangs into fighting against each other is reminiscent of the brilliant Yojimbo, albeit with none of Mifune’s playfulness, and echoed in the modern era by Takeshi Kitano’s delightfully violent, almost farcically escalatory Outrage. There is more or less everything you would expect from a yakuza movie of the time, just on the verge of the jitsuroku eiga boom and works like Battles Without Honour and Humanity, but delivered with confidence and craft. The action is well shot and imaginative, from a dramatic brawl in the dark, lit only by the beam of a flashlight, to framing the fight on a tiny CCTV monitor. Rivals become brothers, brothers are forced to fight, bosses scheme with no respect for honour or tradition, and there’s a growing sense of overwhelming violence and the sheer futility of being a yakuza.

The final exchange more or less sums up the movie, and the era:

“I didn’t think they’d be so deceitful.”
“All yakuza are.”

Retaliation / 縄張はもらった (Shima wa moratta)

Director: Yasuharu Hasebe

Japanese Release Date: 5th October 1968

Version Watched: 95 min, Arrow Video Blu-Ray Disc

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