Cops vs. Thugs (1975)

Back in the early 2000s, Kinji Fukasaku’s Battle Royale was probably one of the first live action Japanese films I ever watched. Its popularity helped highlight other Japanese cinema, and a for while, Japanese films were synonymous with shocking, violent pieces like Battle Royale or the work of prolific director Takashi Miike – slapstick exploitation like Ichi the Killer or the truly bizarre Happiness of the Katakuris. It moved the conversation away from the ubiquitous J-horror of the late ‘90s, led by Ring and Grudge and their imitators. Of course, there’s much more to Japanese cinema than that, but it’s where I got my start. It wasn’t until many years later that I became interested in throwback yakuza movies of the 1970s, largely off the back of my interest in SEGA’s Yakuza/Ryū ga Gotoku series. The title I kept seeing referenced as Japan’s equivalent of the Godfather trilogy was Battles Without Honour and Humanity, directed by none other than Kinji Fukasaku.

Cops vs Thugs
“Cops vs. Thugs”

That series remains perhaps the most well-known example of the “jitsuroku” style of yakuza filmmaking – ‘actual record’ or ‘true document’ films, based on or inspired by real stories or newspaper headlines; films that didn’t depict the yakuza as masculine heroes on the wrong side of the law, but focused on petty squabbles, violence, and a nihilistic take on Japan’s organised criminals. It was between the five-film Battles Without Honour and Humanity saga and its follow-up, New Battles Without Honour and Humanity, that Toei’s top brass brought Fukasaku in to direct Cops vs. Thugs (1975). Not content to deconstruct the yakuza alone, the film drags the police and civic leaders into a fascinating quagmire of corruption.

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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

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Massacre Gun (1967)

Get ready for a dose of late ‘60s yakuza action with Yasuharu Hasebe’s Massacre Gun (1967). Massacre Gun (1967) PosterLike 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?

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Voice Without a Shadow (1958)

Watching foreign language films as an English speaker, you’re necessarily limited by the availability of films that have been translated and released in your local region. voicewithoutashadowposterThat means the quality and availability of Japanese films with English language subtitles (ignoring for a moment the often very fine work of fansubbers)  is not necessarily representative of the quality or breadth of Japanese cinema in general. This is even more true when looking back at older films; while a contemporary film might at least get a limited release in the West, older films by lesser known directors or even by well-respected auteurs can be difficult to find. Even Akira Kurosawa’s outsized shadow over Japanese cinema doesn’t mean it’s possible to find all his films on DVD, let alone restored on Blu-ray. That’s why I’m so thrilled to have outfits like Arrow Video, Masters of Cinema, and the Criterion Collection that put out restored copies of both classic and obscure films. Arrow, in particular, deserves commendation for being much broader in what it will publish; it’s not that every lesser-known work is a forgotten classic, but it would be a real shame to lose these titles forever.

All that is a long preamble to introducing Arrow Video’s “Nikkatsu Diamond Guys” series. With two volumes so far, that’s six lesser known works from some cult directors that might not otherwise see the light of day again. Let’s start with Seijun Suzuki’s Voice Without a Shadow (1958).

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Blind Woman’s Curse (1970)

The inimitable Meiko Kaji’s first starring role, Teruo Ishii’s Blind Woman’s Curse (1970) isblind_womans_curse-1 an aggressively strange yakuza movie with a touch of the supernatural. It’s so strange the Arrow Video release calls it ‘delerious’ multiple times on the cover, and for once, that doesn’t feel unfair – from the bold use of colour to the costuming to the off-kilter horror elements, the film is a phantasmagoric treat.

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Lady Snowblood 2: Love Song of Vengeance (1974)

Watching the first Lady Snowblood, I found it a fun, throwback exploitation movie with a SONY DSCsatisfying take on the rampage of revenge trope. It was also my introduction to Meiko Kaji, an ice cold chanbara beauty, categorically not playing a damsel in distress or love interest; in other words, playing a role quite unlike most Japanese women on film. There was something indirectly subversive about a woman slicing through the gang who’d wronged her family, and in Lady Snowblood 2: Love Song of Vengeance (1974), I was looking forward to seeing that subversive streak taken a step further.

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Branded to Kill (1967)

It didn’t take much research into Japanese film before Seijun Suzuki’s name came up. branded-to-kill-3Specifically, it was an anecdote about his film Branded to Kill (1967): a film so far removed from his orders to create a B-movie about a hitman, to fill out the back half of a double bill, that he was promptly fired by the studio. The movie is now regarded as an avant-garde masterpiece, and I knew that I had to see it.

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Outlaw: Heartless (1968)

Sitting down to watch Outlaw: Heartless (1968), I wondered if I was being too harsh on the heartless-1series. 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.

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Outlaw: Gangster VIP 2 (1968)

After watching Outlaw: Gangster VIP 2 (1968), I hadoutlawvip2-1 a series of amazing revelations. First, that really is the title (at least the one Arrow Video decided to go with). Second, it came out in April 1968, just a few months after the first movie. Third, no less than five movies in this series came out in 1968 – it’s almost a shame the sixth skids into 1969, but that’s a movie for another day. Fourth, these movies are almost impossible to research: there aren’t even Wikipedia articles, in English or Japanese.

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Outlaw: Gangster VIP (1968)

The main reason I wanted to watch Kinji Fukasaku’s Battles Without Honour and Humanity series is that I’d heard they were the turning point between the old-fashioned ninkyo eiga (chivalry movies) that portrayed the yakuza as honourable heroes, and more modern, gritty, arguably more realistic takes where the criminals are actually the bad guys. Outlaw: Gangster VIP (1968) came out a few years before Battles Without Honour and Humanity, but it’s going in the same direction.

outlawvip-1
The Japanese title, ‘“Burai” Yori Daikanbu

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