I’ve written at length about how pleased I am outfits like Arrow Films and Eureka! Masters of Cinema keep putting out releases of old, often obscure Japanese films. It feels like Arrow must have made a deal with whatever is currently left of the venerable Nikkatsu studio for access to a huge swath of their back catalogue in the last couple of years, because they’ve steadily released volumes in collections like Nikkatsu Diamond Guys and Seijun Suzuki: The Early Years. Not every one of these forgotten films can be a classic, but it’s often fascinating just getting a taste of what Japanese cinema was like in the ‘50s or ‘60s. Sadly, the third film in the first volume of Nikkatsu Diamond Guys, The Rambling Guitarist (1959), cannot be described as a hidden gem.
Director Shunya Ito returns with his final entry in the Female Prisoner Scorpion series with Female Prisoner Scorpion: Beast Stable (1973). Loosely picking up where Jailhouse 41 left off, Meiko Kaji’s escaped convict Matsushima, aka the titular Scorpion, is on the run and still doggedly pursued by the police. Taking place largely outside of any actual prison and in an urban setting would already give the movie a different feel to its predecessors, even Jailhouse 41 that also prominently featured an escape attempt, but Ito also gives Beast Stable a far stranger, more horror-oriented tone than his earlier entries. At times, it feels more like watching something as surreal as Blind Woman’s Curse – not coincidentally, also starring Meiko Kaji. So different is the tone that in the back of my mind I knew that Ito didn’t direct all four Female Prisoner Scorpion movies and I found myself wondering if this, and not the final #701’s Grudge Song, was the movie he skipped.
Where New Battles Without Honour and Humanity was essentially a remake of Kinji Fukasaku’s own earlier film, in The Boss’s Head (1975) the director returns with an original story that nevertheless reunites much of his earlier cast. Bunta Sugawara stars as Kuroda, a wanderer who takes the fall for a murder on the understanding that when he gets out of jail, the Owada crime family will take him on-board and pay handsomely for his service. When his heroin junkie contact (Tsutomu Yamazaki, A Taxing Woman) in the family lets him down, Kuroda stops at nothing to get what he feels he deserves.
Veteran director Kiyoshi Kurosawa (Sweet Home, Creepy) has built a career dipping in and out of the crime and horror genres. It would be easy to dismiss Pulse (2001) as another relic from the age of late-90s J-horror that coasted in on the success of Ring, replacing that film’s cursed VHS premise with a fear of the early internet age. Instead, Pulse is a different beast altogether, with a wildly different tone of creeping, quiet apocalypse and a totally different approach to its scares.
Continuing a dive into Nikkatsu’s vault we have Toshio Masuda’s Red Pier (1958). It stars Yujiro Ishihara as “Lefty” Jiro, a ‘50s gangster laying low in Kobe after killing a civilian over a drug smuggling racket. When he falls for the victim’s sister and starts to let slip his involvement, his low-key criminal underworld starts to come unravelled.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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. That 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).
The inimitable Meiko Kaji’s first starring role, Teruo Ishii’s Blind Woman’s Curse (1970) is 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.