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.
Watching the first Lady Snowblood, I found it a fun, throwback exploitation movie with a satisfying 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.
It didn’t take much research into Japanese film before Seijun Suzuki’s name came up. Specifically, 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.
Sitting down to watch Outlaw: Heartless (1968), I wondered if I was being too harsh on the series. 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.
After watching Outlaw: Gangster VIP 2 (1968), I had 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.
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.