Seijun Suzuki was a prolific director. For Nikkatsu alone, he directed 40 pictures from his debut in the ‘50s to his dismissal after 1967’s Branded to Kill. Overlooked at the time, Youth of the Beast (1963) is now recognised as a turning point for his personal style. It is a film oversaturated with style, as if Suzuki approached every scene – every frame – with a playful, or perhaps unhinged, effort to make it interesting. He flips between black and white – with a single splash of colour – and full colour production. He pans the camera across a noisy cabaret bar, and abruptly cuts to a soundproof room, the volume dropping precipitously. A scene transition is smothered by a fan dancer. Conversations take place to a roiling backdrop of black and white movie footage from the office of a movie theatre. In one bonkers blink-and-you’ll miss it moment, star Jo Shishido (as Jo Mizuno) walks past a movie theatre covered in Nikkatsu bunting, complete with portraits of all the Nikkatsu stars – himself among them. All this contributes to a lively film that while perhaps not good is nevertheless great.
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.
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.
This week’s review comes via the Masters of Cinema restoration of Bakumatsu taiyô-den (1957), alternately translated as A Sun-Tribe Myth from the Bakumatsu Era or Sun in the Last Days of the Shogunate. A slice-of-life comedy set in a Shinagawa brothel in the waning days of the Shogunate, just before the Meiji Restoration and the complete upheaval of Japan’s feudal society, the film follows Saheiji (Frankie Sakai, best known to western audiences for his turn in the 1980s Shogun series) as an incorrigible drifter who spins his unpayable debt to the Sagami Inn into a series of odd jobs and cons.
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).
Between 1968 and 1969, Nikkatsu put out six films in the Outlaw Gangster series: VIP, VIP 2, Heartless, Goro the Assassin, Black Dagger, and in the opening months of 1969, Kill! A great deal of credit must go to Arrow for resurrecting this more-or-less forgotten series after a showing at an Italian film festival in the mid-2000s. I’ve lamented before that there’s very little English language information on the series, from sketchy IMDB entries to a barren Wikipedia page, even when investigated in Japanese. To be launched from almost complete obscurity to a premium Blu-ray collection loaded with extras from Japanese film scholars is impressive.
When I first started blogging about Japanese movies a couple of months ago, I began back in the 1950s with some of Akira Kurosawa’s best known work. Then I jumped ahead to the ‘60s and ‘70s for some cult classics. Now with Sion Sono’s Cold Fish (2010) we move into the modern era. I’m a big fan of other contemporary Japanese directors but Sono had completely passed me by, and this film was recommended to me as an accessible jumping on point for the work of someone called “the most subversive filmmaker working in Japanese cinema today.”
Each time I fire up another movie from the Outlaw series, I’m struck by the question of how I’m going to find something meaningful to comment on in a review that I haven’t already said about one of the previous films. Then Outlaw: Black Dagger (1968) did something unexpected: it commented on its recycling of the same actors over and over again.