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.
Continuing a dive into Meiko Kaji’s past performances I decided to check out Delinquent Girl Boss (1970), the first movie in the Stray Cat Rock series. Initially intended as a star vehicle for the popular singer Akiko Wada, from the second film onwards it would be Kaji who scored top billing, and Wada soon disappeared from the cast. Going into the film, I expected it to be a case of Meiko Kaji outshining the intended star – after all, by this point I had already been impressed with her performance in Lady Snowblood and was starting to see why she’s held in such high regard by genre movie fans. I figured that maybe Wada wasn’t able to carry the movie the way Nikkatsu wanted, but I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Four films in and the Outlaw VIP series is beginning to creak. As I noted in reviews of previous instalments, Nikkatsu put out no less than six Outlaw movies starring Tetsuya Watari in 1968 and 1969. The fourth, Outlaw: Goro the Assassin (1968), sees the titular anti-hero Goro Fujikawa as a drifter without a yakuza family who gets involved in yet another feud involving local criminals and innocent civilians.
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.
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.