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.
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.
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.
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.