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.
It’s ironic that the films that inspired me to write about Japanese cinema aren’t yet covered here, but it was Kinji Fukasaku’s original, sprawling Battles Without Honour and Humanity series that turned me around on Japanese film and cemented my love of yakuza on the silver screen. After the success of those films, Toei apparently felt the same way: they wanted Fukasaku to create more sequels. Instead, the director created a new three-film anthology – different stories, different locations, and different characters, but with many of the same actors from his original series. The first film, New Battles Without Honour and Humanity (1974), walks a fine line between retelling the events of the film that started it all and being a brand new experience.
From director Juzo Itami (Tampopo, Minbo: The Gentle Art of Extortion) comes the fabulous Bubble-era tax evasion/enforcement comedy A Taxing Woman (1987), starring Nobuko Miyamoto (Sweet Home) as Ryoko Itakura, ace tax inspector, and Tsutomu Yamazaki (last seen on Kino 893 in a brilliant turn in Kurosawa’s Kagemusha as Takeda’s brother and original body double) as sleazy businessman Hideki Gondo.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: a small town cop arrives in the big city to help solve a crime with links to his home. Except in Kinji Fukasaku’s Doberman Cop (1977), that rural detective is Shinichi “Sonny” Chiba, and he rolls into Tokyo’s Kabukicho entertainment district with his straw hat and delightful piglet in tow. What follows is a remarkable police thriller closer in feel to an ‘80s action film that Fukasaku’s earlier jitsuroku work – more Lethal Weapon than Battles Without Honour and Humanity. Only very loosely based on the manga of the same name by ‘Bronson’, it’s an eclectic mix of action, comedy, martial arts, and grisly crime drama; a film that should result in complete tonal whiplash, but somehow comes together into an off kilter but satisfying, cohesive whole.
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).
As I look to explore the cult and classic movies of Japanese cinema from the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s, I’m limited by what’s actually available in the West and guided by recommendations from other film fans and critics. Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion (1972) was an early suggestion for this blog and one that I’m glad I sought out. The directorial debut of Shunya Itō, starring Meiko Kaji, Scorpion is a brutal exploitation film and a subversive example of the women in prison subgenre.
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.