The early 1970s were a golden age for gangster cinema. In the West, there was Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather (1972). In the East, Kinji Fukasaku’s Battles Without Honour and Humanity (1973). And then, there was The Yakuza (1974), Sydney Pollack’s fusion of both. Developed from an idea by Leonard Schrader, an American expat living in Japan, and scripted by his brother Paul Schrader (Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters) and Robert Towne (script doctor for The Godfather), it follows several American characters who get tangled up in Japan’s criminal underworld. Robert Mitchum stars as Harry Kilmer, a former US military policeman during the Allied occupation of Japan, who returns to Japan at the behest of his friend Tanner. It seems the yakuza have kidnapped Tanner’s daughter after a shady deal gone awry and Kilmer’s connections are the only way to get her back. That means going back to Tokyo and getting in touch with a yakuza named Tanaka (Ken Takakura, The Bullet Train) indebted to Kilmer. Heavily inspired by contemporary Japanese films watched by the Schraders and no doubt hoping to cash in on the success of The Godfather via “Japan’s mafia”, The Yakuza works surprisingly well as a slow-burn crime thriller that leans heavily on its then-exotic setting.
It’s been far too long since I last updated Kino 893. Part of it is being swamped at my day job since one of my colleagues left in a hurry to greener pastures, and part of it is I simply haven’t been watching enough Japanese films to review! However, I just posted my take on Hideaki Anno and Shinji Higuchi’s Shin Godzilla (2016) and I’ve got Baby Cart in Peril, the next instalment of the Lone Wolf and Cub series, lined up. Hopefully I’ll maintain this as its not like I’m short of content to review – along with the remaining two Lone Wolf and Cub episodes there’s Last Days of the Boss to close out New Battles Without Honour and Humanity and the final Female Prisoner Scorpion movie, #701’s Grudge Song. Plus, Arrow Films have kept me in good stead by releasing a steady stream of Seijun Suzuki’s early films. Between the first two volumes, I’ve got no less than 10 of his early works to get through! Depending on how well each stands alone, I might review those as complete sets rather than individual movies.
A little while ago I posted my thoughts on the predictably dull Hollywood remake of Ghost in the Shell. Along with actual Japanese cinema, I still plan on hitting remakes and other films with ties to Japanese culture – so I feel like I can’t avoid watching Netflix’s The Outsider, a yakuza movie inexplicably starring Jared Leto (although Tokyo Vice author and frequent reporter on all things yakuza Jake Adelstein, whose opinion I greatly respect, writes that “as much as [he] expected to hate the movie, [he] didn’t”). I also picked up the 1974, Sydney Pollack-directed The Yakuza. Roughly contemporaneous with Battles Without Honour and Humanity (and close behind the success of The Godfather) I’m interested to see how ’70s America saw Japanese gangsters.
Away from Japanese cinema, I enjoyed a ‘Cartel season’, checking out a slew of movies revolving around South American drug cartels. Sicario, Savages, Clear and Present Danger stood out among a few more peripherally related movies. I still want to check out Soderbergh’s Traffic, which seemed to be highly-regarded as ‘the’ Cartel movie until Sicario, and a couple of documentaries like Cartel Land and Narco Cultura. The whole thing was spurred on by the dull yet oddly compelling Ozark, when after the first season I wanted to watch something similar – and after having already seen Breaking Bad, which Ozark shamelessly borrows from, needed to branch out. So far, Sicario is the stand out for its beautiful cinematography and damning indictment of both sides in the War on Drugs, and I wonder if the soon-to-be-released Sicario 2: Soldado will actually be any good.
Beyond a slew of Netflix movies (including Mute, Annihilation, and The Cloverfield Paradox) I haven’t been keeping up with 2018 cinema. I did manage to catch Black Panther, though, and you can listen to my review over on the This Gen, Last Gen podcast. This week marks the release of Avengers: Infinity War and I, for one, am far too excited!
Director Shunya Ito returns with his final entry in the Female Prisoner Scorpion series with Female Prisoner Scorpion: Beast Stable (1973). Loosely picking up where Jailhouse 41 left off, Meiko Kaji’s escaped convict Matsushima, aka the titular Scorpion, is on the run and still doggedly pursued by the police. Taking place largely outside of any actual prison and in an urban setting would already give the movie a different feel to its predecessors, even Jailhouse 41 that also prominently featured an escape attempt, but Ito also gives Beast Stable a far stranger, more horror-oriented tone than his earlier entries. At times, it feels more like watching something as surreal as Blind Woman’s Curse – not coincidentally, also starring Meiko Kaji. So different is the tone that in the back of my mind I knew that Ito didn’t direct all four Female Prisoner Scorpion movies and I found myself wondering if this, and not the final #701’s Grudge Song, was the movie he skipped.
Where New Battles Without Honour and Humanity was essentially a remake of Kinji Fukasaku’s own earlier film, in The Boss’s Head (1975) the director returns with an original story that nevertheless reunites much of his earlier cast. Bunta Sugawara stars as Kuroda, a wanderer who takes the fall for a murder on the understanding that when he gets out of jail, the Owada crime family will take him on-board and pay handsomely for his service. When his heroin junkie contact (Tsutomu Yamazaki, A Taxing Woman) in the family lets him down, Kuroda stops at nothing to get what he feels he deserves.
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.