Tag Archives: yakuza

“Going straight” is difficult for someone with a temper and ongoing provocations


Sabita naifu” (The Rusty Knife, 1958, directed by Masuda Toshio) is a noir film from the Nikkatsu studio with the then-big star singer and actor Ishihara Yûjirô (Crazed Fruit, I am Waiting, I Hate But Love), who sings the title song both at the beginning and at the end of the film. Ishihara played Tachibana, who served five years in prison for killing the rapist (he though singular, but learns there were others during the course of the movie) of his girlfriend. He has gone straight, running a marginally successful bar. He employs Makoto (Kobayashi Akira), who was in the Mishima gang with him. Makoto is having an affair with Shingo Mano (Shimizu Masao) whom Tachibana deplores as a “slut,” and who is happy to spend the hush money Makoto takes (even as Shimabara refuses it).

Both were witnesses to a murder of a politician that made to look like a suicide by hanging. They were with Shimabara (Shishido Jô before his already large cheeks were surgically increased in size) who threatened to go to the police if a new payment of hush money was not made to him. Early in the movie Shimabara is killed by Mishima gang members posing as policemen.

The local (Ukada, an industrial city on the western coast of Honshu) gang lord, Katsumata (Sugiura Naoki) impresses on Makoto and Shimabara the need for them to maintain their silence, as Katsumata’s determined but constantly frustrated nemesis, Prosecutor Karita (Yasui Shôji) pressures them, armed with a letter naming them as witnesses written by Shimabara to be sent if he did not return to his girlfriend in Tokyo.


Journalist Keika (Mie Kitahara, Ishihara’s frequent costar [Crazed Fruit, I Am Waiting; and, earlier, Carmen Falls in Love] Mie Kitahara] and eventual wife) overhears that her father might have been murdered and did not commit suicide. She tags along with Tachibana, who cooperates with Prosecutor Karita. The movie includes two very long fight scenes and a chase scene involving identical big trucks. The volatile Tachibana evolves from someone wanting to be left alone by both sides (legal and illegal) into someone crusading to avenge the dead girl despite having already served five years in prison for killing one of them. Ishihara turned in a nuanced performance, at first suppressing his anger and bitterness and eventually taking on finding the mastermind pulling Katsumata’s strings..


There is some awful back projection for a motorcycle ride of Makota and Shingo by daylight, but a satisfying noir look for most of the rest of the movie, including the scenes with the politician who tells Katsumata what to do, including killing Keika’s father.

“Rusty Knife” is part of a Criterion Nikkatsu Noir set that also includes “I Am Waiting.”


©2016, Stephen O. Murray

Two Uchida Kenji comedies


The hitman comedy blended with a romantic comedy in writer-director Uchida Kenji’s 2012 “Key of Life” came together very late (if at all). Amnesia as a basis for anything requires considerable suspension of disbelief on my part, but Kagawa Tereyuki (Devils on the Doorstep, Yureru) was quite sweet in trying to recover memory of a life that wasn’t his, that of broke actor Sakurai (Sakai Masato) who took his money and life before discovering that the life was that of a feared hitman, Kondo, whom his clients never saw. The workaholic, hyper-orgnized career woman played by Hirosue Ryôko (Dapartures) would strain credulity if she were American, but she’s Japanese, and “Key of Life” is a screwball comedy, or contains a lot of screwball romcom. She has picked a wedding date without having even a candidate to be the groom.

Uchida takes his time in setting up the lonely lead characters and complications, but the time (128 minutes, four of them closing credits) is IMO well-spent.

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The yakusa+civlians comedy “Adrenaline Drive” (1999) is funnier, but the characters in “Key of Life” are more developed. Both include unlikely romantic couplings. Plus, he ersatz Saikaku gets cast as a gangster, a role that the real Saikaku has to play for higher stakes (three or four lives, including his own).


©2016, Stephen O. Murray

Cruel Gun Story

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Though I’d categorize “Cruel Gun Story” (Kenjû zankoku monogatari, 1964, directed by  Furukawa Takumi, available as part of the Criterion Eclipse set Nikkatsu Noir) as a heist film or a gangster film, it is nocturnal enough to count as a noir, and is more nihilistic than the American noirs. Joe Shishido’s character Togawa, is not a patsy, but tough as he is here, multiple others try to play him.


A disbarred lawyer, Ito, has arranged to get an early release from prison for Togawa, and set him up for ye olde one last job: a heist of the take from the Japan derby. The plan is to shoot the two motorcycle policemen who escort it, then the driver and guard when they get out of the armored car. They are not so stupid, and are loaded up (did this inspire the original “Italian Job”).

Togawa leaves his trusted confederate Shirai (Odaka Yûji) and goes off with his newfound would-be girlfriend to contact Ito. It makes no sense that Togwa would leave the money and his wounded friend with two other men he trusts not at all (and has disarmed). He and the girl escape the trap Ito set, but lead an army of yakuza, Ito, and the Big Boss to where the loot is.

After a major shoot-out, there is a kidnapping, another major shoot-out and some one-on-one shootouts, which leave all the characters except Togwa’s paralyzed sister Rie (Matsubara Chieko [Tokyo Drifter]) —for whose treatment he decided to take on the heist against his better judgment in the first place. I don’t understand why the bad guys did not seize her, though they kill everyone else Togawa cares for.

Things hurtle along through the 87 minutes. The US presence (naval base) in Yokohma is not coincidental, since the truck is hidden in a warehouse that the Americans had used, and Takizawa (Suzuki regular/Nikkatsu contract player Kawachi Tamio),who was engaged to run a jazz bar frequented by African American sailors. Plus jets scream overhead periodically, but Togawa has no dealings with Americans, and I don’t see the US Occupation blamed for the greed and duplicity of the yakuzas.

©2016, Stephen O. Murray


Oshima’s “The Sun’s Burial”


Ôshima’s 1960 “Taiyô no hakaba” (The Sun’s Burial, Tomb of the Sun) is a sort of sequel that ups the ante of alienation and violence from “Cruel Story of Youth”/”Naked Youth.” (also shot by Kawamata Takashi, though less elegantly).

A hooker by night, during the day Hanako (Kayoko Honoo) is involved in an illegal blood bank, luring in (mostly Korean) dockworkers to supply what sure looks like ketchup to me. As a prostitute, she works for the established Osaka crime syndicate headed by Ohama (Shimizu Gen), while the blood racket is a collaborative venture with the younger upstart would-be gang lord Shin (Tsugawa Masahiko). Shin is constantly changing hiding places to evade Ohama’s punishment.

sunsburial.jpgAgitator (Ozawa Eitarô) is constantly raising the spectre of a Soviet invasion of Japan. In one of the bizarre scenes in a movie filled with doom and gloom, Hanako asks him if there will be slums in the new world of restored Japanese imperial glory. She does not get a clear answer, though the whole movie indicates that nothing is going to get better in the Hobbesian world of the setting sun.

A bigger mystery is why Shin tolerates violations of the yakuza code from a reluctant new recruit, Takeshi (Sasaki Isao), whereas his friend Wasu (Kawazu Iusuke, the baddest boy of “Cruel Story of Youth” unable to hold his own in the rough slum company here) is beaten up with increasing severity.

I have to say that the fights and beatings are very hokey/unbelievable. The grunge of lower-depths wardrobe is also, though some have claimed that “Burial” has a quasi-documentary look.

Aside from the unrelenting ugliness (look and action) of the movie, the profusion of characters makes the storyline difficult to follow (the theme that life is nasty, brutish, and short is clear enough). Ôshima’s fascination with downtrodden Koreans in Japan was already evident in his third movie, as rape was in his second.

©2016, Stephen O. Murray


Branded to Kill

Cinema noir is widely admired for visual stylization that was at least in part a response to low budgets. One of the last true noirs was the 1967 black-and-white “Branded to Kill” (Koroshi no rakuin), directed by Suzuki Seijun and starring the chipmunk-cheeked Joe Shishido as the third-best hitman in Japan. Over the course of the very disjointed movie, the ones rated second and fourth are killed, and Goro (Shishido) has a lengthy duel (I hesitate to say of wits, but mostly not of bullets) with Number One.


Goro misses a sniper shot, because, he says a butterfly landed on his rifle. Having shot up a drainpipe (a scene borrowed by Jim Jarmusch in “Ghost Dog”), I find this a peculiar excuse and don’t claim to understand why the failure is a capital offense. Goro loses his rating and is the target of several waves of assassins (in a pretty amazing action sequence on a long pier) before Hitman Number One (Nanbara Kôji) starts toying with him.

Why the cold-blooded killer falls in love with the femme fatale, Misako (Mari Annu), who disclaims any interest in or feelings for men is also mystifying. The challenge? A death wish? Well, she is not as childish as Goro’s wife is, and, it turns, less dangerous to Goro than his greedy, kinky wife (Ogaw Mariko a) whom he calls “Mami.” And, arguably, Misako has more of a death wish than Goro does. (I did not see any indication that Misako she has feelings for women, either. Or children; I took her for a zombie. When first seen, picking up Goro after his car has broken down, she is driving a convertible with the tope down through pouring rain and is totally drenched.)

Misako has a butterfly fetish, Goro something close to a fetish for the smell of rice cooking. She eventually tells him that his recent hits are all tied into the diversion of smuggle diamonds, which matters not one bit to him or to the unfolding of surrealistic elements.

There are a few extended shots, but the number of (jump) cuts must rival the number in Sam Peckinpah’s “The Wild Bunch” (from the next year). Those in “Branded” are more dizzying, because they are often between shots from odd angles or heights. (Shots from high or low and oblique ones are all hallmarks of the international noir look.)



Though there are no scifi futuristic elements in “Branded to Kill”, Joe Suicide’s Gore with his roughness and odd romanticism reminded me of Eddie Constantine’s Lemmy Caution in Godard’s 1965 “Alphaville” (a film I especially love). The odd humor and elaborate action set pieces foreshadow Johnnie To more than Jim Jarmusch (except for “Ghost Dog”). Other fulsome admirers include Quentin Tarrantino (unsurprisingly) and Wong Kar-Wai (more surprisingly, though I can see Shishido as a forerunner of Tony Leung characters in Wong movies).

The head of the Nikkatsu Studio, Kyûsaku Hori, was outraged by the extremely odd movie that Suzuki delivered (Suzuki’s 42nd for the studio, all low-budget assignments, in this case replacing another director at the start of shooting), snarled that Suzuki’s movie “neither make sense nor make money.” Like the firing of Henri Langlois from the Cinematheque in Paris, Suzuki’s firing became a cause célèbre for student rebels as well as for Japanese film-makers (not employed at Nikkatsu) and film-lovers. Suzuki sued for breach of contract and accepted a settlement before the studio turned from gangster movies to porn.

Suzuki relates his firing in a 1997 interview that is included on the Criterion DVD and that the studio foisted star and script on him. Suzuki made something out of nothing, though a something that doesn’t make much sense. (Hori was half right; it eventually made money when he was forced to allow is to be screened.) Suzuki also reports that the editing was done in a day. This may account for some of the arbitrariness, though just splicing together so many pieces of film seems like quite a day’s work to me. Continuity was of no concern either in the filming or in the editing.

The Criterion image is probably as good as what was shown in 1967. I’m pretty sure the graininess was in the original.

I wish that there was a commentary from Tony Rayns (if not feature-length, at least one for some key scenes, as in the Criterion early Imamura movies, Pigs, Pimps, and Prostitutes). In addition to the 1997 Suzuki interview, all there is is an amusing gallery of poster art of Joe Shishido movies.


©2016, Stephen O. Murray


Fighting Elegy


Fighting Elegy” is a title somewhere between obscure and misleading. “Elegy to Violence” and “Natural-Born Fighter” are other titles under which Suzuki Seijun’s 1966 “Kenka erejii” has played in the English-speaking world. “Natural-Born Fighter” is totally inapt, since Kiroku (Takahashi Hideki) is not at all a natural, but has to be toughened and trained, and still has a sensitive side and is in love with Michiko (Asano Junko), a pianist of his own age who lives across the way from him.

The neo-fascist youth gangs eschew entanglements with women, and Kiroku gets in trouble with his gang-leader “Turtle” (Kawazu Yusuke) for pretending the she was his sister.

The gang demands systematic breaking of the rules of the school, including even the part that is training for the Imperial Army. Kiroku’s inspection with a phoenix and his name embroidered on the back of his tunic, barefoot, with trousers only reaching mid-calf is the most hilarious part of the movie.


The movie is supposed to be a satire about Japanese machismo and neo-fascism. I doubt that I would have figured that out on my own, because many Japanese movies involve degrees of obedience and madness that strike me (and, I daresay, other western viewers) as excessive. Plus the sappy romance seems to me more a sappy romance than a satire or parody signaling its comic intent.

One major battle between rival gangs is obviously an homage to “Yojimbo,” with Kiroku up above, watching what he instigated. (That battle has a sardonic ending.)

Suzuki’s yakuza (gangster) movies are ultraviolent and make little narrative sense (clearly one of the many Asian/Pacific influences on Tarrantino, who is something of a magpie of Asian/Pacific action movies). The violence in Kenka erejii” is supposed to be comic in part because deadly serious schoolboys who engage in it. The problem with this is one that afflicts many movies (eastern and western) that are supposed to be about students is that the actors are considerably older. This is particularly an obstacle here, because the boys are supposed to be middle school students. Takahashi could look shy and ardent, but was 20 (and the time frame of the movie runs from 1932 to 1936, at which point he is still in school).


The strange goings-on (resisting discipline to become part of a disciplined reactionary army overthrowing the government in 1936) are filmed from some very arty unusual angles. The weather changes frequently. Some of the scenes changes are also very abrupt. Some of the visual compositions are gorgeous. There is some brutal fighting carefully choreographed and shot.

Knowing that the movie was intended as a satire on the growing militarism of the 1930s, much of it seems a satire of the ethic of Mishima Yukio, who celebrated the misogynist fascist bonding of that era (his own youth) and attempted to revive it before his showy public suicide. This, however, may because I am more familiar with Mishima’s writings than with other works from or about the era.

Definitely, Bernardo Bertolucci’s movie of Alberto Moravia’s novel The Conformist makes a lot more sense to me as the portrait of a young man acquiescing to incipient fascism than “Kenka erejii.” I find particularly puzzling what befalls Michiko.

Oh yes, although there is no nudity, I don’t recall a movie in which the protagonist has so much difficulty hiding unwelcome erections. He also tells his diaries about struggling against masturbation. I have no idea if this is supposed to be taken as comic or sympathetic. Probably the latter, insofar as Kiroku is the young Suzuki (who was born in 1923).


In sum, though there are some impressive compositions and fights (the fights often having peculiar sound effects), I really don’t know what to make of the movie or how to rate it.

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

Tattooed Life


There are some pistols in Suzuki Seijun’s “Tattooed Life” 1965), which is set in 1926, but the main fight scene involves swords and a spearman. I think the Japanese title of the historical yakuza movie ” Irezumi Ichidai,” means ‘white fox tattoo, an elaborate tattoo that would instantly signal that Tetsu (Takahashi Hideki [who also starred in Suzuki’s 1966 “Fighting Elegy”]) was a yakuza.

At the start of the movie he kills a gang-leader and is set up by his own boss to be killed. His brother, art student Kenji (Hananomoto Kotobuki), followed the two rickshaws into the countryside and kills the yakuza who was supposed to kill Tetsu.


The brothers (Tetsu has raised Kenji and provided for a different life than his own) are cheated out of passage to Manchuria and go off and find work in constructing a tunnel. Kenji is smitten by the boss’s wife (Itô Hiroko) whom he thinks resembles the mother he doesn’t remember, while her younger sister Midori (Izumi Masako) is smitten by Tetsu… and the past (the gang seeking revenge) cannot be escaped.

As in many Japanese movies, the beauties of nature alternate with overwrought emotions. (But in contrast to the long takes of coiled players, Suzuki used jump cuts.) The whole movie exists for the bravura fight that Suzuki show from above and below. And there is a rainstorm of Kurosawa proportions raging outside. Though visually flamboyant in comparison to most movies, Suzuki would go much further with “Tokyo Drifter” and “Branded to Kill,” while neglecting to have the action make sense, that is provide a plot that viewers could follow. Other than the shots of the open sea, it seems like a western with frontier corruption and violence, saloon fights, drifters, and loyalties to a boss who gives the drifters a break (or four or five). There’s even a “wanted” poster (with a sketch of Tetsu).


The only bonus feature is a four-screen Suzuki filmography. What matters most is the visuals, and the transfer has the eye-popping colors as clear as they could ever have been. One might go on about the breakdown of the samurai code of honor and corrupt contracting even in the first year of the Showa era, but the movie was made to be looked at, and to provide occasion for action, not as an analysis of Japanese society ca. 1926 or 1965.

©2016, Stephen O. Murray