Y A J U N O R E V I E W S
The following four films are all available domestically (USA), in the widescreen format and with English subtitles, thanks to the swell folks at Home Vision Cinema! If you want to be hi-cara (hip) you better rush out to your favorite video vendor and latch onto these gems. That is, of course, if you haven't already. If you have, then you know what you are? That's right! Hi-cara-san!
YAJU no SEISHUN (Youth of the Beast)
This is a knock-out! One of the best Japanese crime films of the decade, this 1963 release is also one of the best films by the amazing "outlaw" director, Suzuki Seijun. This was Suzuki-sensei's "breakthrough" film; in as much as it was the first film where he truly let his flamboyant, dizzying, artistic sense come forward. Full of intense, innovative, eye-popping visuals, the film never loses its solid, pulp narrative flow. This is thanks, in part, to a great script based on the novel by hard-boiled master, Oyabu Haruhiko.
The nicely spun plot involves the investigation into the apparent lovers' suicide of police detective, Takeshita Koichi, and his mistress, by the mysterious --and laconically vicious-- Mizuno Joji (excellently portrayed by Our Man Jo). To get to the bottom of things, Mizuno --a former detective turned gangster-- employs the dangerous tactic of pitting one yakuza faction against another with nihlistic results. This man-in-the-middle device owes as much, in this case, to the classic Dashiell Hammett novel, "Red Harvest", as it does to the Kurosawa cinema milestone, "Yojimbo". The story's originator (Haruhiko) was heavily influenced by Hammett's writing. Without spoiling the tale, let it suffice to say that the plot points unfold as ingeniously fast and furious as the action.
And brother, what action! Visually this film holds enough jaw-dropping moments in its brisk 92 minutes to fill just as many films. Among these moments are: The subdued, black & white opening (with only a flower in a vase providing any color) being torn asunder by an abrupt shift to glorious Nikkatsu color and a hyper pacing that holds throughout. The lounge showgirl performing a silent fan dance (as seen through a sound-proof room's two-way mirror). There is the instant sandstorm that flares up as a gang boss bullwhips an unfaithful female. There is the frenzied moment where Shishido Jo, hanging upside down from a chandelier--tied by his ankles--still manages to swing himself to a discarded pistol and shoot his way to freedom! There is the much talked about (and often misinterpreted) picturesque sequence where a group of gangsters (not just one as some sources indicate) park their hi-cara Model 360 Mazda Carol (not a "limo" or "caddy") under matching cherry blossoms. [ Many think that this sequence is Suzuki stressing the characters' supposed homosexuality; but, I don't think so. For one thing, Suzuki claims to usually frame his gay characters in shades of yellow. Besides that, none of these guys are supposed to be gay! One of them is shown to have a girl later in the film. There are gay characters in this film, to be sure, but it aint these guys! But, I digress...Sumimasen!] All of these moments--along with many more--ensure the viewer's eyes stay satisfyingly stuck to the screen. This is entertainment!
A good story , brilliant direction, and wonderful performances-- all help to make this an outstanding example of Nikkatsu Action at its finest!
This U.S. video edition, like all of the Home Vision Cinema releases reviewed here, benefits from a superbly mastered print and well-presented subtitles. However, unlike the translations done for their other Nikkatsu releases, this one could've used a little more polish (or less polish depending on what contributed to the gaffs!).
The most notable case of the translation being way off occurs in the lounge scene, early in the film, where a waiter approaches Shishido Jo sitting at a booth. The scene should play like this: The waiter goes to Jo (who's character is a complete stranger to the club) and simply asks, "What would you like?". Jo eventually replies, largely in English, "Number one", an interestingly cryptic answer that could mean a menu item, or the club's boss. However, as translated here the bit goes as follows:
Waiter: "Your usual bar girl?" Jo: "Bring me the best!". Excuse me?! Where'd that come from? Anyway, that is the ONLY quibble I have with this otherwise exemplary release of my most favorite Ace no Jo film. GO GET IT!
KOROSHI no RAKUIN (Branded to Kill)
This 1967, Suzuki-directed, black & white, masterpiece is undoubtedly Shishido-san's most well-known movie in the West. It has succeeded in gathering quite a following among critics and viewers via frequent showings at various film festivals throughout Europe and America since the mid-90's. In fact, its popularity has resulted in so much being written about this production--that I barely feel qualified to make comment!
"Branded to Kill" is the insanely powerful, over-the-top work that led Nikkatsu to fire Suzuki (or, at least, it gave them the excuse they were looking for at the time) after his having cranked out 41 films for them! Seen for the first time, it leaves you with your brain whirling, your mouth hanging open, imbued with the feeling of, "Did I just see that?", which inevitably leads to one's having to see it, again, immediately.
The story follows the exploits of the Number 3 ranked hitman, Hanada Goro (Shishido), as he tries to maintain his precarious hold on the dangerous world around him. In the beginning, Hanada is a class act. He exudes professionalism. He adheres, for the most part, to the killer's code of no booze and no broads (except for his wife). The only off-kilter thing about him is his peculiar fetish for the smell of steaming rice (you just have to see it!). But, his seemingly chance meeting with an enigmatic, bizarre beauty (played by the gorgeous, Mari Annu) and the blowing of a critical job (thanks to a butterfly landing on his rifle) sets spinning a series of events that unhinge him (and how!). Hanada completely loses his grip as the women in his life try to kill him, and he is caught in a wicked game of cat-and-mouse with the killer, "Phantom #1".
As Hanada flips out, so does the film. Suzuki-sensei blasts the screen with a stunning array of visual moments, the narrative seems to dive into disorienting directions (just as Hanada himself is becoming disoriented). There is quite a bit of nudity, for a Nikkatsu picture at this time, but Suzuki gets away with it due to some ingenious self-censoring (intentionally thwarting the strict censors of the day). In fact, it seems Suzuki is bent on disrupting all cinematic conventions with this film. Of course, Shishido Jo, with his knack for the unexpected, fits right into the movie's stylish melee, being a cooler-than-Bond assassin one minute and a drunken, obsessed beatnik the next!
This wonderful film has been known to spark artistic endeavor (this humble scribe's included), inspire other films (chiefly Jim Jarmusch's excellent, "Ghost Dog", dedicated to "Seijun"), and even change lives (as born witness by the testimony of Jazz Man, John Zorn)! It also happens to be blessed by a bluesy, hi-cara, jazz score (highlighting the harpsichord!) that is easily one of the best soundtracks of the era (I especially dig the Brubeck-style piece that scores the sequence where Hanada realizes that he, himslef, can become #1!). Very cool stuff!
"Branded to Kill" is the only Shishido Jo film to have been released on DVD in America, thus far. The King's at Criterion deserve a swell round of applause for doing a bang-up job on the disc's special features which include a nifty interview with Suzuki Seijun himself, as well as some awesome Shishido Jo memorabilia from the collection of Mr. Zorn.
You gotta SEE IT!
[VHS ISBN: 0-7800-2050-2] [DVD ISBN: 0-78002-205-X]
NIKUTAI no MON (Gate of Flesh)Yet another brilliant work from director, Suzuki, who manages to create a world in which lurid pulp paperback cover paintings have come to life! Based on the hugely popular, tawdry novel by Tamura Taijiro, this tale of black market thugs, prostitutes, and the rampant desperation of mere existence in post-WWII Tokyo is incredibly stunning on all counts. Suzuki somehow manages to be bleakly realistic and gloriously surrealistic all in one brush stroke. Our Man Jo gets the opportunity to swirl through a wide range of emotions in this well done drama. However, he is not exactly the star of the show. The stars here are the young ladies that make up the street-girl gang (especially Nogawa Yumiko and Kasai Satoko). Yet, Jo's character, a wounded black market thug that seeks sanctuary in the gang's hideout, is the catalyst that puts the extra spin on the film's whirlwind of spectacle! This is excellent exploitation cinema--not to be missed by anyone claiming to be a Japanese film buff! And that goes for Jo fans, too.
KURENAI no NAGAREBOSHI (US video title: Velvet Hustler)
Shishido Jo's part in this 1967, swinging Nikkatsu Action outting, amounts to a little more than a cameo. But, you'll want to see it, anyway. The picture is what those Rat Pack cats would've called a "gasser"! Directed by another Nikkatsu Action master, Masuda Toshio, it stars Watari Tetsuya (from Suzuki's "Tokyo Drifter") as the colorful, devil-may-care hitman, "Killer" Goro.
An ace Yakuza man, Goro always tries to follow the gangster's code of loyalty (jingi). But, when he accidently kills a mob boss he was only supposed to frighten, his bosses have him split for Kobe until things cool off. After a year of hiding in plain sight, Goro has become quite a local figure in the Kobe minor crime scene. He has a small group of faithful followers, a dedicated girlfriend, and a job as a bouncer at a local club. Things seem to be smooth-as-silk for the slick operator; but, naturally, it doesn't last! No plot spoilers here, folks, but things really break loose after Goro meets a beautiful woman (portrayed by the beautiful Asa'oka Ruriko) and starts to realize he is being manipulated by his own gang.
Shishido-san is cast as the mustached, creepy, robotic assasin sent by Goro's own Tokyo family to wipe him out. He is only in about three scenes; but, they are all key sequences and among some of the movie's most memorable bits. There is, especially, the scene in the speedboat where Jo lazily taunts Goro's best pal into a lopsided duel (with drastic results for Goro's pal, of course), and the unsettling moment where Jo leers at a youthful suke (chic) telling her to run along, take drugs, and that he'll "play" with her another time. This cat is EVIL (in a fun sort of way)!
Much has been made of Masuda's apparent lifting from the 1959 Jean-Luc Godard masterwork, "Breathless" for this film; but, "Kurenai no Nagareboshi" is actually a remake of Masuda's own "Akai Hatoba" ("Crimson Seaport"), another Nikkatsu classic starring Ishihara Yujiro (which was released in 1958--a full year before Godard's film!).
But whatever its sources or influences, this flick is a thrilling stew of vivid visuals, fatalistic romance, 60's mod sensibilities, vintage Japanese pop, and just plain old Nikkatsu Action fun!! CHECK IT OUT!
Reviews by Chris Casey for Yaju no Yabai Gumi.2003-2005.