For some reason this last month I went on a Japanese Yakuza movie kick. Yakuza are Japanese gangsters. “Why did you suddenly decide to watch a bunch of Japanese movies?” you ask. I have no idea why. I really don’t. Like most Americans, the only Japanese movies I was even remotely familiar with were Godzilla movies. Oh yeah, I did watch The Seven Samurai a couple years ago. In fact, like most Americans, my familiarity with foreign films is pretty slim. I already had a couple in my Netflix queue, so I advanced them and added a few more. Here’s my reviews of the 6 movies I watched. These reviews are from someone completely unfamiliar with the genre, Japanese culture, and Yakuza traditions. It was fun and educational.
A Colt is My Passport (Takashi Nomura, 1967) What a great name for a movie, but it’s a bit misleading. My favorite of this bunch. A Colt is My Passport is very heavily influenced by both Spaghetti Westerns and film noir. An odd combo perhaps, but it works. A hit man (Jô Shishido) is hired by a Yakuza gang, but is double-crossed by his employers for getting the boss involved. He and his driver are targeted so they try to hide out from both gangs in a fleabag hotel where they meet a girl. She wants to get away from her life also. The gangs find where he’s gone. Trouble ensues. The ending is very much from a Western, a showdown out on a dusty plain. The beauty of this film is the Spaghetti Western soundtrack (it really works!) and the black and white cinematography. 84 minutes long.
Youth of the Beast (Seijun Suzuki 1963) – Not sure what the name of this one means. A former cop (Jô Shishido again) who just got out of prison beats his way into the mob to find who killed a friend. He is one tough fellow. First he goes into a mob-owned restaurant and runs up a huge tab, then says “I don’t have any money.” They take him into the office and he beats up one of their guys and takes his gun. Of course, if a guy has that much chutzpa, they take him in. Eventually the other gang offers to let him join them as well. He agrees to work as a double agent, so to speak, and works both against each other to get his information and destroy the gangs. In color at 92 minutes.
Stray Dog (Akira Kurosawa 1949) – Stray Dog is not really a Yakuza film, it’s more of a police procedural. A rookie homicide detective (Toshirô Mifune) loses his gun and works with another detective (Takashi Shimura) to find it. Along the way he sees crimes done with his gun and is torn up about it. He makes some smart moves for a rookie, and some dumb moves but he is single-minded and focused. He also is bothered by the fact that the criminal is so much like him. A few different decisions and they could change places, he the criminal and the criminal a cop. Stray Dogs has the most drama, or I should say melodrama. I don’t say that as a negative, just trying to be accurate. A solid film from the master Japanese director Kurosawa (The Seven Samurai). Black and white at 122 minutes.
Pale Flower (Masahiro Shinoda 1964) – The name isn’t much to go by and doesn’t sound as cool as A Colt is My Passport or Tokyo Drifter. However, the movie is straight-up film noir: Nihilistic and dark. A Yakuza (Ryô Ikebe) gets out of jail after serving three years for murder of a rival gang member. Now the two gangs work together so he’s in a sort of limbo. He goes to gambling dens because it’s the only way he can feel anything. He meets a girl (Mariko Kaga) who’s just as lost as he is. She’s not interested in romance, she just wants to feel life. She’s one of those bored rich people. There’s a lot of gambling in this movie. There’s also a surprising (to me) scene in a bowling alley (see essays on bowling and film noir http://wesclark.com/ubn/bowling_noir.html and http://web.archive.org/web/20050205084815/http://members.aol.com/bobbuttman/bowlingnoir/bowlingnoir.htm). Pale Flower is the darkest of these films, but it’s not violent. Also black and white at 96 minutes.
Tokyo Drifter (Seijun Suzuki 1966) – Another cool name and accurately describes the movie. A Yakuza guy named Testu stays loyal to his boss even though his boss is going straight. However, another gang wants one of the boss’s buildings and deals with him the Yakuza way. In order to keep the peace, Tetsu has to wander. But he gets hunted anyway. This one is the most action-packed of the bunch. However I had a bit of trouble following it early on. Part of the problem is each gang has a guy called Tetsu (Tetsuya Watari and Tamio Kawaji). Of all these films this one has the most B-movie feel with choppy editing and close-ups. However the set design, while minimal, is inventive and well used, even expressionistic and post-modern. The music sounds like 1950s crime jazz with a bit of Western thrown in. There’s an extended bar fight in a bar called Western Noon. There’s some Americans drinking in there and during the bar fight, they get the worst of it and are used as comic relief which was quite interesting. Actually, kind of a nice turnabout on the frequently-used Asian comic-relief in American films. Color at 82 minutes.
The Yakuza (Sydney Pollack 1974) Technically isn’t a Japanese Yakuza movie. What a great film! Four guys served in the occupation Army in Japan right after WWII. This movie takes place twenty years after. George Tanner (Brian Keith), gets himself in a jam with a Yakuza gang. He asks Harry Kilmer (Robert Mitchum) to help him out because Harry has a bond with a Yakuza member named Tanaka Ken (Takakura Ken). Ken hates Kilmer, but owes him a giri, an obligation, a burden or debt. Ken has retired from the Yakuza and to get involved again means a death sentence. Kilmer finds this out too late and the movie is spent trying to decide what is right and what is honorable and how to keep Ken from being killed. Sydney Pollack was a pretty solid director with some major films (see his IMDB page). Screenwriters today should watch this movie and learn some lessons about subtext (i.e. saying lots without saying much). The screenwriters are Paul Shrader (Taxi Driver) and Robert Towne (Chinatown). This movie is highly recommended, even though it isn’t a real Yakuza film. I will defiantly be watching it again. Color at 112 minutes.
Overall I was very impressed with the direction, cinematography, and acting in all of these. I recommend any of them and will probably watch more in the future. Another Yakuza film with a great name that I’ll get around to is Branded to Kill. All are availble through Netflix and but Pale Flower is the only one on Instant right now. If you have any suggestions on Yakuza films or even foreign films in general, feel free to leave a comment.
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