Long before Tom Cruise and Uma Thurman picked up swords to make the samurai more palatable for Western audiences, the figure of the lone warrior was a staple of Japanese cinema. In such classic films as Akira Kurosawa’s Sanjuro and The Hidden Fortress, the popular Zatoichi series, and Hiroshi Inagaki’s Samurai trilogy, this outsider worked by a strict code of ethics that lifted him above the petty dealings of a typically corrupt, moronic society. These films were informed by the sense of honor and wisdom vital to the hero figure in Japanese culture, although the character of their protagonists was often less than sterling (consider Toshiro Mifune’s grizzled, dirty and ornery portrayals). This anti-hero role morphed with the development of the yakuza (or gangster) genre in the late ’50s, with the rogue gangster standing in for the samurai. The form proved hugely popular, and studios pumped out countless films that devolved into rubber-stamp self-parody. But a handful of directors saw an opportunity to use the form to explore their own take on the Japanese outsider: nihilistic, self-absorbed, homicidal and often unable to feel love or compassion. A recent spate of classic yakuza films on DVD offers a chance to consider how these directors used their films to take the genre to a higher level, blazing a new trail in filmmaking that continues to inspire directors and cineastes alike.
Director Seijun Suzuki, perhaps the greatest master of the form, made the full arc from profiling the yakuza hero to the yakuza sociopath. One of his first efforts, the visually powerful Underworld Beauty (1958), was a more formalized homage to American noir gangster films, with its stylized black-and-white photography and its plotline of the ex-con sprung from jail ready to settle old scores. By the time Suzuki made Tattooed Life (1965), he’d established a singular vision, with eccentric flashes and the iconoclastic mixing of the yakuza and samurai genres. Set in the ’20s, the film follows a hitman, Tetsu, and his younger, law-abiding brother, Kenji. The pair flee to Manchuria after Kenji kills a bodyguard to save Tetsu’s life. While they try to rebuild their lives, eventually they must face the music when the past catches up to them in a masterfully shot action climax. Suzuki’s influence can easily be seen in the work of Quentin Tarantino and Jim Jarmusch. But upon delivering the brilliantly bizarre Branded To Kill (1968), with its rice-fetishist killer-hero and disjointed narrative, his studio fired him for creating films they considered unmarketable. He didn’t make another film for over a decade.
A kindred spirit in his playful tinkering with form and narrative, Kinji Fukasaku made a series of films that worked within certain conventions in a seeming effort to explode them. Verging on parody, Blackmail Is My Life (1968) plays like a thinly veiled attack on the self-conscious narcissism of swinging ’60s youth. Shun (played with smug satisfaction by Hiroki Matsukata) is the ringleader of a gang of carefree extortionists—a kind of blackmailing Mod Squad who revel in their own fabulousness until they bite off more than they can chew by messing with a powerful gang boss. With frenetic cutting, loony camera angles and calculated use of freeze frame, Fukasaku establishes an amusing affection for his characters. We never like these high-spirited thugs, but they’re endlessly entertaining. Shun himself is a kind of strawman samurai, convinced of his own honor, when in fact he has none. Painted in bold strokes, the film wisely never takes itself too seriously and is all the better for it.
But perhaps the most affecting of these films is Masahiro Shinoda’s Pale Flower (1964). Using the favored hit-man-just-sprung-from-jail scenario as its starting point, the film goes on to truly surprise the viewer with an existential tale of doomed love and the lure of Thanatos. Muraki is the nihilistic hit man who has only ever felt truly alive when killing someone. He meets a thrill-seeking socialite, Saeko, and is soon infatuated by her kindred spirit. As they move to a seemingly unavoidable destiny, Shinoda uses games of chance, cheap thrills and underworld politics as dark microcosms of human nature.
The most notable aspect that emerges when considering these films together is their shared aesthetic of jaded pessimism. Where samurai films find virtue in their heroes (all the more because of their feet of clay), Suzuki, Fukasaku and Shinoda explore the darker aspects of humanity. It may not be a pretty picture, but it’s an endlessly compelling one.
Seijun Suzuki: Underworld Beauty, Tattooed Life • (Home Vision Entertainment); Branded To Kill • (Criterion Collection)
Mashiro Shinoda: Pale Flower • (Home Vision)
Kinji Fukasaku: Blackmail is My Life • (Home Vision)