Tuesday, July 29, 2014

YAKUZA: LIKE A DRAGON (2007) - Takashi Miike


Another middling yakuza effort from Miike, this one based on a PlayStation 2 game. By no means a textbook ninkyo eiga or even a run-and-gun jitsuroku, Like a Dragon follows several sets of characters in the course of one scorching night (sound familar?). None of them are particularly compelling, which I'm guessing has to do with the fact that they were sourced from game play avatars in the first place.

There's the overly sentimental Luc Besson style story of a stoic ex-yakuza who helps a little girl look for her lost mother (above). There's the Warriors-inspired bad yakuza who prefers to incapacitate his opponents with line drives from his Louisville Slugger (below).


There's the Pulp Fiction Honeybunny and Pumpkin thread of two convenience store employees who decide to start sticking up other stores for cash. Meanwhile, an even more inept (and air conditionless) bank heist is taking place downtown. In one of the few amusing scenes, the hooded assailants treat their captive hostages to an impromptu sushi break. After that, I began to snooze.


I never thought I would lump Takashi Miike and Woody Allen together in a sentence, but, seriously, both of these guys are prolific to a fault. More than two films a year (Miike gets close to ten sometimes) and quantity really starts to trump quality. That said, I'm still excited about the upcoming Yakuza Apocalypse. I'm talking about the next Woody film with Colin Firth in the lead yakuza/Woody surrogate role, of course.

Monday, July 28, 2014

YAKUZA DEMON (2003) - Takashi Miike


Oddly straightforward for a Takashi Miike yakuza film. Nothing you haven't seen before or seen Miike himself do with more zest (Ichi the Killer, the Dead or Alive trilogy).

Perhaps he was growing weary of warring clans at this point.

I feel his pain. Or numbness, rather.


FULL METAL YAKUZA (1997) - Takashi Miike


Fully avoidable, but not terrible, Full Metal is one of Takashi Miike's mid-'90s direct-to-video efforts (and, oh, there are many). Basically, a riff on Robocop in the yakuza world but lacking Verhoeven's satirical edge and more sizable budget.

Miike completists need only apply. Are there still any of those out there?

Thursday, July 24, 2014

GRAVEYARD OF HONOR (1975) - Kinji Fukasaku & GRAVEYARD OF HONOR (2002) - Takashi Miike


Like Street Mobster three years prior, Kinji Fukasaku's Graveyard of Honor centers around another unhinged yakuza who you know from the very first minutes has a definite appointment with untimely (and, in this case, aerial) death. He pisses on the street (and on people) whenever he wants, pisses off the wrong underbosses routinely, shoots off his mouth at the wrong time, shoot his gun at his own brothers, even ends up stabbing his own oyabun-- a big no-no in this Yakuza world, one that shuffles him off to prison and earns him a ten-year ban from his own clan. Like Bunta Sugawara in Street, his attitude is definitely devil-may-care. But the difference here is there's no rise to Rikio's (Tetsuya Watari) career trajectory. It's all fall right from the beginning. Yes, a grave and a graveyard does factor in. But the film could just as easily been called The Loser Yakuza.


And that's what makes Graveyard a more daring, compelling character study than Fukasaku's other yakuza films. He goes all-in on the despair, letting the audience soak for a long stretch in Rikio's post-slammer heroin addiction (see above B&W hued opiate malaise). Yes, he initially acquires his lady love Chieko through an act of arguable rape (seems to be a running theme with Fukasaku) and later gets her strung out on the H to boot, but when she dies prior to him there is legitimate remorse. When he goes to his boss to try and make amends and takes a cannister of her bones along with him, abjectly popping them in his mouth and crunching on them like so many funereal chiclets, it's an act not borne of disrespect but deep grief. If The Yakuza Papers is Fukasaku's flashier 20-year Godfather saga, then Graveyard is its more reigned-in, melancholy cousin, his Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia if you will. It's my favorite Fukasaku I've seen so far.


Takashi Miike's 2002 remake, on the other hand, is all about indulgence. It's Bad Lieutenant but set on the other side of the globe, on the other side of the law. His version of Graveyard runs forty minutes longer, is far more splattery (it's Miike...obviously), features twice as many drugged-out interludes (see two minute "heroin crawl" tracking shot below). It follows the same basic trajectory (down, down, down) as Fukasaku's true life yakuza story, but instead of melancholy Miike's primary operating mode here is nihilism. Sure, he adds a downbeat, effective jazz score into the mix, but the added sax can earn his Rikio so much gravitas. After all, dude sports a "punch perm."


Are they both good yakuza movies? Absolutely. And an interesting study in how two masters of the genre approach the same material. I'd probably opt for Fukasaku's leaner, meaner version in most cases. But then watching Goro Kishitani's kinky-headed junkie yakuza cold-cock a brothel madame with an offhanded "Bam!" or half-heartedly exhaust his arsenal onto a sea of cops from his balcony like Tony Montana on the wrong kinda white powder...well, there's something to be said for that, too.

Monday, July 21, 2014

THE YAKUZA PAPERS: BATTLES WITHOUT HONOR AND HUMANITY (1973-'74) - Kinji Fukasaku


Where have I been for the last two weeks? Well, heavily entrenched in a five-part, twenty-year mob war on the mean streets of Japan. I thought keeping up with all the players in Fukasaku's Sympathy for the Underdog and Street Mobster was tough. But keeping track of all the warring gangs, their respective cities, the hundreds of dead or imprisoned yakuza, their various severed thumbs (and sometimes whole arms) in Fukasaku's multi-installment Battles Without Honor and Humanity is a sheer impossibility. By the second film of the five, I gave up trying to remember the names. By the fifth film, I stopped reading the onscreen character obits all together. The key, for me, was to indulge the mayhem and not the minutiae. Seriously, you could sprout an aneurysm trying to keep tabs on who is dishonoring who at any given time.


The five-film series (based on a series of magazine articles and the life of one Kure yakuza boss) is loosely built around the crime career trajectory of Shozo Hirono (Bunta Sugawara from Street Mobster, more cool-headed here but just as good). He starts out an ex-soldier wandering the black market in 1947 in Battles Without Honor and Humanity. Opportunities are scarce and the Japanese are jaded from losing in WWII. He quickly falls in with a gang in Kure and soon after his first stretch in the slammer (one of several during the course of the series).  

From there, Hirono gets involved in some lucrative election rigging. He is amoral, sure, but of all the well-inked scumbags abounding in these films he seems to hold some small shred of loyalty and decency above the rest. During the times when the series departs from Hirono's story to follow other threads (which it does from time to time), you can feel the absence. The killings and machinations, though energetic and relentless, also become anchorless.  For better or worse, this Japanese Goodfellas needs its Henry Hill.


Hirono mostly disappears for part two, Deadly Fight in Hiroshima, along with the change in location. Other than unwittingly eating a meal composed of dog and running a scrapyard, he doesn't have much to do. Instead, this one largely revolves around a doomed love story between a new young yakuza (Kin'ya Kitaoji) and the widow of a former kamikaze pilot. Thankfully, an uncharacteristically unhinged Sonny Chiba (see above) is around to fill the void left by Sugawara as a rival gang tough. It's a delight to see him play the Johnny Boy role for a change. It's all the kamikaze you need.


Part three, Proxy War, is the hardest to follow and therefore probably the weakest of the bunch. Lots of players vying for supremacy, lots of meetings to discuss strategy, lots of scenes in conference rooms with rotating fans blowing on the sweaty participants. Hirono/Sugawara gets more screen time in this one and gets to play the Tom Reagan/Miller's Crossing/Red Harvest role, the guy who quietly plots on the side amid the chaos of other factions murdering each other. But this entry is so DENSE with plot and players it's somewhat difficult to enjoy Hirono's steady rise.

Part four, Police Tactics, deals heavily with the public's/police's dissatisfaction over the rise in gang warfare and their attempts to crack down in the lead-up to the '64 Olympics. It's a welcome bit of reigning-in, almost as if Fukasaku/the series itself is saying "OK, all this nameless killing has really gotten out of hand, no longer interesting." Let's beef up the police presence, make these murderers retreat to closed doors for a change. Let's make them consider their image, their PR, do a "yakuza makeover." Before you know it, the bosses are operating more as a brokerage firm than a headbusting syndicate. This welcome change of pace mostly manifests in the last film, Final Episode, along with the even more welcome the appearance of Seijun Suzuki stalwart Jo Shishido (he of the puffy cheeks and boiling rice addiction) as a frequently drunk mob boss (see below).


But things in Yakuza Land can only stay cordial/corporate for so long. The street killings begin to escalate again with even more brazenness than before. And everyone's fretting which side Hirono (in prison, naturally) is going to take when returns to the streets. Will he be forced to retire? Will all the yakuza factions kill each other off before he gets the chance? And, most importantly, did Martin Scorsese watch The Yakuza Papers at some point before 1989? A quick Google search and I can't find a single interview out there where he name-checks this series or Fukasaku. But the man sees EVERYTHING. He had to have seen it...right?

Thursday, July 10, 2014

SYMPATHY FOR THE UNDERDOG (1971) &
STREET MOBSTER (1972) - Kinji Fukasaku


If the first two movies in "Yakuza July" are indicators of things to come, then it's going to be a fun month. Also, a confusing one. How many warring Japanese gangster factions can you keep track of in an hour and a half? Don't worry. Director Kinji Fukasaku provides handy introductions...freeze frame name stamps mid-action for many of the players. Does it help? For the most part, no. There are THAT MANY. But plot is not the point here. Violent power machinations among rival clans...the rise and fall of a crime boss...you've seen it a million times and in as many languages. No, the point here is style. And Fukasaku has it to burn.

"Frenetic," I believe is the term. A handheld camera willing to swing and spin every which way to put you in the middle of the action, even when there's not much action happening. William Friedkin cited Fukasaku's yakuza films as one of his inspirations for The French Connection. And it's easy to see THAT connection from the first few minutes of Underdog. But then it's easy to see Fukasaku's influence on many later and contemporary '70s masters...Peckinpah, Scorsese, Tarantino, To, Miike. The list goes on.


Fukasaku's not all about the gritty run and gun though. To look at the image above, you might think you were trapped in a slick mid-80s Michael Mann film, right? He mixes it up...the classical framings amid the war documentary jumble. It's all fair game, as are most of his characters. Life in the yakuza comes cheap, and everybody has it coming. It's only a matter of when and how violent the death.

But characters DO still matter. At least, the lead characters. Otherwise, Sympathy and Street Mobster are practically the same movie made one year apart. A mobster gets out of prison, finds that the situation has changed on the street. He gets the old clan back together (or assembles a new clan), starts making moves on rival yakuza territory. The bloodshed mounts, barely established clan members die spectacularly by gunfire or knives, pinkies are severed as acts of contrition or honor. He has a woman on the side...always, always a prostitute. And then in the end (spoiler alert, but not really) he dies.


The devil is in the details though, and Sympathy's lead devil Gunji (Koji Tsuruta) wears the cooler head. He also wears sunglasses for most of the film, even in the sack, but that's another story. His machinations seem to come from a place of long-term strategy, and when he moves his clan from Yokohama to Okinawa it's done so reluctantly but for the betterment of business. His mattress sessions with his prostitute of choice are generally melancholy, contemplative affairs. The only reason he bothers is she reminds him of the girl he once loved, now dead. There's a bit of Clint Eastwood in him, but also a bit of Michael Corleone.


Street's lead devil (Bunta Sugawara), on the other hand, is 100% Cody Jarrett, 200% Tony Montana. A real rabble-rouser, all motion and very little forethought. He comes out of the pen with a huge chip on his shoulder and a raging fire in his crotch. He's having street fights and canted bath house throwdowns (see above) with rival thugs within minutes of release, then capping things off with a prostitute (he has several) in a bathtub wrestling match that borders on rape. Apparently, he has a history of this, because the prostitute he ends up sticking with was one of his former gang's victims who, for sticky psychological reasons, still digs the guy. Also, she reminds him of his mother who was--guess what?--another working girl.


Street or Sympathy, take your pick. Both films are quality Fukasaku/yakuza gateways. For my yen, Street Mobster was the wilder ride because Sugawara's character is such of force a nature. But then the nature of life in the yakuza brings all thugs' trajectory--hinged or unhinged--to the same end.

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

YAKUZA JULY


The post title says it all (if perhaps the above picture is a little mysterious). More gangsters to come in July, this time from the far eastern portion of the globe. Some sushi and ornate back tattooing to go with with your bloodshed anyone?

I could almost as easily call this month Fukasaku July or Miike July since primarily all of the selections will come from those two directors, both masters of the yakuza genre in their own day. But Yakuza July just sounds better. Something to do with the "u" sound, I suppose. I'm sticking with that.

Monday, June 30, 2014

SEXY BEAST (2000) - Jonathan Glazer


Note: June's Guest Editor, Nigel Rottbottom, resident of Newark-on-Trent, was originally slated to write this final review of the month, a re-watching of his personal favorite British gangster film, Sexy Beast. But due to the overwhelming number of complaints this blog has received in the last few weeks as to the tenor of Nigel's alternately racist, chauvinistic, homophobic and nudity-obsessed entries-- what one commenter went so far as to cite the product of "a real pillock's PhD in Cinema Studies"-- I've decided it best to ban Old Nige from Cashiers for the remainder, same as the bartender down at his local pub did this weekend when he'd had one Carlsberg too many, started breaking pint glasses over his head and yelling to anyone who'd listen about "the size of the Bristols on that girl what's at the corner curry shop" and something that can't be repeated here as to "the Pakis taking all the choice employ and such." According to Nigel, it was his "Gary Oldman/Playboy moment." I blame the alcohol. Nige blames the World Cup.

So, in lieu of a review, Nigel sends his deepest apologies to anyone he may have offended. Also, this brief poem he scrawled at 4 AM Sunday night on a Cheswick Inn cocktail napkin. I promised him, at the very least, I'd include it here...

Epitaph for Old Don Logan (My Hero and Such)

Don, Don, Don, no, no, no, no
How could they go and buckshot such a fine bloke?
You were only trying to help
Give that ponce Gal Dove a right crackin' opportunity
One he tried over and over to turn down but you told him turn it
Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes!

They don't 'ppreciate you, Don, all you had to offer
Your charm, your wit, your flash wardrobe, your tolerance for pints
Didn't even let you smoke on the aeroplane
After all you done for Britain
After all you done for that blonde bird Jackie
Who you thought right fit, but then she treated you like a git

Don't worry, Donny Old Boy
You may be in hell with that Big Rabbit Lookin' Geezer
But you got brothers up above, maybe a few down below
And you can have all the fags you want in Hell, mate
So smoke away, me old son
Yes, Friday, Yes, Grovesnor, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes!

- Nigel Rottbottom, Poet Laureate to Pikeys and Slags Everywhere
Fuck off once and for all, you sodding cunts!