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? Director Kinji Fukasaku provides handy introductions in the form of freeze frame name stamps mid-action. Does it help? For the most part, no. There are THAT MANY YAKUZA.

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. 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, Johnnie To, Miike. The list goes on.


Fukasaku's not all about the gritty run and gun. To look at the image above, you might think you were trapped in a slick mid-80s Michael Mann film. He mixes some 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.

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) he dies.


Sympathy's lead devil Gunji (Koji Tsuruta) wears the cooler head. He also wears sunglasses for most of the film, even in the sack. His machinations seem to come from a place of long-term strategy. When he moves his clan from Yokohama to Okinawa, it's done 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 with rival thugs within minutes of release, then capping things off with a prostitute in a bathtub wrestling match. 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. 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.

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