Friday, August 7, 2015


The teeming black market in Hiroshima immediately post war. A demobbed Japanese soldier prevents the rape of a Japanese woman by an American soldier. Not far away two men have their arms sliced off in revenge for deeds we haven't witnessed. A drunk ex soldier in a kimono waves a military sword at anyone who comes near. He is shot. A series of freeze frames at the climax of these and other moments of brutality introduce us to the future of these men in the Yakuza to come and we see that post-war Japan is going to be a mix of recovery and gangs.

The still of the atom bomb mushroom cloud that began this film now feels as much like the birth of a savage life as much as the cataclysmic end of a massive war. All that squirming and bloodshed in the market resembles primordial pondlife coming to life. As urbane as we are going to get within minutes of this, as stylish the cars and suits, as pleasingly civilised the formality of the bonds between characters, we know we are also in for everything that those veils conceal, a delicate balance of loyalty and bloodthirsty self-interest. Which is pretty much what you get for the next ninety plus minutes.

Well, no, there is a lot more. From the early scene in which we see everyman figure Hirono bond with a Yakuza boss in a prison cell over the latter's extreme escape plans we know that for all the savagery we know is to come that we have a helmsman and that dialogue between these two. We get it and we need it; the curly deals and loyalty shifts are intentionally difficult to keep up with. When we get to the fifth or so freeze frame and headstone like title about the character's death accompanied by the blaring funeral motif we wonder how well we got to know the corpse of the moment.

But this is secondary to the touch points between Hirono and Tetsuya as they meet again at different points when fortunes have reset and they are variously on and off side of each other. Their dialogue might even nudge triteness were it not for the context of precarious life/death balance in which they live. In such a situation the way you shake hands can mean one or the other.

This film clearly influenced gangster cinema beyond its boundaries. Coming in the wake of The Godfather, it yet seems to have more direct descendants among the Scorseses, Tarantinos and Stones. There is a lot of its style in Goodfellas. But there's a big difference, there, as well. When we see the ultra violence on screen in this one it is without glamour, it is sudden, it hurts and it has consequences, the stakes are always high and the injury or death that follows a losing hand is repellent. Also missing from this and added to its American inheritors is the glamorisation of the wise guy. As psychotically grating as Joe Pesci's creations could be in Scorsese's films we could still welcome his presence as a centre of explosive power who could deliver a lot of guilty laughs. The laughs that come with violence here show the perps up rather than ride with them. We are not invited to join them. Their machismo is kept alien, scary, repugnant and distinct from manliness. It's impressive.

This screening featured a restored 35mm print of this classic and I'm glad I made the effort, having seen the film before (but only on a visually compromised copy) I saw it afresh and marvelled at its bold pallette, the understated power of its camera and editing and the Morricone-like score which stayed tough and stylish throughout. Director Kinji Fukasaku has intrigued and delighted us more recently with the strong and influential Battle Royale. Well, that didn't come from nowhere.

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