Film review – 縄張はもらった / Retaliation (Yasuharu Hasebe, 1968)

Arrow’s release of Yasuharu Hasebe’s 1968 yakuza film ‘Retaliation’ is well with picking up alongside another release from the same director, ‘Massacre Gun‘ (which I have previously written about). I will admit that these are films in a genre for which my interest far outweighs my actual experience in, but as usual the Arrow discs serve not only as an excellent way to view the films but also to immerse yourself in the history of the company and background to the films themselves. But more on that later.

The film is a tale of gang warfare. Jiro Sagae (Akira Kobayashi) returns to the streets after eight years in prison to find that much of his former life has moved on – his gang is all but completely disbanded and the city he knows and loves is now in the midst of a land dispute over farmland, with two gangs using heavy-handed methods to acquire land off farmers to sell on at a profit to a company that wants to build a new factory there. Jiro approaches the leader of the Hasama family to offer his assistance in settling the dispute and is given two promises: he can complete the task his own way and he will get control over the area once the task is complete. Jo Shishido also stars as Hino, a former gang rival waiting to kill Jiro after his escape from prison, and there is an early performance by Meiko Kaji (as Masako Ota) as the love interest of Jiro, years before her starring roles in Lady Snowblood and the Stray Cat Rock series.

The plot does, at times, feel overly complex. This is perhaps due to the need to introduce characters of interest in each of the gangs, plus a lead character, plus a backstory between two of the Nikkatsu Diamond leading men and a love interest. There’s also an unexpected homosexuality twist near the end, which was undoubtedly controversial at the time. At its heart, however, is a simple turf war story that is the bread and butter of any mafia or yakuza film.

Nikkatsu may have later become known for their sexploitation films, with Yasuharu Hasebe even turning his hand to several “pink” films, but at the time they specialised in yakuza action films. Hasebe’s directorial technique is quite distinctive. The content is, invariably extremely violent (for the time, at least). He was a specialist in violence, and threw in elements of S&M briefly and a sexual assault that should have warned Nikkatsu of what to expect when they eventually gave him complete freedom to direct a number of sexploitation films in the late 1970s.

Another technique is to use foreground blocking to affect the composition of the shots. This is particularly used in fight scenes and in quiet meetings between gang members to give a sense of the action being the kind of thing you usually find behind closed doors, almost as if the cameraman has hidden away and is filming the characters, but if they realised then he’d be in danger. It’s a clever way to raise the intensity of the film.

As previously touched on, there are some essential bonus features on both this disc and that of ‘Massacre Gun’ that are well worth discovering. The half-hour interviews with film historian Tony Rayns are fantastic insights into the company and serve as a video essay to establish the background to the company at the time the films were released and also a means to discover more about the director Hasebe and one of the stars Jo Shishido. Additionally, Jo Shishido is also interviewed on each disc, providing an unfiltered take on the filmmaking process and his memories and experiences about the studio. In the booklets, Japanese film expert Jasper Sharp provides a long essay on the film and the studio that is also well worth reading.

As someone who has never had any kind of film or media training and with no formal qualifications behind me, items like these serve time and time again as very effective mini film study courses. I’m able to watch a film in its best possible picture and sound quality, learn more about it from experts, immerse myself into the history of the company behind it and then check out more films from the era if I wish to. It’s easy to take this kind of situation for granted, but 20 years ago it simply wasn’t possible without finding a rare VHS copy and doing significant research at libraries or enrolling on a course. Indeed, I would probably never have even heard of the film let alone giving it a chance by watching it.

A must have for budding Japanese film fans and one that you need to act fast on since only 3000 copies were released.

 

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Film review – みな殺しの拳銃 / Massacre Gun (Yasharu Hasebe, 1967)

A stylish yakuza film originally released in 1967, みな殺しの拳銃 / Massacre Gun has received a lovingly-created remastering by Arrow Video that’s well worth picking up for fans of the genre.

The plot concerns three brothers. Ryûichi (Joe Shishido) is the eldest; he’s level-headed but he’s also a member of the Akazawa yakuza gang, turning on his employees when he is forced to murder his lover. Eiji (Tatsuya Fuji) is the middle brother – hot-headed but loyal to his siblings. The youngest, Saburo (Jiro Okazaki), is an aspiring boxer who over-exerts himself at a training session to prove his worth, infuriating the yakuza bosses who now have an injured star fighter. When the yakuza seek retaliation on him and ruin his career, this is the catalyst for their feud to quickly get out of control. Tensions rise as the stand-off escalates to full-blown gang warfare and a brutal final shootout.

The film oozes style. The sultry jazz soundtrack provided by Naozumi Yamamoto is almost a character in itself, providing an edge to the sharply-dressed brothers and the gritty world they inhabit. The monochromatic tones serve the film in a way that full-colour just wouldn’t have achieved.

massacre gun still

There’s a unique edge to everything that happens in the film, which is clearly an attempt by Yasharu Hasebe to mirror typical American film noirs. The world these characters isn’t a world that a typical viewer is familiar with outside of cinema, though the dedication to the genre is so absolute that it becomes absorbing. True, there are better film noirs out there, though few give themselves so absolutely to the concept of film noir itself.

However, there is something extraordinarily off-putting about the appearance of lead actor Joe Shishido. His cheeks seem puffed-up and almost chipmunk-like. Apparently, and I only found this out after seeing the film, this was by choice. He had his cheekbones enhanced to give himself a more masculine appearance. This really isn’t the case. In this particular film he looks like the most unlikely of lead actors, especially alongside his two brothers. It is an unnatural appearance, though it has the unintentional affect of providing Shishido with a heightened sense of being the underdog, which plays into the plot wonderfully.

This is a mere minor annoyance in an otherwise perfectly good film. It lacks the notoriety of the more popular Shishido yakuza film noir released in the same year – Branded To Kill – but both seems to inhabit the same world and will reward fans of the genre willing to seek it out.

Massacre Gun is out now on Arrow Video dual format Blu-ray and DVD, limited to 3000 copies.