Tokyo Drifter (1966) by Seijun Suzuki

Tetsuya (Tetsuya Watari) is a young gangster loyal to his boss Kurata (Ryuji Kita). Kurata has decided to go straight and Tetsuya with him. Tetsuya earns the ire of rival gang leader Otsuka (Hideaki Esumi), by refusing to join with them. Things are further complicated by a real estate deal involving a third boss, Ishii. Tensions run high and bullets start to fly, leading to a number of deaths. Kurata tells Tetsu to leave Tokyo and his singer girlfriend, Chiharu (Chieko Matsubara), and head north. But trouble is never far behind and he soon finds his loyalties being tested.

With constraints on both time and money, director Suzuki managed to create up a film that has all the razzle-dazzle pop elements associated with the 1960’s generation alongside the unpredictable violence of the gangster genre. The story, by Yasunori Kawauchi, is straightforward enough, introducing several main players and a series of dodgy deals and double-crosses. Tetsuya is a likeable hero, sharp-suited and sharp-shooting, and Tetsuya Watari brings an effortless cool to the role in keeping with the youthful feel of the film. Suzuki uses colour to great effect and in a way that might at first seems at odds with the genre. Gone are murky hideouts and chiaroscuro lighting associated with the yakuza, replaced by brightly lit rooms painted in garish colours. There is comic-strip style to both the story and the staging, which, alongside some unusual editing, musical-like sequences of the main character singing the theme song, give the film a peculiarly tongue-in-cheek feel. It is a film that waltzes light-footed through the genre, absolutely nailing the most thrilling aspects of yakuza stories, while at the same time being a one-of-a-kind piece . The music by Hajime Kaburagi picks out the upbeat and enjoyable vibe of the film, with a jazz and pop infused score.

“Tokyo Drifter” deals with several themes familiar to the yakuza genre, primarily ideas of honour and the difficulty in breaking out of a life of crime. Tetsuya is a man who shows utter loyalty to his boss, who is like a surrogate father to him, in a world where loyalty is often poorly rewarded. His choice of profession means that he is doomed to be an outsider, unable to form significant relationships with others. This is typified in his interactions with Chiharu, who he is forced to abandon when things become too dangerous. Where “Tokyo Drifter” succeeds is in its depiction of the period. The stark contrast of colourful discotheques and the bright lights of the city with the lonely hideaways of the yakuza gives the sense of youth culture going on above the surface while underground the old rivalries persist. The film’s primary aim is to entertain. It is pulp entertainment elevated to an art form by a director with boundless creativity who doesn’t take himself or his art too seriously.

Minbo, or the Gentle Art of Japanese Extortion (1992)

The staff at a high-class hotel have a problem. The Yakuza are causing trouble, being abusive to staff, refusing to pay their bills, and other antisocial behaviour. With the manager (Akira Takarada) at a loss he recruits an accountant, Suzuki (Yasuo Daichi) to lead operations to rid the hotel of these people, along with his assistant Wakasugi (Takehiro Murata). The two prove to be incompetent, lacking the strength and wit to out-fox the gangsters. They decide to bring in criminal lawyer, Mahiru Inoue (Nobuko Miyamoto), who specialises in Yakuza-civilian relations. The film is essentially a farce with some great scenes showing the various tricks of the Yakuza swindling people out of their money. Later in the film things take a dark turn when the manager of the hotel is framed for a sexual assault on a minor. Having finally gone too far, the hotel double down on their efforts to get rid of the Yakuza once and for all.

Director Juzo Itami faced a backlash from the Yakuza following the release of the film, being assaulted by gangs who disliked their portrayal in the movie. There are also those who believe Itami’s death to be suspicious and linked to these groups. The film is a fantastic crime-comedy film that has surprisingly dark undercurrents. Not only are the Yakuza shown to be ridiculous, but also violent thugs that should not be respected in Japanese society. The direction is solid and Itami clearly has a good sense of comic timing and framing set-pieces. The script also moves at a great pace and is well-structured into various acts, becoming acquainted with the problematic Yakuza and our hapless heroes, then the secondary plot involving the manager, and finally their showdown with the gangsters. The comic soundtrack by Toshiyuki Honda is very much of its time, but in keeping with the film’s light-hearted tone. The great achievement of the film is that it manages to discuss a serious societal problem with humour without shying away from the darker elements.

The Yakuza are a staple of Japanese cinema, from Kinji Fukasaku’s “Yakuza Papers” series, to Takashi Miike’s “Black Society Trilogy” and Takeshi Kitano’s “Outrage”. This film’s intention was to puncture the mystique around these groups and show them as bullies and criminals. There is nothing honourable about the characters in the film and they lack the aura of cool that has been established by many films. Instead they are loud, lazy and obnoxious, making their money by taking advantage of the good nature of those around them. A great film with some hilarious moments and a serious message underpinning the comedy.

Versus (2000)

Two recently escaped convicts meet up with a group of gangsters who are taking them to safety. After a disagreement regarding a female hostage of the group, one of the men decides to make a run for it, through the woods to freedom. However, these are no ordinary woods. The “Forest of Resurrection”  has the power to bring the dead back to life. What follows is a fight for survival between the convict and his female companion and the men chasing them. In a later twist the man realises that there is a reason why he has been brought back to this particular forest as an ancient adversary returns.

Written by Ryuhei Kitamura and Yudai Yamaguchi the script is a ridiculous blend of Yakuza and Zombie film tropes. The majority of the runtime is dedicated to the action sequences that are the film’s major strength. Essentially a series of fights that are loosely contrived through various characters happening upon one another, there is enough variety to keep them fresh, especially with the zombie element thrown in. The film doesn’t shy away from violence and fans of gore will not be disappointed with the bucket loads of blood, and practical effects for gunshots and other injuries. Decapitation, dismemberment, punching a hole straight through a zombie: all of these are commonplace in a film that doesn’t take itself too seriously. There are moments of intentional slapstick and black humour that lighten the tone. The main issue with the film is that it never quite manages to draw you in on an emotional level, for the most part being surface action and violence. Kitamura’s direction does keep things entertaining, with stylish 360-degree shots, lively editing and some fantastic framing that elevates the film above its basic story. The actors are all well cast and bring their eccentric characters to life, doing a great job with the fight choreography as well as the comedic beats.

“Versus” will appeal to fans of zombie films and the more bizarre yakuza movies, complete with jokes about missing hands, liberal use of violence, increasingly ridiculous guns employed to blast characters out of situations. The film’s own self-awareness of the silliness of its premise along with skilful and stylish direction make this worth a watch for fans of the genre. While there is very little to appeal on a dramatic or story level, the action scenes, with great choreography and practical effects, make for a fun distraction.

Dead or Alive 2: Birds (2000)

Two assassins meet unexpectedly when they are both contracted to kill the same man. After realising that they were actually childhood friends, they decide to escape from the city and return to the island where they were brought up, visiting a third friend who is now living there with his pregnant wife. After their respite the two decide to return to the metropolis and use their skills as professional killers to benefit orphans in the third world, by sending the money they make overseas. This soon brings them back into contact with the violent gangs they had previously escaped.

After the grotesque comedy of the first Dead or Alive film, this is a much more sedate affair. There is still puerile humour, sex, violence, and quirky storytelling with bizarre plot twists, but throughout is a strong central theme helped along by fantastic performances by Show Aikawa and Riki Takeuchi. The two actors this time play the assassins returning to their hometown, reliving former traumas and triumphs along with their old friend. Both are charismatic and it is good to see them getting more screen time together. The story meanders its way through their reminiscences and may not appeal to those fond of the more frenetic pace of the earlier film, but it does a much better job of creating likeable characters. Takashi Miike brings a visual flair and intelligence to the directing that keep things interesting. There are moments of pure cinema, such as when the characters sprout wings, one black, one white, or when we see feathers falling from nowhere after a murder, or when the characters transform into their childhood selves.

It may seem out of place to have a school play half-way through a film about hit-men, especially one that is juxtaposed with a sex scene and gangland murders in another part of the country, but it typifies what makes this movie great. By creating a powerful contrast between the placid life of the small island community with the horrors of inner-city crime we get a picture of divided characters, contract killers who still retain their basic humanity. The film is essentially about a loss of innocence as we see what these young boys have become, and their attempt to regain that through travelling back to their old town. The plot involving the two killers helping young children out with money through the proceeds of murder is a fairly pointed commentary on what is wrong with society, and done in a way that makes it seem like common sense (why not kill bad guys and give the money to helpless orphans?). It is great to see a film that has the confidence to tell its audience uncomfortable truths, while at the same time not being overly moralistic.

Dead or Alive (1999)

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The film’s opening sequence knocks you over the head with its rebellious attitude. Intercutting between a strip-show, cocaine snorting gangsters, a shoot-out, and an apparent suicide, are coming at you so thick and fast that it is overwhelming. Once the narrative proper starts there is a clear intent to shock, with bestiality porn shoots, a horrific death involving an enema, and several other alternately horrific and hilarious set-pieces. The central story involves a feud between gangster Ryuichi (Riki Takeuchi) and police detective Jojima (Show Aikawa), though it is hard to say that is what the film is truly about. Rather that rather staid plot is used as a canvas for director Takashi Miike to create a work that is troubling and humorous in equal measure.

Director Takashi Miike’s “Black Society Trilogy” established his reputation as a talented film-maker, with an exciting, politically conscious take on the Yakuza genre. With Dead or Alive, Miike again tackles many of the same issues, but there is something different in “Dead or Alive” a punk aesthetic that is typified in the extreme opening and closing sequences of the film. It almost feels as though Miike is attempting to sabotage his own work, although it might be politer to suggest he is creating a post-modernist masterpiece. There are a number of fantastic scenes here, building character and back story, and Takeuchi and Aikawa give incredible performances throughout. During the interrogation scene there is an almost unbearable tension between the two leads. Watching a Miike film you are aware that he is fully in control. If he wants you to feel panic, dread, to laugh or be shocked or even upset, he can, casually confounding your expectations throughout. The film is such an eclectic mix of slapstick and gross out humour wrapped around a core of serious crime drama that it shouldn’t work, but somehow it does. Miike almost seems to be suggesting that he could make a great Yakuza epic if he wanted, but is constantly distracted by some wild or hilarious idea with which to toy with the audience, or perhaps it is all a commentary on the film industry, or whatever else occurred to him that day.

Miike delights in taking well-worn stories about cops and gangsters and turning them on their heads. There is social commentary here, on crime, the treatment of women, immigration and more, but it feels as though the whole thing has been through a blender. It is a kaleidoscope of ludicrous over-the-top moments, sombre family drama and scatological humour. Obscene, bizarre, satirical, at times emotionally raw, it is a film that pulls no punches.