Not content with being the go-to label for cult and classic American and European cinema, Arrow Video have started to mine the more obscure depths of Japanese genre movies recently, in particular gangster/crime films. After releasing a shiny new disc for Seijun Suzuki's relatively popular Branded to Kill and the full Battles Without Honour and Humanity collection, as well as a couple of vaguely known titles like Massacre Gun, they surprised everyone with a set of little-known crime dramas under the Nikkatsu Diamond Guys banner. This has now been followed up by the expansive Outlaw: Gangster VIP The Complete Collection, a series of violent Yakuza dramas, also produced by Nikkatsu and based on the writings of real life ex-gangster Goro Fujita.
Go on the IMDB and you'll find little information on the six films in this set (although due to my review being a little late, some more might have accumulated by now). So it's great to see a Blu-Ray/DVD label daring to venture into unknown territory like this. Of course, being genre films, there's always a bit of a safety net and the Japanese gangster angle was what sold the set to me, but I'm glad to see films that would otherwise be lost get the treatment they deserve.
The films in the series are Gangster VIP, Gangster VIP 2, Heartless, Goro the Assassin, Black Dagger and Kill!. My thoughts on the individual films follow:
* Please note - although the stills here are in black and white, all films are presented in colour. The promotional images used were given to me in this format.
Director: Toshio Masuda
Screenplay: Goro Fujita, Kaneo Ikegami, Keiji Kubota
Starring: Tetsuya Watari, Chieko Matsubara, Mitsuo Hamada
Running Time: 93 min
The first film in the series opens with a black and white flashback showing our hero Goro (Tetsuya Watari) as a child, living with his prostitute mother and beloved sister, who dies at a young age. We then see him slightly older, escaping the law through the help of a friend, Sugiyama. This quickly sets up Goro's key motivations that drive all the films in the series, protecting women from being corrupted by the Yakuza way of life and honouring loyalty amongst friends and allies.
Flash forward to Japan in the 50's and Goro is working for a Yakuza gang. He comes face to face with his childhood friend Sugiyama (Kyôsuke Machida), who is attempting to assassinate Goro's boss, so our hero is forced to stab him. This sets up a classic gang warfare story, but running alongside this, or possibly featuring more prominently, is a love story between Goro and Yukiko (Chieko Matsubara), a young innocent girl who falls for our hero. Goro doesn't want to get too close to her as he fears she will become another tragic Yakuza wife, but isn't able to shun her due to her persistence and his obvious feelings for her (she reminds him of his sister which helps).
This romance/protection angle, which is further driven by a side-story showing Goro's right hand man Takeo (Mitsuo Hamada) falling for a restaurant owner's daughter, gave the film much more of a melodramatic feel than I expected. Because of this, I was a little disappointed. Expecting a violent Yakuza saga, I was knocked back to learn that it's more of a 'gangster with a heart' tale.
There is a fair amount of violence though. There's quite a bit of knife action and a scene where a jeep is crashed through a building in an exciting raid. The set pieces in general are well executed. The film is slick and stylish, with some colourful and nicely framed cinematography and a cool spaghetti western influenced score.
So there were enough genre tropes and a strong sense of style to keep me entertained, but the sentimental side of the film made the experience drag occasionally. Overall it's decent enough, but nothing special.
Gangster VIP 2
Director: Keiichi Ozawa
Screenplay: Goro Fujita, Kaneo Ikegami, Keiji Kubota
Starring: Tetsuya Watari, Izumi Ashikawa, Eimei Esumi, Chieko Matsubara
Running Time: 97 min
* Contains spoiler for the first film
Set not too long after the first film, Gangster VIP 2 sees Goro out of the Yakuza to begin with. After having dealt bloody revenge for the death of Sugiyama, he travels to Sugaru (sp?) to live a life of peace with Yukiko and Sugiyama's wife Yumeko. He very quickly gets embroiled with some local troubles though and runs into an old Yakuza friend who talks him into his gang so that Goro can raise some money to pay for Yumeko's medicine.
Thus begins a story of Goro trying to keep out of the old lifestyle and protect various women from it too. Once again he's got a friend in an opposing gang and once again he's got a young cohort who's courting an innocent young woman.
The film feels like a slight step up in terms of production, with an effective use of locations and some cool long take action scenes. However, with the very similar story/character beats, the film feels all too familiar. The melodrama is amped up too, with one character's death scene creeping that little too far over the top. Luckily the gang warfare aspects are a little richer the second time around though and the second half of the film is pretty action heavy compared with the sappier first half.
So it's another solid Yakuza yarn with style and some exciting set pieces, but feels too similar to its predecessor and lays the melodrama a bit too thick to claim it's any better than the first film.
Director: Mio Ezaki
Screenplay: Mio Ezaki, Gan Yamazaki
Based on a Novel by: Goro Fujita
Starring: Tetsuya Watari, Chieko Matsubara, Kôji Wada, Chieko Matsubara
Running Time: 92 min
The third film opens with Goro on an assassination mission. Just as he prepares to take out his mark, the gang member target describes how he was framed by Goro's boss, Mikimoto, so Goro gives him the chance to escape. Unfortunately one of Goro's associates steps in and finishes the job. In his dying breaths though, the man asks Goro to make sure his wife gets out of town, to Nagano. Of course the gangster with a heart can't refuse this request and promptly raids Miyamoto's base to get the money wrongfully taken from the murdered man and give it to his wife. This leads to a torrent of enemies out to get Goro, including the man's brother, Ken, who's a bit bonkers and out for revenge – thinking Goro was responsible for the assassination. Along the way, the daughter of a former Yakuza falls for Goro and he does his best to keep her out of everything.
This is roughly more of the same again, with a sick Yakuza wife paying the price for her husband's chosen trade, an innocent girl in need of protection and another young right hand man ready to die for Goro. However, I found this my favourite of the series so far (I'm writing this before working through the rest of the set). I don't know if it's a better film or I'm just learning to enjoy the films for what they are and know to expect dollops of melodrama.
What helped my enjoyment was the fact that the film is a bit more action packed than its predecessors. There are three action scenes in the first ten minutes, although it does settle down soon after. The violence amps up the gore and drama too, with the opening standoff in the rain setting things off with a bang and the climax delivering an interesting visual gimmick of having a knife fight in pools of spilt paint.
The plot is a little more complicated too, which is something I enjoy in a good crime drama. I got a little confused at times though (partly due to the fact that actress Chieko Matsubara shows up playing a completely new character!) and the drawing together of all the strands towards the end felt quite drawn out. The film once again gets bogged down in melodrama too, so I wouldn't say it's vastly better than the previous instalments, but I did find myself getting more into it than before.
Goro the Assassin
Director: Keiichi Ozawa
Starring: Tetsuya Watari, Chieko Matsubara, Tatsuya Fuji, Shôki Fukae, Chitose Kobayashi
Running Time: 87 min
In the fourth instalment, we meet Goro in the middle of a fight in the snow, where his friend Masa (Tatsuya Fuji) is injured and the both of them are arrested. Later, when Goro is set to leave prison, he professes his desire to go straight to Masa, who asks him to deliver a message to his sister and let her know that he too plans to go straight. Masa dies in prison though from his injuries. Nevertheless, Goro still vows to deliver the message and heads to the town where she last lived. He arrives at the cinema she used to work at, only to find it has become a strip club. Here he sticks his nose into a Yakuza dispute, which angers the boss of the Meishinkai group, who orders Goro dead.
He eventually finds Masa's sister, Mayumi, who now works in the red light district. After hearing her blame the Yakuza for her current situation and her brother's, Goro vows to help her. Meanwhile he falls for hotel worker Isomura (once again a new character played by Chieko Matsubara), who is also caught up in some Yakuza issues as her father was killed by the Meishinkai group. So as usual the film surrounds Goro's mission to help women hard done by the Yakuza way of life whilst finding a young upstart and old friend to help him who inevitably get killed in the process.
This has all the same pros and cons of the previous entries. It looks good, the action scenes are well handled with some more cool long takes utilised, but it's also bogged down in clunky melodrama. It's possibly a little sleazier than before with the strip club and red light district angles and there are a couple of nasty torture sequences. One involving hammering someone's thumb was particularly harsh.
Overall I felt the energy levels were a bit low this time around, or more likely I was just fed up of watching the same story play out once again. So I have to give this a lower score than other episodes as I didn't quite get into it.
Director: Keiichi Ozawa
Starring: Tetsuya Watari, Chieko Matsubara, Yoshirô Aoki, Shôki Fukae, Eiji Gô
Running Time: 86 min
On to episode five now, with Black Dagger, and we open in 1962 when Goro is offing waves of Yakuza in a stylish opening sequence which freezes the violence for each new credit. At the end of this sequence there's a shock though as old flame Yuri (Chieko Matsubara of course!) randomly appears at the end of the battle, only to get killed during the final face-off. It's an odd turn of affairs as it happens too soon in the film to have much of an emotional impact and feels weirdly abrupt.
Anyway, from here we discover that the Shimaoke group are at war with the Buso group who are muscling in on their territory. Goro is in town and meets Miura, another old flame who is now married to Takemiya, a key member of the Shimaoke group. Takemiya asks Goro to help with the gang war, but he refuses. Goro stays in town though, living with an old friend, who gives him some honest construction work. It's here that he injures himself whilst saving a colleague from an industrial accident. In hospital he meets a nurse called Shizu, who looks exactly like Yuri (at least the film is now recognising the fact that all of his love interests look exactly the same) who is the sister of Miura. Meanwhile, we find Yuri's killer, Sueo, involved in the local gang war, working for Buso. When he too meets Shizu, he tries to befriend her, but she's not interested. Sueo's intentions are unclear, but it seems to be guilt spurring him on and he clearly has great respect for Goro, even helping him at one point, even if he's supposed to be fighting on the opposite side of the gang war.
It all leads to the usual death of a friend, an urge to do right by the women in Goro's life and an inevitable revenge massacre at the end. However, I found the plotting had stepped up a bit here. Although there are still similarities, the narrative feels more gang war focussed than on Goro's romantic/sympathetic interests. However, a more complex plot means a more talky presentation, so it's a little less exciting that previous entries and felt a bit slow. The last half an hour is strong though, with more action on display. When the action comes in this instalment, it's pretty brutal too. Overall it's a pretty decent entry to the series then, but not quite the best.
Director: Keiichi Ozawa
Starring: Tetsuya Watari, Chieko Matsubara, Shinjirô Ehara, Eiji Gô, Kenji Imai
Running Time: 86 min
Kill! is the final film in the Gangster VIP series. It opens with a failed attempt on the leader of the Iriezaki group's life, who ends up in prison. This leaves his gang's security weakened, helping the Toyu gang muscle in on their territory. We hear no mention of Goro until seven minutes in, when he comes off a train and bumps straight into one of the gangs who, on recognising him, ask for his help. He refuses of course, but ends up getting involved anyway as usual. You see, one of his old friends, Moriyama, is in town (surprise surprise) and Goro finds out that his wife is pregnant (unbeknownst to Moriyama), so feels obliged to protect them. He also meets and falls for Moriyama's sister in law Yumi, who, you guessed it, is played by none other than Chieko Matsubara.
A doomed young upstart gets thrown into the mix as usual, so once again there are similarities to the other films. However, I found myself enjoying this final episode quite a bit. The pregnancy angle, as melodramatic as it sounds, actually helps give the drama a bit of weight. There is also a dark twist in the Iriezaki boss' gang war tactics and the young upstart strand here has more depth. So I felt like the drama here really worked. Yes it can be a bit clunky at times and there are one or two dull scenes of Goro moping around, damning the life of a Yakuza, but overall I really felt for the characters and their grim situations.
So the series goes out on a high note. There's still some cheesy melodrama, but it's better utilised than before and well integrated into a decent Yakuza plot. The two elements are nicely fused in a scene where Yumi helps Goro remove a bullet from his arm, which he was doing by himself to begin with. It plays out like a gore soaked love scene. The violence elsewhere is particularly brutal too, with the opening scene throwing in an extreme close up of an eye getting stabbed and another character getting burned by boiling oil. So it still has genre thrills in amongst the stronger emotional beats.
Outlaw: Gangster VIP The Complete Collection set is out now on dual format Blu-Ray and DVD in the UK, released by Arrow Video. I saw the Blu-Ray versions of all the films and, as is to be expected from the label, the picture and audio quality is excellent.
For special features, as well as the usual trailers, you get an audio commentary on Outlaw: Gangster VIP by Jasper Sharp and a visual essay covering the entire series by Kevin Gilvear. The former is incredibly well researched, with extensive detail on the careers of those involved and the work of the studios at the time. The latter largely just gives a full run down of the plots of the films, thankfully not taking them all too seriously. This was handy to watch for writing these reviews, but maybe isn't that vital for others to see unless you've forgotten what happened in a previous entries.
You also get a hefty 40 page booklet in with the package which goes into great detail about the history and production of the series.