Director: Teruo Ishii
Screenplay: Teruo Ishii
Based on a Novel by: Hajime Itô
Starring: Ken Takakura, Kôji Nanbara, Kyōsuke Machida, Ichirō Nakatani, Kanjūrō Arashi, Tōru Abe, Michiko Saga, I. George, Kunie Tanaka, Kanjūrō Arashi, Tetsurō Tamba
Country: Japan
Running Time: 91 min (part 1), 87 min (part 2), 89 min (part 3)
Year: 1965
BBFC Certificate: 15

People like to moan about Hollywood making too many sequels these days but it’s been going on around the world since the start of the studio system. Some of the most extreme examples of this come from the Japanese film industry, where popular series would see new entries churned out in rapid succession over the course of a few years. One example was the Abashiri Prison series, which saw 18 films made between 1965 and 1972. The first ten of these were all written and directed by Teruo Ishii between 1965 and 1967 and the final 8 were made by others under the banner of New Abashiri Prison.

The first film, simply titled Abashiri Prison (a.k.a. Abashiri bangaichi), was loosely based on a novel by Hajime Itô, who had served time in the titular prison in the early 1950s. The novel had already been turned into a film in 1959. Reportedly, Ishii thought the source material was “melodramatic crap” though (as put by Tony Rayns, who may or may not be quoting Ishii) so the director asked if he could rewrite it himself and bring it more in line with Stanley Kramer’s The Defiant Ones.

Toei, the studio behind the film, agreed but were worried a film set in a prison during winter with no love interest might not attract crowds, so had it shot in black-and-white and stuck it at the bottom of a double bill. Abashiri Prison surprised them, however, becoming a big hit (as well as its theme song, performed by star Ken Takakura). A sequel was swiftly cobbled together, with Ishi writing the script in a week and the shoot lasting only two. This made even more money and so a franchise was born.

The first four Abashiri Prison films all came out in 1965 and the latter three of these featured in the top 10 list of the most successful Japanese films of that year, all outselling the still popular first entry.

The series made Ken Takakura a star after nearly a decade of smaller parts or starring roles in films that didn’t find enough of an audience. He went on to be a huge name in the Japanese film industry, up until his death in 2014.

Whilst Ishii is best known by fans of Japanese cinema in the West as a purveyor of twisted tales of sex and torture, in Japan he’s best known for the much more conventional Abashiri Prison series. With Ishii’s work being well-served by boutique Blu-ray labels in the UK then, it was only a matter of time before some of the series’ films made it to disc over here.

Eureka answered the call and are releasing the first three films in the Abashiri Prison series in a box set entitled Prison Walls: Abashiri Prison 1-3. I got hold of a copy to share my thoughts here.

Abashiri Prison introduces us to Shinichi Tachibana (Ken Takakura), a yakuza serving time at the titular prison. On learning that his mother is gravely ill, he yearns to leave. Seeing Tachibana as a model prisoner, his parole officer, Tsumaki (Tetsurō Tamba), works to get him released.

However, with only a few months remaining in his sentence, Tachibana finds himself chained to Gonda (Kôji Nanbara), a hardened criminal, during a daring prison break. Forced into an unlikely partnership, Tachibana and Gonda must navigate the harsh winter landscape of Hokkaido to evade capture.

I enjoyed the first film a great deal. I particularly appreciated how well-developed its characters were. Though Tachibana is not innocent of the crimes he’s been incarcerated for, regular flashbacks help us sympathise with him and his situation. Many of his fellow inmates are given more nuance than usual too, making for a prison film that is led by characters we care about, without losing the tough edge you’d expect from such a setting.

It’s relatively straight-forward in style when compared to some of Ishii’s later films, but there are still some creative shots here and there and it has that handsome look characteristic to Japanese films of the era.

There’s some excitement to be had too, particularly in a climactic chase on a runaway handcar, which is thrillingly realised.

The second film, ​​Another Abashiri Prison Story (a.k.a. Abashiri Prison Continues or Zoku Abashiri bangaichi) sees Tachibana attempt to reintegrate into society after being released from prison. However, his past catches up with him when he stumbles upon stolen diamonds from a recent bank heist. This unexpected discovery makes him a target for both the criminals who lost the loot and the police searching for it. Tachibana must therefore clear his name and protect himself from those who believe he possesses the stolen fortune.

This first sequel has a relatively poor reputation among fans of the series and I can see why some might be put off by it. Watching the film straight after the first is a bit of a shock to the system. The most notable difference is the shift to colour but this fits the move away from the snowy prison setting to a bustling city. More surprising, however, is a shift in tone, with a more light-hearted feel. There were splashes of humour in the first film, with the convicts goofing around to pass the time, but here it’s a little more overt. Plus, we get a greater female presence.

Personally, I didn’t think it was a bad film but with its broader, crime-caper approach it feels a little bland and by-the-numbers in comparison to the first. It moves along nicely though and is enjoyable enough, even if there’s not a lot of action until the final act.

Keeping me on board, was the star power of Takakura. He oozes charisma, and it’s no surprise he became a star off the back of this series.

The third film, Abashiri Prison: Saga of Homesickness (a.k.a. Abashiri Prison: Love For the Homeland or Abashiri bangaichi: Bôkyô hen) seems to ignore the previous entry and chooses to follow up the first more closely (though a couple of actors re-appear in different roles).

It opens with Tachibana coming home after serving his time at Abashiri. After visiting his mother’s grave, he heads over to see the boss (Kanjūrō Arashi) of the Asahi yakuza gang he had been a member of. It seems as though the rash actions that sent him to prison have caused a greater rift between the Asahi and Yasui families though, with the latter taking a lot of business from and attacking the boss of the former.

Tachibana wants to help settle things but doesn’t want to end up in prison again and also wants to uphold his boss’ wish that their family’s business remains legitimate and they don’t become a gang of thugs like the Yasui family. Tachibana does his best to honour these wishes but the threats and treachery of the Yasui gang make this difficult.

The third film returns to the more serious tone of the first, though this time with a little more melodrama. Most of this latter point comes from a rather unfortunate side story about a young mixed-race orphan girl. The problem with this is that the girl is inexplicably played by a Japanese child (a boy, I think) with thick blackface makeup. You’ve got to appreciate the film was made in a different time and, to be fair, the issues discussed about race here are honourable and well-handled. However, I couldn’t help but be distracted by the makeup whenever she was on screen and I found the character annoying and her story too sappy for my tastes.

Thankfully, the film is pretty badass, away from the sentimental moments. For instance, in one scene, Tachibana burns his tattoo off with a lighter, whistling as he does it! This is done to placate the tubercular ‘Killer Joe’ (Naoki Sugiura), who is a hyper-cool addition to the series – a skilful yakuza who develops a great admiration for Tachibana.

Though there are strong aspects of the ninkyo eiga (“chivalry film”) genre in the previous entries, here is where the series becomes more closely aligned to it, with an honourable yakuza helping to restore a system of moral justice. As such, it feels more like a generic film, perhaps, but a decent one, nonetheless.

Overall then, whilst I found the two sequels a little more conventional and less successful, I still enjoyed the whole trio of Abashiri Prison films presented here and would love to see the other entries sometime in the future.

Abashiri Prison:

Another Abashiri Prison Story:

Abashiri Prison: Saga of Homesickness:

Prison Walls: Abashiri Prison 1-3 is out on 27th May on Blu-Ray in the UK, released by Eureka as part of their Masters of Cinema series. All three films look great. The first, which is shot in black-and-white, is crisp and detailed with a perfectly balanced range of contrasts. The other two have pleasing colours and clean pictures. There’s just one brief sequence in the third instalment that looks rough. Presumably, this is a scene that had been excised from the master but sourced from elsewhere.

Audio is strong on all three titles too. There’s just the usual issue of films from the era where there are harsh ‘s’ sounds. This was only particularly notable in the first film though.

SPECIAL FEATURES

– Limited edition O-Card slipcase featuring new artwork by Tony Stella [2000 units]
– 1080p HD presentation of all three films from restorations of the original film elements supplied by Toei
– Optional English subtitles newly translated for this release
– Original Japanese audio (uncompressed LPCM mono)
– Brand new audio commentary tracks by Tom Mes, Chris Poggiali and Mike Leeder & Arne Venema
– Tony Rayns on Abashiri Prison – brand new interview with critic and Asian cinema expert Tony Rayns
– Brand new video appreciation by Jasper Sharp and Mark Schilling
– Trailers
– A collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film by Mark Schilling [2000 units)

Tom Mes provides the commentary on the first film. As usual, this is insightful and incredibly well-researched, providing plenty of contextual analysis. He discusses the careers of those involved, as well as trends in Japanese cinema that led to this series’ inception and end. There’s also some discussion on the representation of masculinity in Japanese films and how Takakura was an interesting figure as a male star.

Chris Poggiali talks over the second film. He covers some similar ground to Mes at first but moves on to discuss the sequel and its new cast members. It’s a solid track but not quite as engaging as the other two.

Mike Leeder and Arne Venema provide the third commentary. This is excellent. The pair have a great rapport, making for an energetic and enjoyable track but, not only that, it’s packed with fascinating facts about the film and those involved. One particularly interesting tangent even looked at how a film had helped changed the Japanese legal system. I also enjoyed hearing their thoughts about the yakuza in general, towards the end of the track. The pair have always been reliable when it comes to commentary tracks and this is one of their best.

In an interview, Jasper Sharp and Mark Schilling discuss the series and Ishii’s career in general. It’s an informative and engaging piece that acts as a handy alternative for anyone unwilling to trawl through the three commentaries.

Tony Rayns opens his half-hour interview by talking about how the yakuza film genre began in Japan, following the abandonment of the samurai/chanbara genre by film production companies, due to TV studios producing their own samurai series. He goes on to talk about the Abashiri Prison series, how it came about and how it developed. Though there’s a little crossover here and there, Rayns has enough new takes on the production history and analysis that his piece is every bit as valuable as the other extras.

The booklet is good too, consisting of an essay by Mark Schilling, production information and press images. I spotted some information that seemed to contradict what I’d heard elsewhere on the disc and online though. His essay claims that the first film in the series “ended the year behind only Akira Kurosawa’s Red Beard, earning a total of 294 million yen at the domestic box office” but sources suggest it was the fourth film in the series that achieved this feat.

This minor discrepancy aside, it’s an informative piece that provides valuable context to the series.

So, Eureka have put together a fine package that fans of Japanese genre cinema would be advised to get their hands on.

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Editor of films and videos as well as of this site. On top of his passion for film, he also has a great love for music and his family.

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