Director: Kinji Fukasaku
Screenplay: Kinji Fukasaku, Fumio Kônami, Hirô Matsuda
Starring: Kôji Tsuruta, Tomisaburô Wakayama, Kenji Imai, Hideo Murota, Keijirô Morozumi
Country: Japan
Running Time: 93 min
Year: 1971
BBFC Certificate: TBC

Kinji Fukasaku’s 1971 film Sympathy for the Underdog is actually the 9th part of the 10 part Gambler series. The films are unconnected other than by themes and stories based on real-life interviews with Yakuza. This dose of reality, on top of some stylistic touches, makes it an interesting transitional film for Fukasaku and Japanese crime movies in general, which would soon move away from the traditional ninkyo eiga (chivalrous gangster movies) to grittier Yakuza fare based more closely on reality, a style best typified by Fukasaku’s Battles Without Honour series.

I’ve watched and reviewed a lot of Fukasaku’s films for the site, particularly the slew of raw, fast-paced Yakuza movies he made in the 1970s. So, I was thrilled to hear Radiance Films would be releasing possibly the earliest of this run, a film which I hadn’t previously seen. Needless to say, I requested a copy to review and my thoughts follow.

Sympathy for the Underdog tells the story of Gunji (Kôji Tsuruta), a high-ranking, ageing Yakuza member, who is released from prison after a decade. He returns to find his gang has been forced out of Yokohama by a more powerful, business-like Tokyo outfit. Seeking to rebuild his organisation, Gunji gathers his remaining loyal men.

They head to Okinawa, an island with a less established criminal underworld. There, Gunji muscles in on a lucrative bootlegging operation, stepping on the toes of the local gangsters, including the powerful Yonabaru (Tomisaburô Wakayama). Thankfully, Gunji uses his wits and stoicism to gain the larger-than-life figure’s respect. However, their success is short-lived. The very Tokyo gang responsible for their downfall follows them to Okinawa, aiming to take control of the profitable racket. Gunji and his crew are then forced to fight for their territory and survival.

I’ve never been let down by a Fukasaku film yet (other than The Green Slime but that likely had issues due to being co-production with an American studio) and Sympathy for the Underdog certainly doesn’t buck the trend. In fact, I thought it settled up there among his best films.

As is often the case with Fukasaku’s work, Sympathy for the Underdog examines changing times and those struggling to straddle them, on top of typical themes of brotherhood and honour typical to the Yakuza genre. Here we have a gangster who’s been out of action for a while coming home to find his family in tatters and a more ruthless business-like gang vying to control as much as possible. This suggests a comment on big business taking over more traditional, honourable organisations. The rise of power, another theme popular in the director’s work, is also explored.

Sympathy for the Underdog was made during a time when Japan and the US were in negotiations over the control of Okinawa, so it was particularly topical. The US presence in the prefecture is made clear in the film without pushing it in your face or making clear anti-American statements. With the arrival of the Japanese organisation looking to muscle in on the area’s operations, the film isn’t necessarily siding with the Japanese on the matter either. In fact, the bad blood between native Okinawans and the Japanese is referenced throughout the film.

There’s quite a lot going on at times, as is often the case in Fukasaku’s films, but the story is told clearly and efficiently, keeping things from getting messy or confusing. We get a number of voiceovers and name captions to get the ‘facts’ neatly out of the way.

Like most of Fukasaku’s films, Sympathy for the Underdog has a great energy and vitality, using freeze frames and a handheld camera, among other stylistic flourishes. The camerawork is a little less frantic than in some of his later work but the action scenes, in particular, are shot with a wild, handheld approach.

The cast is strong too. Kôji Tsuruta has such presence and is subtly expressive, despite wearing sunglasses throughout the film. Tomisaburô Wakayama, who will be most familiar to fans of the Lone Wolf and Cub film series, almost steals the show though. He plays his role a lot larger than Tsuruta but it works with his character. The supporting cast of Toei’s regular character actors is very strong too.

I also loved the use of music in the film. The American influence in Okinawa is again reflected in this, with some funky psychedelic rock rubbing shoulders with traditional folk songs.

Overall, Sympathy for the Underdog is a hyper-cool crime thriller that effectively bridges the gap between the ninkyo eiga films of the 60s and Fukasaku’s frenetic later work in the Yakuza movie genre, and it’s every bit as good as those latter films.

Film:

Sympathy for the Underdog is out on 26th June on region A&B Blu-Ray, released by Radiance Films. You can order it here. The transfer is impressive, with pleasingly rich colours and a natural grain. I’ve used screengrabs throughout this review to give you an idea of how the films look. The audio is robust too.

LIMITED EDITION BLU-RAY SPECIAL FEATURES:

– High-Definition digital transfer
– Uncompressed mono PCM audio
– Audio commentary by yakuza film expert Nathan Stuart (2024)
– Interview with Fukasaku biographer Olivier Hadouchi (2024)
– Visual essay on Okinawa on screen by film historian and author Aaron Gerow (2024)
– Trailer
– New and improved English subtitle translation
– Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Time Tomorrow
– Limited edition booklet featuring new writing by Bastian Meiresonne and an archival review of the film
– Limited Edition of 3000 copies, presented in full-height Scanavo packaging with removable OBI strip leaving packaging free of certificates and markings

Nathan Stuart provides a commentary. It’s well-researched but also passionate, with Stuart clearly being a fan of the film and genre. He gives valuable context, discusses the lives and careers of those involved, and also describes why he thinks the film is special. He spends a lot of time, in particular, singing the praises of the roster of Toei character actors on screen.

Aaron Gerow talks about Japanese films’ representation of Okinawa. He begins by providing a brief but essential background on the region and how it sits as part of the Japanese nation. He goes on to talk about different representations of Okinawa in cinema before settling on Sympathy for the Underdog. He has some interesting points to make so the piece will be of interest to anyone intrigued by the film’s setting.

Olivier Hadouchi talks about Fukasaku and Sympathy for the Underdog. He describes how he set out to write a monograph about the director because he felt Fukasaku’s work wasn’t given the proper attention it deserved. Critics and filmmakers admired the director’s style but he wasn’t considered a ‘serious’ filmmaker due to his career being largely spent making genre movies. Hadouchi believes the director was a true auteur though and deserves to be treated as such. He talks about Fukasaku’s signature techniques and themes. He goes on to analyse Sympathy for the Underdog in great detail, making for a piece that will be of interest to anyone wanting to dig deeper into the film.

I haven’t been sent the booklet to comment on that, but the Radiance booklets I’ve read so far have provided valuable supplements to the films.

Overall then, Radiance have put together an excellent package for another Fukasaku classic. Highly recommended.

Disc/package:

Sympathy for the Underdog - Radiance
Film
Disc/Package
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