Hanzo the Razor Trilogy Review

Based on the manga series by Kazuo Koike, who was also responsible for inspiring the Lone Wolf and Cub series (in addition to subsequently penning the Crying Freeman tales), Hanzo the Razor was a project spearheaded by Shintaro Katsu, who had formed his own production company with Hiroyoshi Nishioka at the height of the super-violent exploitation craze. By the early seventies Katsu was already a powerful presence thanks to his successful and long running Zatoichi series. Breaking away somewhat from that established mould he set out create a series of films which would mix genre elements and appease a far broader range of tastes. The Gyokiba trilogy, or Hanzo the Razor as they’ve become synonymously known in the west, is the fruition of his daring tirade to project sex and violence against a backdrop of political slurs: three films that are amongst the strangest you may ever see pertaining to the good ol’ Jidai-geki establishment.





The Sword of Justice (1972. Dir - Kenji Misumi. 90 mins)
Starring: Shinataro Katsu, Daigo Kusano, Keizo Kanie,Yukiji Asaoka, Mari Atsumi, Ko Nishimura, Akira Yamauchi, Kamatari Fujiwara and Takahiro Tamura.

In The Sword of Justice a samurai cop named Hanzo Itami (Shintaro Katsu) finds himself jaded by the work ethics of the North Magistrates Court he works for. Refusing to swear to their oath of not abusing authority, despite having entered his fourth year in service, Hanzo explains that he will not bow down to a system that’s far too corrupt for its own good, all too willingly accepting tokens of gesture from wealthy officials. His chief officer Magobei Onishi (Ko Nishimura) warns him that if his defiance continues he will face the sack at the end of his term. Refusing to give in, Hanzo sets out experience the pains of torture, so that he might come up with an ideal solution of getting suspects to talk. When Onishi catches him and his two assistants Onibi (Daigo Kusano) and Mamushi (Keizo Kanie) - former criminals who Hanzo has shown mercy upon - go through such a horrific act of bodily torture he reaches the end of his tether. Realising that he hasn’t got a moment to lose Hanzo tells his men that they’ll need to dish up some dirt on Onishi if they’re to secure their jobs. Soon the discovery of a woman with no hair down there (Mari Atsumi) leads Hanzo on an investigation involving Onishi, a secret mistress and an escaped killer named Kanbei. Plot twists ahoy as Hanzo and his giant penis set out to solve their first major case.


Director Kenji Misumi, who predominantly specialised in making Jidai-geki flicks from the mid fifties through to the mid seventies, was a long time collaborator with the Daiei Motion Picture Company, who were famed for their Gamera features, not to mention the string of successful Zatoichi productions starring Shintaro Katsu. Misumi had directed six of those features up until the point that Daiei filed for bankruptcy in 1971. From 1972 throughout ’73 he would go on to find fame with four instalments (out of six) of the cult Lone Wolf and Cub series for Toho. But before cutting his teeth on those bloody features he teamed up with Katsu once more to helm the debut outing of hard bastard cop Hanzo Itami.

The first of three films, also distributed by Toho during the Pinku heyday, serves as a fine introduction to Hanzo Itami and the common values that he stands for. While The Sword of Justice (“sword” being a clear euphemism for “penis” as I like to think) is indeed pure exploitation it’s important to note that underlining its acts of torture and depravity is a one-sided cynical commentary geared toward a more contemporary society which can indeed be linked to the days of old; this was all too common throughout the years in which this unique genre regularly regurgitated tales of morality as told through violent means, whether they harboured post-war sentiments or simply stood as an exact sign of the times. It’s hard to ignore the fact that The Sword of Justice readily waxes lyrical about magisterial rules, police corruption and authoritarian weaknesses in regards toward a judicial system that can’t handle the criminals it takes in. And central to these sentiments is the character of Hanzo, who despite being somewhat of an odd officer at least has a firm set of scruples, alongside his undoubtedly firm set of balls. So sets up this dominant hero who vows to go out alone and take the law into his own hands, using his own unorthodox methods in what seems to be a firm case of vigilantism. And make no mistake, Hanzo will do whatever he must to ensure the safety of the Edo villagers that he has sworn to rightfully protect in a world rife with bribery and heavy leniency.

Of course having scruples is one thing, but they’re not always going to guarantee results, which is why Hanzo resorts to torture of the highest degree to see to it that his job is carried out with utmost efficiency. Not only does that mean he’ll gladly terrorize a few vagrants along the way, but so too will he test himself both physically and mentally, just so that he can appreciate how much pain his victims go through. Sure his mentality is rather sadistic, but he wouldn’t be quite so intriguing if it wasn’t. Hanzo takes to punishing himself on regular occasions, taking considerable pleasure in such pains involving beating his knob with a stick and thrusting it into a bag of rice, or just dousing it in boiling water depending on the mood he’s in. He gets a hard-on whenever he’s in pain and this self-abuse aids his greatest weapon, next to his trusty katana and chained sai. This instrument of justice (I’m still taking about his penis by the way) serves as the deliverer of ultimate pleasure to all fearing maidens, which is where the character of Hanzo slides into complete and utter sleaze. It’s also a bone of contention, being that Hanzo is quite the rape master, which sees to it that is moral side is certainly questionable. No woman can resist being sexually dominated by our chum Hanzo, soon finding themselves succumbing to his persuasive methods and never wanting to be let go from his libidinous grasp. Even a little S&M never goes amiss, as Hanzo whips out the ol’ bondage rope, much to the initial shock but inevitable glee of his recipient. All of this is backed by an unusual score from Kunihiko Murai who often tries to sensualise these sequences, while retaining a sleazy funk vibe: a surreal partnership formed with Misumi’s soft-focused, yet daring methods of illustrating such penetrative delights.

But despite such crazed acts The Sword of Justice is a wildly funny feature. It’s so ridiculous in the way that it draws out its sequences that you can’t expect it to be any less satirical: the sex scenes are utterly absurd, Hanzo’s willy exercises with indented table are most amusing, and a running gag relating to Omino’s hairless crotch causing much in the way of uproarious sighs and exclamations is particularly apt. The violence, a clear precursor to Katsu’s self-produced Lone Wolf and Cub series, continues to show the film makers simply having fun with their material, with a denouement, in which despite having forced himself upon women and disfiguring the faces of many, shows us that Hanzo’s not such a bad guy after all. Director Misumi’s approach to the material is very matter of fact and to the point, showcasing some inventive stylistic choices and doing away with an epic narrative, while keeping some staple Jidai-geki traditions. This is simple, undiluted entertainment, which has enough bang(ing) for buck to please the those of us with more unusual tastes.

Hanzo: a man alone in a corrupt world….the saga continues.



The Snare (1973. Dir - Yasuzo Masumura. 89 mins)
Starring: Shintaro Katsu, Daigo Kusano, Keizo Kanie, Toshio Kurosawa, Ko Nishimura, Kei Sato, Kazuko Ineno, Hosei Komatsu, Keiko Aikawa and Masami Sanada.

Whilst chasing down a couple of crooks, Hanzo Itami (Shintaro Katsu) and his sidekicks Onibi (Daigo Kusano) and Mamushi (Keizo Kanie) run into the path of Lord Okubo (Hosei Komatsu), the government treasurer and his bodyguard Mikoshiba (Toshio Kurosawa). They’re given a quick telling off and told not to be so careless in future. Soon afterward a young woman is found lying dead in a watermill hut, which leads Hanzo, Onibi and Mamushi to an underground abortion sect, where a crazy woman attempts to fix knocked-up girls. Quickly disbanding it Hanzo is then called to meet Okubo with the head of the magisterial office Onishi (Ko Nishimura) by his side. Okubo informs him that the escaped convict and ace thief Shobei Hamajima (Kei Sato) no doubt has his eyes firmly set on robbing the Edo mint, and he asks of Hanzo to take care of the matter. After a lecture which he doesn’t particularly wish to hear, Hanzo informs Okubo that he will not bow down to the likes of ranks and codes and sets out on his way to continue his investigation. He decides to stay at the mint, under the care of its manager Riku, in an attempt to catch Hamajima red-handed. But it turns out that there just may be some link between the treasury and a series of incidents involving young virgin girls being sold to high bidding merchants by a priestess named Nyokai.


In The Snare Hanzo Itami continues to use his willy in solving cases, only this time it’s under the guidance of director Yasuzo Masumura, who also wrote the film’s screenplay after being directly pursued by Katsu, who knew that he could deliver the goods. Masumura, famed of course for his heavy conglomerate satire Giants & Toys and the delectable Blind Beast, amongst a host of other genre favourites, approaches the second Hanzo feature with a firm handle of what needs to be done. This naturally entails plenty of sex and fury (nice linkage there), but by utilising his own script he creates a much tighter film than its predecessor, thanks to Hanzo and his assistants having been firmly established. This means that he can dive straight into a mysterious investigation, once more fuelled by government greed and consumption. With the treasury heavily involved and poor villagers resorting to stealing, we again find a film not without socially inclined merit. However, Masumura brings his own special nature to the project, lending a little more of his cynical side and perpetuating it with bold, sometimes surreal and curiously lit imagery, with just a hint of pseudo-lesbianism thrown in for good measure. At times The Snare juggles genre elements, but effectively so, fleeting from well rooted drama, to offering light comic exchanges and even ghostly fantasy-like sequences. But then the setting is ripe for the picking.

Here the Kaizan Temple serves as the centre stage to the action, and rest assured no woman is safe. We just know that after witnessing Hanzo starting on that rice bag ten minutes into the picture that he’s gonna end up making some sweet interrogative lovin’. Priestesses beware! That’s right, no woman is sacred when it comes to solving treacherous crime. In that respect much of Hanzo’s antics here are simply carried over from his first outing, in which he uses the same torture methods and forces himself upon women who can’t believe the size of his cock. The Snare feels more contradictory this time around, with Hanzo openly voicing his concern toward villagers who are pillaged and raped, and yet once more in the name of duty he’ll discard his generally welcoming attitude so that he may fit in a quickie at his leisure. Most prominently his taking of Riku has no real reason behind it, his excuse being quite lame as to why he does it, but with all parties coming around in the end it seems to work out quite nicely. And so The Snare does continue in the fine tradition of the first, but this time the previous training montages pay off considerably better. For example Hanzo’s self torture involving heavy stone blocks from the first feature is carried over, this time being used on a criminal, while his booby-trapped house gets to perform again and dish out a few grizzly deaths. Likewise the familiar faces from before return, with Onibi and Mamushi being used to greater comic effect (the recurring arm-branding gag being particularly amusing), not to mention the dynamic relationship of Hanzo and his superior officer Onishi, who he continually refers to as “Snake” and generally talks to him like shit, knowing that he has the upper hand thanks to some dishy secrets. As usual Hanzo’s defiance against authority and the promise that he’ll destroy all ranks and codes makes him an interesting foil next to his non-sympathetic superiors.

But Masumura does indeed save the best for last. The final twenty minutes hosts a terrific showdown with enough tension and bite to really deliver the goods, having involved lead officials such as Lord Okubo and his accompanying bodyguard Junai Mikoshiba, who promises to one day kill Hanzo. It all naturally pays off and makes way for a nice denouement in which Hanzo carries on regardless, having reportedly saved the honour of a government he doesn’t respect.



Who’s Got the Gold? (1974. Dir - Yoshio Inoue. 84 mins)
Starring: Shintaro Katsu, Daigo Kusano, Keizo Kanie, Ko Nishimura, Mako Midori, Mikio Narita, Asao Koike, Etsushi Takahashi, Rokko Toura, Hiroshi Nawa and Akira Yamauchi.

In Who’s Got the Gold Hanzo Itami (Shintaro Katsu) captures the wife (Aoi Nakajima) of Shogunate treasury guard Chozaburo Kato (Rokko Toura), having learned that she’s been stealing coins from her husband’s workplace. But when Kato witnesses Hanzo torturing his wife he slays her and sets his men upon the local officer, but not before informing him that the samurai have had to resort to stealing because of poor circumstances. With Hanzo doing well to dispatch of Kato’s men he is called to the magistrate’s office where he’s praised for his actions by Elder Hotta (Hiroshi Nawa) and North Magistrate Yabe. They offer him a reward, but he refuses to take one, telling them he’s disgusted by their treatment of loyal samurai who have had to resort to demeaning themselves in order to survive. He quickly goes on his merry way, but soon he’s to be caught up in more conspiracy…

…When a rebellious doctor by the name of Genan Sugino (Etsushi Takahashi) tries to inform the Shogunate that Japan must begin to take action against invading foreign fleets, he’s looked upon as a joke and is placed into the hands of Hanzo. However, Hanzo is a little more willing to hear out Sugino, who is dying from a terminal illness. Knowing that Sugino has the skills to build a cannon, Hanzo houses him for a month so that the good doctor can construct a weapon to show to high officials. Meanwhile an old friend of Hanzo’s named Heisuke Takei (Akira Yamauchi) has been teaching Lady Yumi Hotta (Blind Beast’s lovely Mako Midori) how to play the Koto. Heisuke is incredibly in debt, but there is a way he can get out of it: by offering his rare spear as a bribe to Hotta. But he has no desire to let go of his treasured family heirloom, rather wishing to keep his pride as an ageing samurai. But soon heads will clash and Hanzo will find himself tangled in a complicated plot which even involves the blind priest Bansaku Tonami (Mikio Narita) and his loyal bodyguard Kengyo Ishiyama (Asao Koike).


Yasuzo Masumura left behind the directing duties for the third and final instalment of the Hanzo series, but stuck around to pen its screenplay. Taking over the reigns this time is Yoshio Inoue, who had worked on no less than nine of Maumura’s films as a first-assistant director throughout the late fifties. Straight off the bat there’s a feeling that both men wish to bring a little bit more to the proceedings. While they’re obviously contractually obliged to continue the fine tradition of providing sex and violence, the overall impact of this seems rather more watered down by comparison. By now there is a hefty air of repetitiveness in regards to Hanzo’s sexual practises, and it appears as if Inoue doesn’t care a great deal for them; he films sex scenes readily, but also shies away from any kind of overly explicit and offensive leanings, despite an orgy shared between blind men and official’s wives in one particular scene. Likewise the violence is incredibly sparse by way of bloodletting, purely sticking as much as possible to simple sword strikes and people falling over, with just a spurt here and there. It’s apparent that there’s quite a reason for all of this. Both Masumura and Inoue divert from the obvious popular nature of the Hanzo films, choosing to evenly spread out the sex and violence in a bid to firmly ground this particular tale with a proper sense of reality. As such Who’s Got the Gold is a pleasing, if not total departure of what we’ve come to expect, and that includes, trite as it might seem, another smuggling operation involving Hanzo infiltrate a baddies’ den, along with a climactic showdown against a rather disgruntled retainer, only this time Hanzo has far more to fight for, not only in relation to the love of his country, but so too for a close friend.

And so the biggest difference lies squarely with Masumura’s script. With a narrative involving an investigation led by Hanzo, in which samurai have been stealing recently manufactured coins from the Shogunate treasury, we witness the forming of a larger scheme. This serves to pinpoint the beginning of yet another cynical stab at social upheavals, as studied by Masumura, who now has more time to focus primarily on the matter at hand, sticking with a plot device which involves hierarchies enforcing bribes from poor samurai whose graceful age is quickly coming to an end. What leads on from this story of government corruption is a secondary plot strand concerning a notion that pertains to the collapse of the traditional Japanese way of life and the inevitably of having to conform to and potentially embrace foreign imports. Invaders, bringing steam-powered engines and powerful weaponry draw Hanzo into the wonders of advanced technology, with even he himself acknowledging its dangers, while political figureheads scoff at it. Ethics, honour and valuable codes dominate such a workable script, with highly restrained, yet focused directing from Inoue, who seeks to try and capture a sensible tone that many early examples of Jidai-geki films once established.

Furthermore, despite a lot of material here to work with in such a slight run time, Who’s Got the Gold is filled with irreverent humour, far surpassing that seen in the instalments prior. Onibi and Mamushi are given meatier scenes, presumably because of the fun chemistry and perfect double-act repertoire shared between Daigo Kusano and Keizo Kanie, and as such they enjoy an immediate fun opener involving suspect ghosts. In addition we have the recurring branded gags and even some homosexual jabs at the expense of Hanzo, who they think may be going off women - heaven forbid! But the real scene stealer in this piece is Ko Nishimura, who returns once more as Onishi. Clearly Masumura knows what worked best in the features that came before and he sets to further explore the relationship between Hanzo and his superior. Nishimura is simply brilliant in portraying the cowardly, snarling thorn in Hanzo’s side: his comic timing and quick-witted exchanges are beautifully carried across and it’s evident that the actor relishes his role as he goes completely for broke and embraces the absurdity that his character has been bestowed. On the whole it’s the ensemble of regular faces that makes the Hanzo trilogy as fun as it is, and one gets the impression that they’d have liked to continue in some form. We certainly have an environment fit for a sitcom or drama. But it seemed that the Hanzo films did ultimately run their course, with a formula that perhaps wasn’t ever likely to change and no doubt threatened to turn into something quite tedious. Still, they’re fun while they lasted and Who’s Got the Gold manages to go out on a high, preventing these tales from ever outstaying their welcome.



The DVD

I’m afraid that I cannot bring you any details when it comes to the packaging of these films or whether or not they include linear notes, as I was only sent check discs for the purpose of this review.

A/V

Eureka has done a bang-up-job with this release. Presenting all three pictures in progressive NTSC and with anamorphic aspect ratios preserving each of the film’s 2.35:1 TohoScope ratios, the Hanzo the Razor trilogy is a lovingly presented series for the fans out there. I’m continually blown away by the sheer effort that Toho put into their restoration of these genre classics, and it further proves just how sacred these types of films are and how important they’ve become in defining a generation. Colours are great across all three, with nice skin tones and vibrant exteriors, while black levels and contrast remain consistently pleasing. In terms of detail these films look great, with some wonderful close up moments, while wider shots also cope well, despite having an inherent softness at times. Of the three features Who’s Got the Gold comes off as being the softest, presumably due to some stylistic choices (especially the opening segment) but the difference is quite negligible and they each appear to be presented as best as they possibly can. The only niggles that really cost these transfers higher marks is a spot of high-frequency edge enhancement, some minor aliasing and a hint of low-level noise, which seems to mainly affect the opening moments of the first and third films, but thankfully becomes a lot more subdued afterward.

Audio consists of Japanese mono. There’s very little else you can ask for but the original tracks, and here we have them. As to be expected they’re not aggressive in any way, but they’re certainly punchy enough, with the various funk-tastic scores enjoying prominence, as well as a few fight sequences. Dialogue remains clear and there are no distortions, with even very little in the way of background noise such as hiss and pops.

Optional English subtitles are included and the quality is excellent throughout. They come in a bold white font, which is well timed and offers as close a translation as possible. Worth noting is that the names of Onibi and Mamushi have been literally translated so that western audiences have an idea of the meaning behind them. As such Onibi can be seen as “Devil-Fire”, while Mamushi becomes “Viper”.

Extras

Well, we’d all like as many extras as possible, but we can’t always get them. The only things included on each disc are the original theatrical trailer for that given film. The 2.35:1 trailers run for approximately three minutes each and are given anamorphic treatment.


Overall

The Hanzo features are an interesting hybrid of Jidai-geki and pure exploit-trash. For that reason it’s difficult to know where they stand with even the most hardened fans of period samurai tales. Their themes of corrupt systems resonate well, even after 35 years and they do indeed deliver when it comes to nasty violence. Some viewers will undoubtedly be put off by such rampant acts of bodily abuse and rape, in which the female victims don’t exactly hold grudges, but these are to be taken as an inherent part of what these films were back in the day, but more importantly they are played in quite a zesty fashion and are not quite so mean spirited as one might assume. In the end the adventures of Hanzo aren’t to be taken too seriously, but those curious in checking out Shintaro Katsu’s now legendary super-cop may wish to keep in mind of just how daring he is in pushing taste and decency beyond their limits.

Film
8 out of 10
Video
8 out of 10
Audio
8 out of 10
Extras
1 out of 10
Overall

8

out of 10

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