Tartan’s boxset release of three films by the master of the Japanese Yakuza movie and director of Battle Royale show the range of the great director’s talents in a number of genres. Noel Megahey reviews.
Although best known and celebrated for his explosive Yukuza crime films in the 1970s (notably Graveyard of Honour and the The Yakuza Papers series), the eclectic nature of the Kinji Fukasaku’s work in a long 40-year career would ensure that even those with only a passing interest in Japanese cinema are likely to have come across a few of the director’s films. Such is the director’s talent and influence moreover that you can be sure to find that Kinji Fukasaku has made a major classic movie in just about any major genre you could mention. From epic war-movie (the Japanese sections of Tora! Tora! Tora!) to the sci-fi horror disaster movie (Virus), and from period Samurai drama (Shogun’s Samurai) to modern violent social satire (Battle Royale), the director’s filmmaking career is just as dynamic as his kinetic visual and narrative style.
The three films included in Tartan’s boxset release of The Fukasaku Collection may not be among his best-known works, but they demonstrate nonetheless the same dramatic filmmaking qualities applied to a similarly wide range of subjects and genres. Above all they have the intention to entertain, and Fukasaku certainly achieves that through stylistic mannerisms and a tremendous visual sensibility that mixes flashbacks with freeze-frame stills, eliciting intense performances out of his cast, creating a magnificent sense of pace, narrative flow and drama. Depending on your viewpoint however, each of the films included here also have, to a greater or lesser degree, the same stylistic and narrative flaws, the colourful drama and stylised violence pushed to such extremes that the almost inevitable concluding bloodbath endings sail close to camp melodrama. For many however, this is just another part of their charm.
Blackmail Is My Life (1968)
Made in 1968, Blackmail Is My Life doesn’t quite have the gritty social realism of the exploration of the Japanese underworld that would come in Kinji Fukasaku’s crime dramas of the mid-70s, but what the film lacks in realism, it makes up for in the director’s stylish approach to mise en scène. Blending the colourful day-glo colours of Seijun Suzuki (and a not-so-subtle whistled reference to Tokyo Drifter) Fukasaku, with his own trademark cut-up approach to narrative and timeline, rapid editing, freeze-frame and still photography, manages to dynamically capture a sense of the cool glamour of the period as well as the moral corruption that lies not too far beneath the surface.
Shun (Hiroki Matsukata) finds his vocation in life while working at a bar, waiting on tables and cleaning out the toilets. He overhears a conversation that the bar is passing of imitation brands for real liquor and realises that there is money to be made with this kind of knowledge. It initially costs him a few beatings, but with the assistance of a small close group of friends, together they manage to build up a nice little racket in the blackmail business. There are plenty of people with secrets that they want to remain hidden and others who just need a little temptation pushed in their direction, keeping Shun and his crew’s small time operation doing rather well for themselves. When the opportunity presents itself however to move into the big time and take on the serious crime organisations, the loyalties of the small team and the extent of their ambitions are really tested.
There is certainly the potential to make a political statement about the society that has arisen out of the post-war circumstances of Japan, and Fukasaku would certainly exploit that is his later crime films without losing any of the dramatic pulp qualities of the material, but Blackmail Is My Life plays the situation purely for entertainment value. Those social elements are certainly there in the film with its crooked politicians, loose morals and drug dealing, but all they represent here are targets for the enterprising blackmailer. Fukasaku certainly revels in the irony of the low-life activities, where criminals prey on other criminals at all levels of society, his cut-up technique drawing unusual parallels between Shun’s previous occupation of cleaning out washrooms and his activities as a blackmailer, and imagery that associates criminals with dead rats being fished out of sewage-filled rivers.
And it’s the director’s extraordinary style which ultimately supports the film and its underlying sentiments. The film never lets up its pace for a moment, moving from one set-piece to the next with mechanical precision and a sense of panache that simply has the intention to entertain and engage the viewer throughout. More than just being stylish however, the filmmaking language and beautiful framing of Shun, Zero, Seki and Otoki expresses the closeness between the four members of the blackmailing team and their sense of loyalty to each other, giving the film a much needed sense of there being something real at stake here. Inevitably, Fukasaku takes even that to ludicrous extremes by the end of the film, but you still can’t help loving him for it.
Black Rose Mansion (1969)
If there was a touch of Seijun Suzuki about Blackmail Is My Life, there’s something of Yasuzo Masumura about Black Rose Mansion’s romantic melodrama with a touch of perversity. Based on a play by Yukio Mishima, who worked with Fukasaku the previous year on an Edogawa Rampo story for Black Lizard (1968), the story’s horror-suspense elements would also seem to bear some of Rampo’s Edgar Allan Poe influences. When combined with Fukasaku’s garishly colourful and typically over-the-top treatment, the whole thing takes on an outlandish quality all of its own.
Centred around the ambiguous figure of Ryuko Fujio (Akihiro Maruyama), a mysterious, glamorous singer discovered in Yokohama by an associate of Mr. Sako (Eitaro Ozawa), the film couldn’t fail to be anything but larger than life. A successful businessman and manager of an exclusive club, The Black Rose Mansion, Sako hires this exotic creature to perform each night for him and soon falls under her spell. The mysterious nature of her background and her comings and goings only add to her allure, but Ryuko seems immune to the approaches of the most influential men in society, be they writers or politicians.
Ryuko however is waiting for her true love and carries around a black rose wherever she goes in the belief that it will turn red when she finds the right man. Each night however, strange men turn up at the club, figures from Ryuko’s forgotten past, their lives devastated by their encounters with this strange, seductive and enigmatic woman. When Sako’s wayward son Wataru (Masakazu Tamura) returns home, it complicates matters further for both the businessman and his exclusive singer.
What actress could possibly carry such charisma to play Ryuko Fujio? None, obviously. In a film where the illusion is more important that the reality, what better way then to cast the role than through a female impersonator? It’s an inspired touch that is eerily disturbing and all the more so since there is no M. Butterfly moment of revelation (or self-denial) anywhere in Black Rose Mansion. The absurdity and perversity of the overheated emotions this gives rise to is afforded an additional twist through the overwrought production design and Fukasaku’s exaggerated mise-en-scène, the Black Rose Mansion achieving romantic grotesquery through the incongruity of placing these peculiarly Japanese figures within an absurd European-influenced Neo-classical setting with Art Nouveau décor, one that bears all the hallmarks of Mishima’s occidental-influenced writing, particularly his trashier work. The film finally topples under the weight of all this nonsense with a scarlet paint splattered bloody finale, and not before time.
If You Were Young: Rage (1970)
The best of the three films included here, If You Were Young: Rage brings all the strengths of Fukasaku’s work and themes together into a tale of ambitious, independent youth struggling to overcome a tough upbringing in a period of social upheaval that threatens to hold them back from achieving their potential. In later Fukasaku crime films such as Cops vs Thugs characters from this kind of background are forced to make tough choices that will place them on one side of the law or the other. Here the unfortunate setbacks which affect a small group of friends who try to go into business together makes for just as thrilling and dramatic a situation where loyalties and personal friendships are tested to the limit.
It’s in such a moment however that a group of young men, disillusioned and banged-up in a cell after an incident at a boxing match, decide to take their fate into their own hands. The five of them realise that they have little chance of succeeding on their own, but by pooling their resources they could make something of their lives. Together they purchase their own delivery truck, a beautiful green truck that they proudly name “Independence No.1”, and through hard work and determination they are quickly earning enough to achieve their dream. Three of the friends however succumb to the pressures of everyday necessities and personal setbacks and are forced to go their own way. Only Asao (Gin Maeda) and Kikuo (Tetsuo Ishidate) have the discipline to see it through, but soon they also have to face similar tough choices that will challenge them personally and challenge their loyalty to each other.
If You Were Young: Rage demonstrates best how Fukasaku’s particularly kinetic approach can work in service of any genre. Aligned with wonderfully intense performances from the cast, Fukasaku builds up strong personalities for each of the characters (even secondary roles) through freeze-frames and flashbacks, creating a rapport and conflict between their past and present circumstances. It’s a simple trick, one moreover that relies on melodramatic contrasts, cutting for example between traumatic scenes of childhood neglect and a character pouring alcohol down his mouth before going on a rampage, but it’s highly effective on account of the shorthand of the visual motifs and the energy of the POV perspective. Similarly, the framing – as in Blackmail Is My Life – manages to forge strong bonds between the characters, again even if some of the scenes – having fun while running along a beach at sunset – are rather hackneyed.
All of this serves to create a tremendous sense of drive and drama with nothing more than the intention to entertain, and If You Were Young: Rage certainly achieves that, taking the film at a tremendous pace through to its inevitably explosive conclusion. More than that, the film sees Fukasaku’s work developing and maturing, drawing on relevant social issues to add depth and characterisation, leading the way towards a more complex examination of the notion of codes of honour in a period of social unrest in his celebrated gangster films.
The Kinji Fukasaku Collection is released in the UK by Tartan. The set contains three films, Blackmail Is My Life, Black Rose Mansion and If You Were Young: Rage. Each film is held within an individual slimcase in a slipcase box. Although all films have the same running time and extra features, Blackmail Is My Life and Black Rose Mansion are on dual-layer discs, while If You Were Young: Rage is unaccountably on a single-layer disc. The set is in PAL format, and encoded for Region 2.
The first question that inevitably arises with Tartan’s DVD presentation of Asian cinema is whether it a true PAL presentation or one converted from an NTSC source. Almost invariably, the answer is that it’s a NTSC-PAL conversion and that unfortunately is the case here, as it has been in the past with elements supplied by Shochiku. It’s unfortunate, because the original prints are in quite good shape (as has already been made clear with the films’ US NTSC releases). There is certainly grain evident, and occasionally light flaring can be seen in some of the darker interior scenes, as well as some minor discolouration, but these flaws are exacerbated by the PAL conversion process, rendering the film just that little bit softer and prone to motion blurring. On the positive side, tones and colours are excellent, the blacks showing adequate depth and shadow detail, with skin tones looking well-defined. There are few marks of any significance to be seen anywhere on the prints, with perhaps only small barely perceptible reel change marks occasionally showing up on Blackmail Is My Life, and some curious “blue lightning” artefacts in one isolated scene of Black Rose Mansion (see screenshot below, which also shows up the movement artefact problems caused by the standards conversion). If You Were Young: Rage has perhaps the clearest, brightest image, despite being the only one not on a dual-layer disc.
The audio track on each of the films is straightforward Dolby Digital 2.0 mono, which works well within the limitations of the films. Certainly noise-reduction has been applied, rendering silent passages eerily quiet and leaving dialogue a little on the flat, dull side. It manages to strike an acceptable balance however, lessening the rougher edges of the soundtracks, whose limitations can be heard on some of the louder noises.
English subtitles are provided in a clear white font and are optional for each of the films. There appear to be one or two lines missing in places on Blackmail Is My Life, but elsewhere the translations seem to be complete.
The only extra features included are Trailers for each of the films – Blackmail Is My Life (3:22), Black Rose Mansion (2:26) and If You Were Young: Rage (2:56). Disappointingly, there are no features or essays on the films or the work of Kinki Fukasaku to place these in the context of the director’s long and varied career. The director interviews that were included on the US DVD releases haven’t been picked up for these titles either.
As well as being three good examples of the director’s work, showcasing the sheer diversity and energy that Kinji Fukasaku was capable of applying to even the most shamelessly generic of plots and characterisation, the three films selected for Tartan’s Fukasaku Collection also come at an interesting period in the director’s career, seeing him refine his stylistic approach and, by the time of If You Were Young: Rage (1970), putting it to the service of bringing out more complex issues and attitudes underlying Japanese society and behaviour. In their own right however, each of the films are wonderfully entertaining despite their evident flaws. The flaws in Tartan’s NTSC to PAL conversion takes away slightly from how good these films can still look on DVD, but as a set The Fukasaku Collection may well be better value than the individual US releases.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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