by Michael Seymour Blake
Do-do-do-do you have it? GUTS!
There’s a lotta talk about guts in Kinji Fukasaku’s (Battle Royal) crime/action/drama, and our main man Gunji (Kôji Tsuruta) has’em to spare. He walks headfirst into bad situations with a monomaniacal confidence that demands respect—kind of like a calmer, more compassionate Captain Ahab. Gunji’s unwavering audacity keeps us glued to the screen.
Unpacking the subtext of this film is way outta my league (commentary on colonization, post-war Japan, American imperialism, etc.), plus more informed people have already delved into that stuff. All I’ll say is there’s a lot going on if you care to look.
But the movie is strong enough without any knowledge about the backdrop or inspirations (one of which being Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers). Everything we need to know is right there on the screen. These are men who have no place in the new Japan, and who want to go back in time when things were a little more chaotic, a little less organized. Chaos, for them, means opportunity. Their way of life is being squeezed dry as bigger, more corporatized gangsters move in. So they travel to Okinawa where there’s a heavier American presence and a little of that magic chaos remains. There are “last stand of the old west” vibes all over this.
The jazzy soundtrack sets the mood perfectly, inviting us into this crime-riddled underworld. It’s dangerous and dark, but still cool place to be. Even as one of our gang members dies, he admits he had a “great time.”
Is the bloody ending a message that crime don’t pay? Are we supposed to walk away feeling disgusted at it all? Are we supposed to cheer as our underdogs go down swinging? I don’t know. But it leaves a mark.
Everyone is doing great work. Tomisaburô Wakayama’s performance as Yonabaru, the brutish one-armed gangster, was my favorite. His character feels mythic. Anyone within range of his hand or feet ain’t gonna last long. He’s old school tough. One of the best exchanges in the movie (and there are a few to choose from) is when Yonabaru confronts Gunji, who’s moving in on his turf.
“This place is ours,” Yonabaru says in a gruff, no-nonsense tone.
“This place belongs,” replies the imperturbable Gunji, “to whoever the fuck takes it.”
Ain’t that the truth in life?
Would make a great compare/contrast with Takumi Furukawa’s Cruel Gun Story.
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