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Lone Kanto Yakuza 

June 18, 2020

Lone Kanto Yakuza (関東やくざ者) (Kanto yakuza mono) (Japan, 1965)
Dir. Shigehiro Ozawa
Cast: Koji Tsuruta, Tetsuro Tamba, Junko Fuji, Hideo Murata, Saburo Kitajima, Shingo Yamashiro

A standard ninkyo film with honourable yakuza Koji Tsurura going against merciless, but not entirely rotten businessman gangster Tetsuro Tamba. There are too many talking heads scenes and a storyline that isn’t awfully interesting, but also solid filmmaking and drama that sneaks into the film almost unnoticed. Tamba is always interesting, and the bloody final sword duel against him is quite powerful. There’s also some old fashioned charm stemming from an extensive use of songs, which shouldn’t necessarily be surprising since Toei’s prominent enka singer actors Hideo Murata and Saburo Kitajima are both in the film.

This was the 2nd movie in the Kanto series, one of Toei’s early ninkyo series. Shigehiro Ozawa wrote and directed them all five of them. While I have not seen the others, it appears Tsuruta plays the same character only in the first two, and different characters in the rest. That was typical of Toei back then, with many series only connected by title, theme and marketing.

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Flower Cards Chivalry

June 11, 2020

Flower Cards Chivalry (花札渡世) (1967)
Dir. Masashige Narusawa
Cast: Tatsuo Umemiya, Haruko Wanibuchi, Junzaburo Ban, Tatsuo Endo, Toru Abe, Ko Nishimura

An absolutely astonishing art house ninkyo yakuza film by Masashige Narusawa. Wandering gambler Tatsuo Umemiya runs into a young swindler woman Haruko Wanibuchi working with old man Junzaburo Ban. They are both arrested by detective Ko Nishimura. A year later Umemiya is staying with gangster Tatsuo Endo when he comes across that woman and her partner again. Endo lusts for both her and his own daughter, while Endo’s looney yakuza brother Toru Abe has a thing for Endo’s daughter, who in turn has her eye on Umemiya, and is willing to annihilate people standing on her way. And here lies one of the film’s remarkable departures from the standard ninkyo efforts: it doesn’t have a third party villain, nor a clear distinction between good and evil. It’s bursting with romantic emotion and wrenched with gritty realism, shot with striking black and white compositions, and explodes into shocking carnage. It has lengthier, more detailed gambling scenes than any other yakuza film I’ve seen. And it has a heartbreakingly beautiful score. You could call it the Ashes of Time of ninkyo yakuza films. A masterpiece!

Director Narusawa is better known as a screenwriter who penned numerous Mako Midori and Tatsuo Umemiya films (e.g. the Song of the Night series) but only directed a handful of films. Flower Cards Chivalry was recently restored by Toei and broadcast on TV but has never been released on video.

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Bad Angel

May 5, 2020

Bad Angel (ずべ公天使) (1960)
Dir. Shigehiro Ozawa
Cast: Mitsue Komiya, Ken Takakura, Michiko Hoshi, Toru Abe

This was probably Toei’s first delinquent girl film. Five minutes into it we’re already treated a massive street brawn between two delinquent girl gangs. Charming chap Ken Takakura is a young intellectual of a modern business oriented yakuza group whose game centre the female delinquents populate. Takakura comes up with a plan: take the gals on a hot springs trip and educate them in arts – could rehabilitate them and turn into a profit in the long run.

This is surprisingly innocent and naïve – Takakura’s group comes out like a bloody social support organization at times – and lacking the more exploitative edge of Shintoho’s similar films from the same era. But Shigehiro Ozawa helms it with such energy and breeze, even inserting a musical scene in the middle of the film, that you can’t help but to be highly entertained by it.

The girls are cute and cool, punching bad guys and doing yakuza greetings when they’re not singing or bathing (in a scene that actually features a brief glimpse of topless nudity! That took me by a surprise) although as a typical concession of the era it’s still Takakura who gets to play the hero.

Note the Japanese title “Zubeko tenshi” (“Delinquent Angel”), which is very similar to Toei’s later “Zubeko bancho” (Delinquent Girl Boss) (1970-1971).

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Blow the Night

March 23, 2019

“BLOW THE NIGHT ! ” 夜をぶっとばせ) (1983)

Incoherent, yet fascinating youth docu-drama from Japan’s golden era of educational problems (*). The film opens with live recording of The Street Sliders performing their rock hit “Masturbation” (?!) and then proceeds cut back and forth between two separate storylines for the rest of the movie. The first one features a band-affiliated girl (Kazumi Kawai) exploring the ambivalent Tokyo in a strictly specified 24 hour timeframe in mid November. The other follows a transfer student (real life delinquent Namie Takada) being a bully bitch in different, loosely specified timeframe spanning about one year and partially overlapping with the 1st story.

There’s a bit of director Chusei Sone’s own rock film Red Violation (1980) here, as well as youth doc style parts that actually resemble Shinji Somai’s divine Taifu Club (1985). It’s realistic and bleak with an unsympathetic lead, challenging partly because it’s so confusing, and yet utterly fascinating in its documentation of youth, era, and location. It feels like the flawed work of a genius who wasn’t in a complete control of his device.

Sone produced this via his own company Film Workers as their first picture, following the thematically similar but far more high-flying sun tribe modernization The Young Ramblers (1981) for Toei Central.

*Japanese cinema and television saw the emergence violent high school films ranging from girl gang films (Girls’ Junior High School, 1970-1971; Terrifying Girl’s High School, 1972-1973) to biker flicks (The Classroom of Terror, 1976), yakuza satires (Sailor Suit and Machine Gun, 1981), rock films (Majoran, 1984) and comic book action (Be-bop High School, 1985-1988; Sukeban Deka, 1985-1987; Rebellion League of Girls in Sailor Uniform, 1986) in the 70s and 80s. This seems to have been at least in part reflecting what was happening in the real Japanese society.

The post WWII Japan had experienced a period of respect towards educators as people saw education as a way out of poverty, but with the economic miracle and improved living conditions it seems some students seized to see teachers as invaluable. At the same time high school entrance rates were gradually going towards the roof (today it’s nearly 100%) as entrance became something that was expected of everyone. Soon every dumbass regardless of academic skill and suitability was going to high school. Unsurprisingly, problems would escalate especially in lower level private schools that accepted essentially any student whose parents were willing to pay tuition. There were students who were yankis or bosozoku biker gang members, and violence, bullying and even suicides were all over the news in the 80s.

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Blind Monk Swordsman

November 21, 2018

Aku bozu kyokakuden (悪坊主侠客伝) (1964)

Toei’s ninkyo yakuza shot at milking the Zatoichi craze with a blind yakuza monk character. Too bad it isn’s any good. Famed jidai geki veteran Jushiro Konoe (the father of Hiroki Matsukata) plays the role as if he was a loudmouth Osaka punk – quite the contrast to the lovable blind masseur or even the pervert monk played by Tomisaburo Wakayama in the later Wicked Priest series. It simply does not work as the character is irritating and the storyline an incoherently told mess. In brief, it’s about a bad man re-discovering humanity via woman and child while clashing with the yakuza and being hunted by a man called “Death” who has his own dark past, all set against the backdrop of industrialization. I was at the verge of falling asleep when an unexpected sight of a woman running with her boobs out, and the following comment about how it suck to be blind at a time like that, woke me up halfway into the film. Another highlight comes in form of a powerful ending shot accompanied by Toshiaki Tsushima’s (The Street Fighter, Battles Without Honor and Humanity) score. The rest isn’t worth it.