Archive for the ‘Teruo Ishii’ Category

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Season of Violence

July 17, 2010

Boso no kisetsu (Japan, 1976)

Toei’s Detonation biker gang series continues in somewhat tired fashion. Season of Violence takes a new approach but changes turn against it. Teruo Ishii, featured as the series director for the third and last time, helms the picture with routine, only managing to fresh up a limited amount of scenes. One of these scenes is the exhilarating opening. A dynamic police – motorcycle chase, it’s easily the best action piece in the series so far. Unfortunately, the film makes a 180 degree turn soon after, and never finds the right track again. The lack of exciting new ideas is obvious, and even the repetition of old, functional patterns has been largely ignored.

Expectations of a violent gang saga, fueled up by the film’s memorable title, are best buried right in the beginning. For an outlaw action film of the 70’s, Season of Violence is notably violence-free, up to the point of escaping the action film categorization. More describing is the film’s original poster art, displaying the bare chested Kouichi Iwaki on a yacht, accompanied by a topless woman on a chopper at the bottom of the image. Neither of these elements are faulty as per se, but certainly lacking balls compared to the previous installments in the series. Where are the tattooed neo Nazis and bike riding Travis Bickles that filled the character galleries of the first two Detonation movies?

Setting the majority of its story on sunny beaches rather than on burning streets, the film follows a troubled young man (Kouichi Iwaki) whose days are spent playing guitar and drooling after a selfish rich girl (Yutaka Nakajima). A hard fisted party group that rules the beaches give our hero hard time, but hardly even manage to stir a proper conflict. The protagonist’s loser friends make occasional screen visits, bumping up the film’s comedy factor by a notch. Before its climax the story even makes a dive into romance and drama. This isn’t what the audience was expecting from madman Ishii.

A complete failure Season of Violence is not. Ishii does raise his head every now and then with oddities such as romantic rape scene, and some of the beach parts do have successful laidback atmosphere. The same setting was, however, used to a far superior effect in the second Stray Cat Rock film, Wild Jumbo (1970), which even featured a male lead (Tatsuya Fuji) unmistakably resembling the bad guy of Season of Violence, Taro Shigaki. Shigaki’s performance, however, falls to flatness, a problem concerning most of the film’s cast.

Including Season of Violence in the Detonation series is a rather questionable act on Toei’s behalf. The lack of the Detonation headline could be taken as a hint of new approach, of course, yet it did little to prevent Toei marketing the film as a part of this specific series. In practice, however, the Detonation films have always been very loosely connected and only tied by their director, cast, and theme, the latter of which has now been stretched to the wrong direction. Explosive action is, aside the impressive opening, limited to the final few minutes, and even then expectations are not quite met. For little demanding Kouichi Iwaki fans Season of Violence is passable viewing, for others it’s mostly likely a pass.

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Detonation: Violent Games

July 4, 2010

Bakuhatsu! Boso yugi (1976)

Plugging William Shakespeare into the credits of a Teruo Ishii directed motorcycle gang film is not an easy task to achieve. Violent Games, the second film in the Detonation series, manages this through a donkey bridge. A small cinema cultural achievement by itself, Violent Games takes its inspiration from the 1961 musical classic West Side Story, which was a modernization of Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet. In Violent Games Ishii has borrowed the story structure – and dancing gangsters – of West Side Story to be used as the spice of his own violent gang saga. The director’s official explanation was that he thought it would make the film more entertaining.

Ishii was right. Violent Games is superior to its predecessor Violent Riders, and it’s all thanks to the shameless West Side Story plagiarism. Finger snapping gang members – even throwing a dance move or two at times – are an inspiring sight to the extent to make one wish Ishii had made a full on transformation to music genre. This is not the case, though. Storywise Violent Games is unsurprising – what can you do everyone knows the tale from before – but the mixture is obscure enough to keep audience steadily entertained till the climax. Furthermore, this time at least the storyline holds – this was not the case with the messily put together Violent Riders.

More regrettable is that Ishii’s was also right about the beneficiality of the West Side Story roots; Violent Games needs them. For those already familiar with the opening installment this sequel has little new to offer on other areas. In terms of capturing the thrills of speed and tuned motor vehicles Violent Games even falls slightly behind its predecessor. The exploitation elements, while firmly included, do also not rant especially high on Ishii’s own, admittedly twisted scale. The film’s finale is, however, a notable improvement over the messy gang fight of the previous film. This time the chaos follows firm trails, and even comes with some pleasingly violent ran-over-by-a-motorcycle deaths.

Finding no replacement for Violent Riders’ guest star Sonny Chiba, the sequel does handle the casting relatively well otherwise. The series star Kouichi Iwaki portrays Black Panthers gang boss, but this character is pushed to a supporting seat in a storyline that concentrates on the character’s little sister Yuki and her romance with race driver Masaki, who of course comes from the influence of a rivalry gang. There is little sympathy found for the forbidden love, aside from Yuki’s female friends at work. All the central female characters in the film are food girls, despite being portrayed by actors such as Yumi Takigawa (the star of Norifumi Suzuki’s nunsploitation classic School of the Holy Beast), Nikkatsu’s soft core queen Meika Seri, and Yutaka Nakajima – the only one with relatively clean record of the three.

Falling in the middle of a gang war, the race driver Masaki is played by real life racing professional Masami Kuwashima. In the film his character is introduced as the champion of Silverstone. In real life Kuwashima career “highpoint” was sitting behind the wheel of a Formula 1 race car. This happened only once, though, in the Japan F1 race that took place after Violent Games had been filmed. Kuwashima’s performance the pre-race practice session was, however, so poor that the team manager Frank Williams fired him before the actual race. In Violent Games Kuwashima is more successful although he didn’t return to silver screen again but spent the rest of his career in Japan’s own Formula series.

Steadily entertaining throughout its 85 minute run, Violent Games enjoys moderate and mostly deserved fame in fan circuits. Originally rising to international popularity through the bootleg tapes of Video Search of Miami, the film has potential for far wider distribution that it has enjoyed so far. With slight reservations towards the film’s exploitation content, Violent Games is a film difficult not to like. Director Ishii may have directed more hard boiled classics, but the dancing bikers of Violent Games have certainly earned their reputation.

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Detonation: Violent Riders

July 2, 2010

Bakuhatsu! Bosozoku (Japan, 1975)

Detonation: Violent Riders is the first installment in Toei’s series of bosozoku biker gang films. Formed by youngsters grown tired of traditional Japanese school and societal systems, the bosozoku gangs received notable media attention in the 1970’s as newspapers and magazines cashed in with the phenomena and even took it out of its original frame. For Toei Studios, that had already been making money with their gang films for years, the bosozoku hysteria provided an opportunity to combine established cinematic formulas with a current and talked about real life phenomena.

Bosozoku’s roots date back to the post WWII years when a new societal problem group arised. Having lived under the war time rule and even an assumption of never returning home alive, such as the kamikaze pilots assigned for a mission that never came to be, some of the war veterans could not return to peaceful life without difficulties. The most extreme of these individuals started looking for new excitement by tuning cars and conducting less than desired, gang type activities on city streets. Inspiration and idols were found from foreign movies such as Rebel Without a Cause (1955). These ideologies later caught the motorcycle obsessed youth and bosozoku was born.

The first 20 minutes of the movie Detonation: Violent Riders is exactly what one would expect from a Teruo Ishii bosozoku film. Black dressed biker men chase on the streets, perform stunts on bikes and bring public outrage. A leather dressed lady provides the men with physical pleasures out in the nature, and the night is spent partying with topless dancers. Disagreements between men are solved by speeding towards cliff blindfolded. Ishii knows how to make quality cinema.

No high art by any means, Ishii directed the Detonation films as a gun for hire. Having first found himself somewhat bored with traditional filmmaking since the late 1960’s, Ishii ever since spend a notable amount his career – and Toei’s money – for his personal cinematic refreshment. The infamous Tokugawa-era torture epics are only the tip of iceberg in the director’s resume. In the Detonation movies Ishii threw in just about any elements he found potentially entertaining. Very describing of the director’s talent is, that even with this philosophy Ishii managed to deliver several technically competent cult classics.  Violent Riders, however, is not among his best efforts.

After a strong start it soon becomes obvious that Violent Riders’ biggest problem is the screenplay which, rather than being full of holes, appears to one big hole in itself. Pieces of poorly attached storyline are hanging somewhere on the sides, ready to fall at any moment.  If there is an actual plot to be found, it would probably be the romance between the wild hearted mechanic boy Iwaki (Kouichi Iwaki) and the innocent but gang tied Michiko (Tomoko Ai). The newcomer is quick to make enemies while at the same time his old pals are tempting him to re-join the gang and fight the competing group. The execution of this technically close-enough-to-decent plot is, however, far from dynamic and engaging.

Motorcycle money shots are what Ishii handles without difficulties. Close ups, sunset backgrounds and fast scenes on streets are plenty, even if there isn’t much in terms of bike tuning.  Worth a mention is also a jaw dropping truck crash escape stunt that does, however, turn out to be a trick shot with closer look. Far less convincing is the climatic gang war that is little more than a messy display of bikers riding in circle and kicking and punching each other on the way. Thankfully the film’s last few minutes mark an improvement and leave a good taste in the viewer’s mouth.

Next to the bikes Violent Rider’s best offering is the cast. Little known outside his native country, the soon to become television superstar Kouichi Iwaki handles the lead role with natural fluency. His manners and looks – in this film at least – mark him as a born to play gangster. Heavy weigh support is provided by Sonny Chiba whose beard-faced charisma is an instant hit. Regrettably, Chiba’s role is quite small and his action talent has been notably limited. Most other supporting actors are unknown stars and one-timers – real life gang members by a good guess. Toei’s executives have never been shy of picking up natural talents from the streets… and most of the time the results have been sufficient.

Ishii followed Violent Riders with two more gang films; Detonation: Violent Games (1976), and Season of Violence (1976). The series was, however, not buries after Ishii’s resignation but saw one more dawn under Yutaka Kohira’s direction in the film Detonation: 750CC Zoku (1977). Iwaki returned for all of the three sequels.