Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Thrills, Chills, & Spills: MASSACRE GUN (Minagoroshi no kenjû)

by JB
Is there anything more fun than tumbling down a new rabbit hole?

I first became aware of Massacre Gun during a trip to Barnes and Noble to take advantage of their biannual Criterion Collection sale. I picked up Massacre Gun, thinking it was a Criterion title because of its distinctive clear case. Turns out, Massacre Gun was released by Arrow Video in 2015 (although our story will lead back to Criterion.) The Massacre Gun package said that the disc was a special edition limited to 3,000 copies. “Hey!” I thought, “There are 7 billion, 530 million people on this Earth. That means only one person in 2.5 million will be able to own a copy of Massacre Gun. I believe I should be that one person.” Plus, could YOU pass up the 1-in-2.5 million chance to own an obscure film titled Massacre Gun? If you are a regular reader or listener here at F This Movie!, my guess is no.

No, you could not.
The movie is terrific, certainly one of the best blind buys I have ever made. It was gritty and violent and cool and hip and funny. It opened up for me a sub-sub-subgenre about which I was completely ignorant: 1960s Japanese crime films from the Nikkatsu studio directed by Seijun Suzuki and Yasuharu Hasebe. Hasebe started as Suzuki’s assistant and then graduated to his own films. After doing a little digging on the Interwebs, I learned that this subgenre included three Criterion titles that I had previously ignored: Branded to Kill, Tokyo Drifter, and Nikkatsu Noir, a collection of five films from this period.

Why did I ignore these titles? Haven’t I learned to trust Criterion because they know what they are doing?

Seems that I discovered this gem—with the purchasing and viewing and loving and delighting—at the exactly the right time. In the spirit of serendipity that often accompanies these special life moments, next week Arrow Video is set to release Seijun Suzuki: The Early Years, Vol. 1Seijun Rising: The Youth Movies, a collection of four films. I have arrived at this violent Japanese party just in the nick of time. I’d like to invite each of you as my “plus one.”
The Plot in Brief: Three brothers run afoul of a yakuza mob. Kuroda (Joe Shishido) is a hit man who turns on the mob after being asked to murder his lover. Eiji (Tatsuya Fuji) is the rash and violent brother who strikes first and asks questions later. Saburo (Jiro Okazaki) is the youngest and most innocent, an aspiring boxer who also plays drums in the brothers’ nightclub.

Can Kuroda break from the mob without repercussions? Working together, can the three brothers muscle the powerful mob out of the city? Will mob big shot Shirasaka (Hideaki Nitani) turn on his best friend Kuroda and be forced to murder him? Clearly, we are looking at the stuff of delicious film noir goodness.

I was taken with many aspects of this film. The film is quite a bit more violent than any American counterpart from 1967. Bonnie and Clyde received a lot of attention that same year for its groundbreaking use of violence; Massacre Gun is significantly and quantitatively more violent than Bonnie and Clyde. Also, director Hasebe’s shot compositions are beautifully framed and directed. I noticed that in the two scenes where a character is literally being asked to switch sides, Hasebe breaks the famed “180-Degree Rule,” deliberately disorienting the viewer; the cinematography and editing become a visual metaphor for the film’s narrative. It’s very subtle and very effective. (At these two points in the film, I fell off my couch while trying to pat myself on the back for teaching film to high school students for more than 30 years.)

As Jack Nicholson once said, “Experience expands enjoyment.”
Falling down the rabbit hole of researching this film and its origins, I have discovered at least twenty films that I can now look forward to seeing and enjoying. I do not know if it has something to do with Japanese culture or just the hit-and-miss nature of translating a specific language’s idioms, but these films have the craziest, most tempting titles: The Naked Woman and the Gun; Passport to Darkness; Take Aim at the Police Van; Everything Goes Wrong; Go To Hell, Hoodlums; The Big Boss Who Needs No Gun; Million Dollar Smash and Grab; The Guys Who Put Money On Me; Detective Bureau 23: Go To Hell, Bastards! (all directed by Suzuki); and Black Tight Killers; The Singing Gunman; Alleycat Rock: Sex Hunter; Naked Seven; Female Convict Scorpion: Grudge Song; Secret Honeymoon: Rape Train; and Dangerous Cop (all directed by Hasebe).

At this point I cry out in anguish, just like one of the characters in these terrific crime films, as I suddenly realize that I absolutely must purchase all of these films yet I AM ON A FIXED INCOME.

AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAUGH!

BLAM.
OFFICIAL MASSACRE GUN THRILL-O-METER READING: 80%

Thrills: 80%
(The sheer thrill of seeing one of my favorite American genres, film noir, being reinterpreted by another culture)

Chills: 80%
(A level of explicit violence we are not used to seeing in films of this era [era]. When the brothers repeatedly smash a hoodlum’s hand with a barbell, all bets are off)

Spills: 80%
(Great stunt work, a brief car chase, and squib after squib after squib!)

13 comments:

  1. 2017 was such a rich year for viewing movies that this gem did not even make it to my personal top ten, but its omission was a painful one to make. Yes, it is a terrific film. There is a compelling energy in the way the film flows, and the B/W cinematography is beautiful.

    Massacre Gun may be Yasuharu Hasebe's best film. His career moved on to exploitation films in the 1970s, with a lot of girl gang films and a couple sexploitation features. They are are usually a fun watch, as exploitation should be. If you are not already familiar with Meiko Kaji, you are in for another discovery.

    Since you liked this one so much, J.B., you should look for a Seijun Suzuki film called Youth of the Beast. It is a yakuza film, also starring Jo Shishido, that features a completely wild display of style. Seijun Suzuki is a deep rabbit to go down.

    There is another director named Suzuki, Noribumi Suzuki this time, that I would like to recommend to you. He worked almost exclusively in exploitation, bringing a simultaneously stylish and trashy approach to filmmaking. School of the Holy Beast and Terrifying Girls High School: Lynch Law Classroom are a couple of his films that I liked.

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    1. "Suzuki is a deep rabbit hole to go down."

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  2. i only ever saw Branded To Kill from Suzuki, not for lack of interest, but mostly lack of money and time. though i did watch chipmunk cheeked Jo Shishido in the formidable Battle Without Honor And humanity series (another Arrow gem)

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  3. I love Seijun Suzuki, every year one of my local cinemas has a Suzuki appreciation week and play a selection of his films. Usually I catch the Branded to Kill and Tokyo Drifter double feature. Seeing those for the first time felt like they were made just for me. I was so caught up in the frantic jazz-punk style, the ronin like antihero's, and the cynical noir through lines.

    I think Suzuki has a very special way of making something so different and crazy while highlighting and discussing Japanese ideals in a weird twisted way.

    His use of color in Tokyo Drifter is so gorgeous and if anyone has the chance to check our the criterion blu-ray I highly recommend it.

    I'm not very familiar with Yasuharu Hasebe but I'm really excited to check out his movies and try to track down Massacre Gun now... Thanks for the recommendations JB and ACL!

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    1. I love the feeling you described when you feel the filmmaker somehow knows you and made the film just for you. This phenomenon reminds us that art speaks across time and space...

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  4. Hi JB - Had to stop lurking to welcome you to the Nikkatsu rabbit hole. You will like it here. (And please bring your better half - she is awesome.) If you need fast orientation, check out Mark Schilling's book "No Border, No Limits". Chris D's terrific "Outlaw Masters of Japanese Film" covers several key Nikkatsu contributors, too.

    Not to strain your wallet further, but a very accessible favorite is Toshio Masuda's "Gangster VIP". The look, plot, mood, and cast are all distinctly Nikkatsu, making it only a step or two away from whicherver film you try next. The tougher "Retaliation" is worth your while, too.

    "Branded to Kill" is awesome, but you might want to save it until you're steeped in the formula that Suzuki wanted to blowtorch. Finally, please join me in prayer for "Black Tight Killers" and "Age of Assassins" to make it to blu ray. See ya around!

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  5. Damn, "Age of Assasins" is Toho. My bad.

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    1. Thanks for the additional recommendations. I do not need to see “Black Tight Killers” because that is my HOBBY.

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    2. LOL. Every way I parse that seems Not. Right.

      If you can abide YouTube, I went there for the trailer and found the subbed version from the long out-of-print American DVD. Less than ideal, but more than hoped.

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  6. Thanks for giving a giant list of movies to seek. Aside from the "Battles without honor and humanity" series, which I heard was actually meant as a rebuke to yakuza-sploitation, I haven't seen much Japanese cinema pre 1980 outside of Kurosawa.

    Big lists are very helpful!!!

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    1. Oh, and the "Lone wof and cub" series. Have you seen any of those? It's not quite thrills chills and spills but I really enjoy them.

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    2. I hope by “helpful,” you mean “helpful,” not “feeding into our collective OCD.”

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    3. Weeeeelllll...

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