Last week I met a sub-genre with which I was unfamiliar and, in the spirit of Valentine’s Day tomorrow, ain’t it grand to fall in love again? When you have seen as many films as I have (I’m not being smug; I am just old) it is refreshing and reinvigorating to discover a hitherto uncharted island in this big crazy ocean that we call “film.” When this happens, it reminds you of why you fell in love with film in the first place. It takes you back to that dark time as a teenager when you made the conscious decision to let movies fill the space in your heart where a job, friends, money, self-respect, a social life, or the love of another human being ought to be. (Maybe that’s just me.)
Embiggened by my discovery, I set out to see more Nikkatsu Studio crime films, and turned to Arrow Video’s restored Blu-ray of Yasuharu Hasebe’s 1968 yakuza epic Retaliation, which was something of a follow-up to his earlier film Massacre Gun, which I reviewed last week.
Jirô goes to work for the Hasama crime family, agreeing to infiltrate an extortion racket run by the rival Aogo gang. A third criminal family hires the angry Hino to keep an eye on Jirô. Jirô uses much clever subterfuge to undermine the rival gang and stay one step ahead of Hino. When the head of the Hasama family refuses to give Jirô what he was promised, all hell breaks loose. Does anyone know the best way to clean pints of blood off a clear glass shower door?
On one of the Arrow disc’s charming featurettes, historian Tony Rayns walks us through the history of Nikkatsu Studio. As Rayns explains (and then stays mainly on the plain!) Akiro Kobayashi was one of the biggest stars of that era (era) and one of three leading men that Nikkatsu dubbed their “Diamond Guys.” Nikkatsu kept the Diamond Guys very busy; each of them made thirteen or fourteen films a year. Akiro Kobayashi’s presence in Retaliation, according to Rayns, is the reason that Nikkatsu allowed director Yasuharu Hasebe to make it in color. Shooting in color was a privilege reserved for pictures that the Nikkatsu brass knew would be popular, and the inclusion of one or more Diamond Guys made films very popular. (Why is the earlier Massacre Gun in black and white? No Diamond Guy.)
Given this build-up, I was expecting more from Akiro Kobayashi. His performance is one-note and wooden. Maybe he is just exhausted because he made twelve other movies that year? Perhaps Kobayashi was going for a cool, quiet persona, like Gary Cooper or Clint Eastwood. If this is the case, he failed, although he does come to life in the fight scenes, which are plentiful. If Akiro Kobayashi is not punching or stabbing someone, he seems half asleep.
By distancing us from the action, Hasebe de-romanticizes the business and violence of the gangs that are the film’s subject. No one watching Retaliation would reach the conclusion that these characters’ lives look fun. No one is walking out of Retaliation saying, “I want to live like that.”
Hasebe frames and edits so that chaos, confusion, ambiguity, and chance become the desired tones, certainly not cheap thrills and first-person-shooter style excitement. It’s a neat and subtle trick. A few critics I have read online complained about the film’s confusing, convoluted story, but I think this was also done on purpose. There are so many competing interests on display, so many characters with hidden or conflicted motives, and so much exposition and plot to understand that—like most of the characters in the film—we never know where we stand in relation to it all.
Casablanca decided to make Humphrey Bogart and Claude Rain’s “beautiful relationship” more than mere friendship. In Retaliation, the moment is bold, genuine, and startlingly progressive. Cool!
I would like to thank all the F-heads who responded to last week’s column about Massacre Gun. I know that I am a little late to the violent yakuza party, but I now have a long list of films that I know that I am going to love… and I know that I am going to love them as much as Hino loves Jirô. (#hinolovesjiro)
Not yet convinced this film is all I am raving about? Watch the terrific trailer here:
OFFICIAL RETALIATION THRILL-O-METER READING: 90%
(Expertly choreographed fights, and lots of them, staged so that we don’t get any bright ideas about going out to start a fight.)
(An abundance of torture, plus creepy violence against women—these are what define the bad guys.)
(A degree of violence and bloodshed stronger than almost any American film made in 1968.)