Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Thrills, Chills, & Spills: RETALIATION (Shima Wa Moratta)

by JB
This week I continue falling down the rabbit hole of 1960s Japanese crime films. By “rabbit hole,” I mean the place in my wallet where the money used to be and by “falling,” I mean “being impaled on a Samurai sword in the bathroom with all my blood spraying onto the glass shower door.”

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.
The Plot In Brief: Jirô (Akira Kobayashi) is released from prison after serving eight years for murder. Hino (Joe Shishido) waits for him outside the prison gates. Jirô killed his best friend, and Hino wants revenge. Hino’s girlfriend, Akiko (Satoko Sato) breaks up their fight and urges Hino to return with her to Tokyo.

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?
Because I was such a big fan of their earlier Massacre Gun, I checked out Retaliation mostly to see Joe Shishido’s acting and Yasuharu Hasebe’s direction. I was pleased to see two other actors from Massacre Gun returning, Jirô Okazaki and Tatsuya Fuji, who both play similar parts here. Retaliation’s biggest revelations: the performance of Nikkatsu Studio’s “Diamond Guy,” Akiro Kobayashi, in the lead; and noticing how Hasebe’s directorial strategies differed for a film shot in full color.

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.
Yasuharu Hasebe’s direction, on the other hand, is wide-awake and dreaming. His mastery of shot composition, first noted in Massacre Gun, is even more developed here. Whenever there is gang business going on, he places objects in the foreground of the action to obscure the audience’s view. Whether it is a potted plant, or a hanging lantern, or long blades of grass, or even a train, we must strain to see what is going on. Hasebe uses this trick during the fight scenes too, but also stages and edits the action in the most confusing, chaotic way possible. It is as if he is holding the audience at arm’s length.

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.
MASSIVE SPOILER ALERT: The biggest surprise in Retaliation came in how the film concludes the fraught relationship between Jirô and the vengeance-seeking Hino. In my biggest WTF moment at the movies so far this year, before the film’s final conflict Hino announces that he will fight alongside Jirô … because he has fallen in love with him. This is not interpretation; the film is explicit about this. Hino has sent his girlfriend back to Tokyo alone. He tells Jirô that he has fallen in love many times in his life, but “never with a man.” He vows to stick with Jirô and fight to the death by his side. The ever-passive Jirô responds with a quiet, “Sorry about that.” This moment is mind-blowing. Retaliation was made in 1968. It’s as if the filmmakers behind 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:


Thrills: 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.)

Chills: 90%
(An abundance of torture, plus creepy violence against women—these are what define the bad guys.)

Spills: 90%
(A degree of violence and bloodshed stronger than almost any American film made in 1968.)


  1. JB, have you ever seen the Battles Without Honor And Humanity serie?

  2. No, but they are on my list. More Shishido to love!

  3. Shishido is not that much in the movie, but the entire original series (the first 5 movies) are straight up masterpieces. And they're based in real life events. They're almost filmed documentary style

  4. also, know that i'm selling my thing so hard because you're making me spend all my money on Arrow stuff with your great articles. my wallet is also very empty.

    so, there :)

  5. I have the feeling at some point your meters are going to have to go over 100%

  6. Replies
    1. Don’t hate me because I am beautiful. Then our enemies win.

    2. let's call it a love/hate relationship. then our enemies will be too confused to do anything

  7. I am thrilled for you, J.B. As you wrote, it is not common for something completely new to come into the life of a long-time movie lover. These Hasebe articles have stirred up memories of my discovery of European genre cinema almost a decade ago.

    I watched Massacre Gun and Retaliation last summer. I preferred Massacre Gun, yet there were aspects of Retaliation that I found striking. The film looks beautiful. Perhaps the most surprising aspect of it was the nudity. That was not yet standard for the mass market genre cinema of the era. It is also indicative of the shift Nikkatsu's productions would take in the 1970s.