Tuesday, June 20, 2023

Blu-ray Review: THE GAME TRILOGY

 by Anthony King

Japan's unlikable Philip Marlowe.

As I dive deeper and deeper into the Yakuza sub-genre the more in love with its characters I find myself. It's no secret that I love a depressing movie filled with unlikable people. Just recently I admitted that I consider Maniac (1980) and Henry: Portrait of Serial Killer (1986) to be comfort movies. I've yet found myself identifying with said unlikable characters (thank goodness) but there's a strange magnetism to despicable people on screen to which I find myself being pulled. Thankfully, Yakuza films, to which I'm fairly new, are populated exclusively with bad people. Every now and then an innocent gets caught up in the mix, but I'm less likely to care about them. And this, dear reader, is why I've fallen for hired killer Shouhei Narumi, played by Yusaku Matsuda, in Toru Murakawa's three films that comprise The Game trilogy.

Just before Yusaku Matsuda became a household name in Japan playing the lead in the hit television series Detective Story, he teamed up with his future collaborator, director Toru Murakawa for a fast and cheap crime film from production studio Toei Central Film called The Most Dangerous Game. Made on a shoestring budget in just two weeks, the film proved to be very successful, warranting a second film to be thrust into production the same year, followed by a third film the next year. Each film grew in budget while the production schedule stayed the same: two weeks to shoot. What was delivered by director Murakawa and star Matsuda in those three films are compelling stories led by a star delivering three of the most raw and honest performances I've ever seen.
The Most Dangerous Game (1978) opens with Narumi in a backroom mahjong game. Right away we realize our hero is a degenerate. He refuses to pay his debt and ends up being jumped by the other men. Like any good contract killer, Narumi is plagued with numerous vices: gambling, booze, women. None of these hindrances, though, get in the way of what he's good at: killing people. While his personal life may be in shambles, Narumi is an absolute machine when it comes to his job. The most fascinating aspect of this character is that Matsuda is playing Narumi as if he could be on the autism spectrum. Each film Narumi becomes more and more isolated while still excelling with precision and flair in his chosen profession. He knows he's the best, and he comes highly recommended to those who employ his services. In this case, Narumi is hired to recover the leader of a high-powered corporation going toe to toe with a rival business to land a government defense contract. As we quickly learn, though, Narumi plays by his own rules and never picks a side. Dangerous Game moves at a good clip through the underbelly of white collar Japan. Having been shot on the cheap in just two weeks, the urgency is apparent in Murakawa's style, which lends itself to the urgency of the story.
The second film in the trilogy, The Killing Game (1978), occurs five years after the first. Narumi has gone into hiding after playing both sides in the first film, and re-emerges to the excitement of an old friend. Narumi is almost immediately hired upon his return by a Yakuza boss to assassinate his rival. Like the first film, Narumi doesn't choose sides, and accepts a contract from the man he's supposed to kill to murder the first boss. Meanwhile, Narumi lets his vices get the better of him, getting entangled in an affair with a woman whose life he spared years ago. The urgent feeling of the first remains in the second film, but a slightly higher budget can be seen throughout Killing. Once again, Murakawa works his way through bellies both under and above of Japan, using on location photography to his advantage. The director is also allowed to flex his muscles a bit during an incredible five-minute oner that left me in awe.
The third and final film, The Execution Game (1979), has the higher budget, as well as the longest runtime of the three. Execution opens with Narumi having been kidnapped and tortured by a woman who then forces him to take the contract of killing a fellow assassin. The pace is a little more deliberate compared to the first two films, yet takes nothing away from the story, and is never felt in its 100 minutes. Like Dangerous and Killing, Execution uses long stretches of no dialogue to set tone, build tension, and show exactly how Narumi operates. The Taxi Driver (1976) influences are on full display, especially during the scene where Narumi is practicing taking his gun out in front of a mirror. The film is bookended with opening and closing scenes of Narumi working his way through buildings populated with dozens of men trying to kill him. I wouldn't be surprised if John Woo saw The Execution Game and said, “I want to make movies like this.”

All three films are perfect examples of how well Murakawa and Matsuda worked together. Like Scorsese and De Niro, or Huston and Bogart, Murakawa and Matsuda were cinematic soul mates. Matsuda embodied his character of Narumi so convincingly that the rest of his career was populated with similar characters. He was the definition of a tough guy actor. So much so that he refused treatment for cancer, thinking he could beat it himself, until he passed away at the age of 40, shortly after filming Ridley Scott's Black Rain (1989). Each film is scored by jazz musician Yuji Ohno with moody instrumentals that range from the frantic nature of free jazz to classic noir motifs similar to what you might hear from a Lalo Schifrin score.
Disc one of Arrow's set includes The Most Dangerous Game with a commentary by producer Marc Walkow and Chris Poggiali, author of These Fists Break Bricks: How Kung Fu Movies Swept America and Changed the World. Along with the film, the first disc also includes a 30-minute interview with director Toru Murakawa. The intimate and charming conversation explores Murakawa's history of filmmaking, his experience making The Game trilogy, and his relationship with Yusaku Matsuda. Disc two includes The Killing Game and The Execution Game, the former with a commentary by authors Earl Jackson and Jasper Sharp, and the latter with a commentary by author and critic Tom Mes. Killing comes with a very candid and touching interview with film critic and friend of Yusaku Matsuda, Yutaku Oki. Included with Execution is another sweet and eye opening interview with screenwriter Shoichi Maruyama.

While Brian Helgeland's Payback (1999) may be a remake of John Boorman's Point Blank (1967), I think Mel Gibson's take on Parker owes a lot to Yusaku Matsuda's Narumi. A noir just isn't a noir unless our (anti) hero leads a messy life outside of their paid work, and Arrow has given us a trilogy of Japanese films that embody the type of character we want to see in a noir.

Blu-ray release date: June 20, 2023
Region: A

Bonus features
High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentations of all films
Original lossless mono Japanese soundtracks
Optional newly translated English subtitles
Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Tony Stella
Double-sided fold-out poster featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Tony Stella
Illustrated collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the films by Hayley Scanlon and Dimitri Ianni

DISC 1: The Most Dangerous Game
Brand new audio commentary by Chris Poggiali and Marc Walkow
“The Action Man,” a 30-minute interview with director Toru MurakawaB Original Japanese theatrical trailer
Image gallery

DISC 2: The Killing Game / The Execution Game
Brand new audio commentary on The Killing Game by Earl Jackson and Jasper Sharp
Brand new audio commentary on The Execution Game by Tom Mes
“Remembering Yusaku Matsuda,” an interview with Yutaka Oki, film critic and personal friend of Yusaku Matsuda
“Game Changer,” an interview with The Execution Game screenwriter Shoichi Maruyama
Original Japanese theatrical trailers for both films,
Image galleries for both films

The Most Dangerous Game
89 minutes / 1978
2.35:1 (1080p)
PCM Mono (Japanese)
Subtitles: English (SDH)

The Killing Game
92 minutes / 1978
2.35:1 (1080p)
PCM Mono (Japanese)
Subtitles: English (SDH)

The Execution Game
100 minutes / 1979
2.35:1 (1080p)
PCM Mono (Japanese)
Subtitles: English (SDH)

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