Tag Archives: Yakuza

CAPSULE: TAKASHI MIIKE’S “DEAD OR ALIVE” SERIES (1999, 2000, 2002)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Riki Takeuchi,

PLOT: The original Dead or Alive, is a crime/yakuza adventure with a bizarre ending; Dead or Alive 2: Birds involves two hitmen who eventually join forces to kill for charity; and Dead or Alive 3 is set in a post-apocalyptic world.

Still from Dead or Alive 2 (2000)

WHY THEY WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The three films in this trilogy are unrelated except that they each star Riki Takeuchi and Shô Aikawa. The best, the original, is the least weird, while the sequels grow increasingly strange, but drop off in quality. They are necessary entries for Miike fans, and worthwhile ones for followers of Japanese extremity and pop-surrealism, but none of the three manage to nail the right combination of weirdness and distinction to earn spots on the List of the Best Weird Movies Ever Made.

COMMENTS: It’s only natural that the first entry in Takashi Miike’s Dead or Alive trilogy would be the best: otherwise, why try to recapture the magic twice more? Not only is it the pick of the three entries, it also starts with the series’ most memorable sequence: a scorching five-minute heavy metal montage of strippers, cocaine, noodles, blood, gunfire, sodomy, and more blood (and more noodles). This virtuoso sequence is equally thrilling and confusing; but, as it turns out, all of a piece, telling a tale of yakuza warfare between rival gangs. What follows is a relatively straightforward, though densely plotted, crime story, with a Chinese gang facing off against a Japanese gang facing off against the cops. Of course, Miike the provocateur can’t resist throwing in a gag-inducing, scatological prostitute drowning. That’s unnerving, but he ends the tale with a bewildering curve ball that abandons the shaky realism of the previous story altogether in favor of a Looney Tunes apocalypticism. There are no survivors, and the audience may feel scorched, too.

The second installment, subtitled Birds, again moves in an unexpected direction. Rather than rivals on opposite sides of the law, Takeuchi and Aikawa are now hit men who, through incredible coincidence, grew up as childhood friends before independently finding their way into the assassination biz and being assigned to take out the same target. Unexpectedly, Birds almost plays like an art-house drama for the first two acts, striking a nostalgic tone as the two killers return to the island orphanage where they were raised and reconnect with each other and the community. Miike always zigs when expected to zag, so it’ s almost natural that he would follow the adrenaline rush of Dead or Alive with the reflectiveness of Birds. The second film morphs, too, with an impressionistic third act that sees the assassins sprout wings and go on a proceeds-to-charity killing spree that includes a Mexican standoff with a dwarf.

Dead or Alive 3: Final is in many ways the weirdest of the series, but unfortunately suffers from lower production values. On Arrow’s DVD, a note appear before the movie explaining that there are no HD masters of the film in existence and they used the best materials available (which include burnt-in Japanese subtitles for scenes in which characters speak untranslated Chinese and English). Most of the video has a jaundiced yellow-green cast to it, which may have been intentional, but does not make for an attractive visual milieu. The plot is inspired by (to the point where you’re tempted to say “rips off”) Blade Runner, but with Miike twists. In this dystopia, an evil mayor with a skinny sax-playing boytoy enforces homosexuality by the use of medication, and procreation is a crime punishable by death. Aikiwa uses his replicant superpowers smoke cigarettes to the filter in a single inhale and to snatch bullets in midair or redirect them with u-shaped tubing that’s lying around post-apocalyptic Japan. The final battle between Takeuchi and Aikawa is a wire-fu spectacle in an abandoned warehouse which ends in a typically nonsensical, out-of-nowhere fashion with the two molded together into a penile mecha.

“What is this?,” Takeuchi asks of the characters’ predicament at the end of Final. “I don’t know,” Aikiwa responds. “It’s this.” That’s probably as good a description of Miike’s whacked-out movies as you’re going to get. In the supplemental material, the director says, “the films I want to make are ones where I can say, ‘I don’t know how I feel about it as a film, but I like it anyway.'” There’s a punkish “take it or leave it” attitude in the Dead or Alive films, which experiment with logic and narrative from within the most formulaic genres, making Miike something of a grindhouse . The series spans the director’s most fertile and febrile period, from 1999-2002, when he was making up to eight films a year. It’s the period that also brought us such singular atrocities as Audition, Visitor Q, The Happiness of the Katakuris, and Ichi the Killer. I wouldn’t count any of the Dead or Alive films as top-rank masterpieces in the Miike universe, although the first comes close. But they are all expressions of the director’s vision: uncompromising unexpectedness, with one brow held high and the other low.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… for someone on Miike’s wild and amazingly dexterous wavelength, these films represent nirvana: a hit of pure aesthetic cocaine.”–Chuck Bowen, Slant (DVD series release)

CAPSULE: MURDER UNINCORPORATED [DAI NIPPON KOROSHI-YA-DEN] (1965)

DIRECTED BY: Haruyasu Nogushi

FEATURING: , Kon Ômura, Hiroshi Hijikata, Bontarô Taira

PLOT: A cartel of crime bosses, their lives threatened by the infamous Joe of Spades, hires a collective of assassins of dubious skill to protect them and to root out their enemy.

Still from Murder Unicorporated (1965)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Even by slapstick standards, the collection of oddballs assembled here is pretty strange, and a subplot involving the only character in the film playing it straight adds a surprising layer of seriousness to a story that is almost entirely absurd. But the overall goal is sustained silliness, rather than true head-scratching weirdness, and the final product wouldn’t be out of place alongside more recent genre-twisting comedies featuring Adam Sandler or his cohorts.

COMMENTS: Viewers know what they’re getting from Murder Unincorporated in the first 20 seconds: a man looks directly at us and warns us that if we do not laugh, he will shoot us. So we have ourselves a comedy, albeit one with the perpetual threat of violence. For whatever else this film tries to accomplish, this much is an unqualified success.

In a city so rife with illegal activity that the top crime bosses divide their efforts by specific illicit enterprises, even crime bosses must turn to the titular corporation when their lives are threatened by a vengeful assassin. The response is a motley collection of aspiring hired guns, including a lovesick poet bearing a volume of Heinrich Heine verse, a baseball fanatic who refuses to work while the Yomiuri Giants are playing, a chef who is terrified to slice fish, and even a hard-drinking, cigar-smoking dwarf who professes to be the grandson of Al Capone. But first and foremost is a wannabe Jerry Lewis armed with an abacus, who is escaping an apprenticeship where his boss yanks hairs out of his head. In short, they’re all incompetent and certifiably crazy.

And yet the absurdity can hardly be blamed entirely on these goofballs. The whole town is quite insane. A rival gang hires its own killers to take out the rented assassins, including a pair of brothers who dress like the protagonists of “Spy vs. Spy” and a chiseled European identified only as “006…007’s boss.” Even the killings themselves are aggressively wacky: when one of the crime bosses is gunned down, he and his bodyguards roll around like acrobats before finally expiring. With determined madness, undercranked chase scenes, and a relentlessly sunny disposition, Murder Unincorporated plays like a -helmed episode of “The Benny Hill Show.”

All this absurdity is punctuated by the constant presence of guns. They can be found everywhere—embedded in a briefcase, a baseball bat, a book of poetry—and are used for every purpose, from dialing telephones to changing TV channels. It’s tempting to view the film as a satirical commentary on violence, but given the way they are so integral to the movie’s brand of comedy, it’s far more appropriate to think of guns as an updated version of vaudevillian cream pies, thrown in a flurry and landing where they may.

There is one exception to all of this nonsense. Early on, the Jerry Lewis-analogue meets up with a chill motorcyclist who quickly establishes himself as the only normal person in the film. Even a viewer unfamiliar with leading man Joe Shishido will be completely unspoiled by the revelation that this is Joe of Spades. He will slowly unveil his true identity and abilities, even as the gang of peculiar assassins obliviously pursues him.

Shishido seems flown in from another movie, and in a way, he is. Murder Unincorporated is a product of the Nikkatsu studio, which exploited its onscreen talent by showcasing it in films where directors and writers were given a freer reign to push genre boundaries. (The film is showcased Arrow Films’ “Nikkatsu Diamond Guys” DVD/Blu-Ray set alongside two of the studio’s other films, Tokyo Mighty Guy and Danger Paws, that are offbeat or unusual in their own way, although not reaching the heights of zaniness seen here.) In this case, the studio seems to have tried to leaven the craziness with the cool violence of a proven star who just happened to be under contract. It doesn’t not work, but the two styles never fully gel.

After the final showdown, the movie pulls out one more trick and goes all meta on us; someone observes, “The police are coming for the first time in this movie.” It’s a funny line, and the film as a whole is fairly amusing; when you throw so many jokes at the screen, a decent number are bound to land. But after a while, the frantic reach for laughs is equal parts entertaining and exhausting. There’s not much like Murder Unincorporated, which turns out to be kind of a relief.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… a completely insane black comedy with a ridiculous body count that plays like a drug-addled mash up of The Assassination Bureau, Frank Tashlin, and Mad magazine… More like a string of bizarre comedy sketches than a normal narrative… but it’s a fascinating and very entertaining comedy if you’re in the right frame of mind.”–Nathaniel Thompson, Mondo Digital (DVD box set)

244. WHY DON’T YOU PLAY IN HELL? (2013)

Jigoku de naze warui

“We’re in reality, and they’re in the fantastic. Reality is going to lose!”–Ikegami, Why Don’t You Play in Hell?

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Hiroki Hasegawa, Fumi Nikaidou, Jun Kunimura, , Gen Hoshiro, , Tomochika

PLOT: Director Hirata leads a group of anarchic filmmakers who dub themselves “the Fuck Bombers”; he wants to make one great movie in his life, or die trying. Meanwhile, the Muto clan is at war with a rival bunch of yazkuza, and Boss Muto’s daughter, Mitsuko, is starting her career as a child actress with a popular toothpaste commercial. Ten years later these two plotlines collide when, through a string of coincidences, Boss Muto hires Hirata to film his raid on rival Ikegami’s headquarters, in hopes that the footage will be used in a movie that will make Mitsuko a star.

Still from Why Don't You Play in Hell? (2013)

BACKGROUND:

  • Shion Sono belonged to an amateur filmmaking group in high school and drew on those experiences for writing the script. (Future director was also a member of the group). The character of Hirata is based on an acquaintance, however, not on Sono himself. (Sono relates that he was cast in the “Bruce Lee” role in their amateur productions).
  • Sono wrote the script about fifteen years before it was produced.
  • Many viewers incorrectly assume that the yellow tracksuit Tak Sagaguchi wears is a reference to ‘s outfit in Kill Bill. In fact, both and Sono are referencing Bruce Lee’s costume from Game of Death. Sono was so irritated by the constant misidentification that he included an explicit reference to it in his next feature, Tokyo Tribe (2014).
  • Why Don’t You Play in Hell? was the winner of this site’s 6th Readers’ Choice poll.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: It’s a close call between the scene of a darling little Mitsuko singing a toothpaste commercial jingle while standing ankle deep in a pool of blood in her living room, or the rainbow-colored jets of blood that stream from yakuza hearts punctured by adult Mitsuko’s katana as she stabs her way through a field of flowers. Take your pick.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Singing in the blood, vomiting on a prayer, rainbow arterial spray

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Up until the final thirty minutes, Hell appears only mildly unusual; the characters and situations are exaggerated, but besides one bloody hallucinatory memory and a broken-bottle French kiss, not too much happens that you couldn’t see in a Japanese version of Get Shorty. When it comes time for the movie-within-a-movie to roll, things change: decapitated heads fly about like bats and stylish machismo flows as freely as blood as logic flees the scene in abject terror.


U.S. release trailer for Why Don’t You Play in Hell?

COMMENTS: Ambitious high-school director Hirata addresses the Continue reading 244. WHY DON’T YOU PLAY IN HELL? (2013)

239. TEKKONKINKREET (2006)

“It was a strange time in Japan: just after the Kobe earthquake and in the midst of Aum’s sarin attacks. Helicopters flying overhead at all hours, police on the streets, yakuza killing cult members on television. Weird with a big W. But my friend had a good manga collection and I was getting bored, so I asked him for a recommendation. And, without stopping to think, he handed me the just-released books of Tekkon… that was it. Hooked. Even the first illustration of Black and White looking over the city – it just felt so real, felt like what I was doing, staring from above at the construction in our neighborhood, listening to helicopters at night, searching for something solid to hold on to in those pre-apocalyptic days.”–Michael Arias on why he decided to adapt Tekkonkinkreet for the screen

DIRECTED BY: Michael Arias

FEATURING: Voices of Kazunari Nimomiya, Yu Aoi (Japanese); Scott Menville, Kamali Minter (English dub)

PLOT: Black, a master fighter despite his young age, and White, a naïve smaller boy given to prophetic pronouncements, live unsupervised on the streets of an urban district nicknamed “Treasure Town.” A gang of yakuza move into the area with the intent of tearing down much of the district to create an amusement park, which requires them to get rid of the powerful Black. As he consolidates his power, the leader of the yakuza sends three superhuman assassins to kill the two boys; but when White is placed under protective police custody, can Black survive without him?

Still from Tekkonkinkreet (2006)

BACKGROUND:

  • The story was adapted from a manga (comic) by Taiyô Matsumoto.
  • The title is a mispronunciation (presumably by White) of the Japanese phrase “Tekkin Konkurito” (steel and concrete). The phrase also evokes the Japanese word for “muscle.”
  • Director Michael Arias is an American, the first non-Japanese director to ever helm a major anime film. The screenplay adaptation was also written by an American, Anthony Weintraub. The graphics were done almost exclusively by Japanese artists.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Although we chose Black’s fall to Earth from the climactic cosmic battle as our illustrative still, the most striking imagery in Tekkonkinkreet are the baroque urban backgrounds. When you think back on the film, what arises in your mind is some non-specific impression of the phantasmagorical cityscape of Treasure Town, like the raven’s-eye view we get of the district in the opening credits. Treasure Town is a lived-in home town neighborhood in a larger megalopolis, a maze of alleyways cluttered with neon signage. It’s a multicultural never-never land where a peek around the next corner is as likely to reveal a shrine to Ganesha or Betty Boop graffiti as a Shinto pagoda or a noodle stall.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Eyeball-wallpapered saloon; the Minotaur; fall to Earth

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Anime, which often takes place in obsessively invented fantasy worlds built from the ground up, is an almost inherently weird genre. It takes a lot to impress us, both in terms of imagination and in terms of quality. Tekkonkinkreet may not offer much in the way of philosophical depth, but it more than makes up for it with eye candy. If you’re looking for superhero-type action in an unreal world, and you value weirdness over cameos by Hollywood stars and comic book moguls, don’t turn to the costumed mutants of the Marvel Universe; come to Treasure Town, where orphans battle yakuza real estate developers and their alien assassins. No half-baked origin stories here, just teenagers battling Minotaurs in space, with their psyches hanging in the balance.


U.S. release trailer for Tekkonkinkreet

COMMENTS: Tekkonkinkreet is as thematically simple as it is visually Continue reading 239. TEKKONKINKREET (2006)

LIST CANDIDATE: BLIND WOMAN’S CURSE (1970)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Teruo Ishii

FEATURING: Meiko Kaji, Hoki Tokuda, Makoto Satô, Tatsumi Hijikata

PLOT: A female yakuza leader blinds an enemy in a sword fight, then years later is hunted by a blind woman seeking revenge.

Still from Blind Woman's Curse (1970)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Blind Woman’s Curse is an odd stir-fry of yakuza, samurai and ghost story genres with psychedelic seasoning. It’s also a good example of how Japanese genre films of the period had every bit of the style and technical prowess of their arthouse competitors like Kurosawa and Ozu, giving it a good outside shot at making the List.

COMMENTS: Teruo Ishii made Blind Woman’s Curse at Nikkatsu Studios only three years after the studio fired for making the “incomprehensible” yakuza pic Branded to Kill. Curse is not quite as bizarre as Suzuki’s notorious film, but it suggests that by this time the studio heads may have lightened up on their aversion to pop-surrealism—as long as the film in question also contained ample bloodshed, tattoo flaying, and a duel between sexy swordswomen. Still, the colorful, hallucinatory carnival sequence in the film’s first act may have raised some suit’s eyebrows: cat women in bikinis crawl on a bamboo roof, an old man fishes doll parts out of a hot wok, and a hunchback hops around while a woman simulates copulation with a dog wrapped in the Japanese flag. Other elements that smear the film with a disreputable weirdness include a blood-licking ghost cat, a thug in a thong, and a topless opium-smoking scene shot from under the floorboards.

But, besides the tangy surrealism, Curse‘s biggest asset is Meiko Kaji (the future Lady Snowblood) in one of her earliest leading lady roles. Kaji only sports one expression in this movie, but it’s a great one: dread wrapped in a mantle of determination. She’s beautiful, graceful, and handles a sword as well as she does a song (she sings the theme song). Kaji has an undeniable presence, and it’s no surprise she went on to cult stardom. She has a male counterpart in Makoto Satô, a wandering mercenary with a taste for justice, but the men are subsidiary here, relegated to subplots or secondary villains. Kaji’s primary antagonist (setting aside the black cat that stalks her) is Hoki Tokuda as the blind swordswoman; her stoic countenance is striking in a very different way from Kaji, making for a mythic contrast in the morally ambiguous final showdown. The incestuous mixing of genres, the arthouse technical skills combined with exploitation sensibilities, and the under-the-radarness make Blind Woman’s Curse a wet dream.

Blind Woman’s Curse was supposedly the third entry in Nikkatsu’s “Rising Dragon” series, although it’s a thematic connection only since the first two entries featured a different actress (Hiroki Ogi) with a different character name. Ishii also directed the first in the series, Rising Dragon’s Iron Flesh (1969).

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Ishii keeps the film straddling the border—quite successfully—between bizarre, surreal horror film and period yakuza tale.”–Chris D., “Gun and Sword: An Encyclopedia of Japanese Gangster Films 1955-1980”

LIST CANDIDATE: WHY DON’T YOU PLAY IN HELL? (2013)

Jigoku de naze warui

DIRECTOR

FEATURING: Jun Kunimura, Fumi Nikaidô, , Hiroki Hasegawa, , Gen Hoshino

PLOT:  A renegade amateur filmmaking crew encounters Yakuza mayhem and exploits it for cinematic value.

Stil from Why Don't You Play in Hell? (2013)
WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST:  There’s some veritable, unambiguous oddness here—a buffet of sorts. The absurdity, of the cartoonish, chaotic variety, comes in the form of sweeping gesticulations of jokey but sumptuous violence and sardonic romanticism.

COMMENTS:  Singing kids on television ads give us a chuckle, but maybe there are some creative minds in the world, busy talking about movies, possibly having a laugh from time to time. Introducing: “the Fuck Bombers,” a Cecil B. Demented-type of film crew hell bent on the art form as its own explicit end. They value DIY ethics, dedication, and sacrifice for the greater artistic good.  Just keep going and you will be cool, lead director Hirata (Hiroki Hasegawa) implies while shooting lifelong stunt actor and Bruce Lee aficionado Sasaki (Tak Sakaguchi) during an opening street fight sequence. Hirata says he’ll die for movies, but what if he was faced with that ultimate sacrifice in real life, cameras rolling?  Enter roller-skating Miki, king of dolly shots, and his partner in crime Tanigawa, a handheld camera expect, to accomplish Hirata’s filmic needs. After a prayer to the movie gods, it’s time for action.

Now there’s that asininely charming ad for teeth-brushing that keeps coming up; gnashing, gnarling, smiles wide. Everyone knows the song because it’s sung by little Mitsuko Muto, whose dad (Boss Muto) is now in a feud with Ikegami’s Yakuza over an attempted bloodletting, ending with a surprise retaliation from Muto’s crazed wife Shizue. Blood squirts in gallons onto the faces of onlookers.  Hirata looks through the camera:  “It’s just like a movie. Really? Is it cool?” Ikegami sees Mistuko in a living room full of blood, let by Shizue’s hand, and he asks for her autograph while wounded on the ground, but she has no sympathy. Meanwhile, Shizue yells at the presiding officer now holding her in custody over her murderous rampage, infuriated over the possibility that her daughter’s acting future might be halted.

Boss Muto’s plan for his wife’s release involves making the “greatest movie of all time,” starring his daughter Mistuko. It’s kimonos for all once Ikegami (Shin’ichi Tsutsumi) snaps to it and readies for the final blows coming from his nemesis Boss Muto. Meanwhile, the Bombers release “The Blood of the Wolves,” an amateur samurai movie, and are inspired by an aging 35mm projectionist. Muto, the pin-striped, gold chained Yakuza boss, is now at war with Ikegami, whose obsession with Mitsuko has now taken odd ends, as she’s on the run with naïve Koji as he pretends to be her boyfriend for the day. More strife with the Bombers comes when action stars clash with visionary directors, but Sasaki in his yellow jump suit finds redemption in his ultimate performance, a bloody Yakuza battle filmed by Hirata and Koji. The latter humorously projectile vomits (with excessive force, mind you). A script sent by the movie gods saves him from yakuza henchmen and their intensive beatings. “Make it 4 HMI screens,” says Koji to his new film crew, ordered by Muto himself to commemorate his history as a yakuza. The action is the real life battle between gangs, choreographed by Hirata, starring Mitsuko, Sasaki, and others.  “Life’s more fun on the shady side,” says Hirata.

There’s a bounty of violence and gore . Hirata insists to an excited Muto that, to honor Japanese culture, only swords should be used during fight scenes.  “Only swords?  How can I say no?” responds an eager Muto. The limitation is called off in the heat of battle when guns blaze– but why the hell not in this suggestively carnal environment? Just do it now, because there’s no time for a script.  And cut, reset, now action! At some point Koji is inebriated, and limbs are flying everywhere. Mitsuko whispers, in another line of what has become an ongoing series of tender moments during chaotic killings, “if I met someone I love, maybe acting wouldn’t be important to me.” The moments of gore-filled hilarity compare to an Evil Dead movie. Is this 13 Assassins with movie gods, yakuza, and meta-fanatical, filmic martyrdom?

The intimacy is broken up by cops, but there are some twists. Hirata ends up on the run, and in one of the most indelible scenes he melts into pure meta-fictional glory. With the eagerness of a young mind picking up a camera for the first time, Sono’s Hell is a fast-paced, bloody, and humorous romp through the deranged world of the filmmaker as an artist. Just pick up the camera and do it, seems to be the message.

LIST CANDIDATE: YAKUZA WEAPON (2011)

DIRECTED BY: ,

FEATURING: Tak Sakaguchi, Shingo Tsurumi, Mei Kurokawa, Jun Murakami

PLOT: One-man army Shozo is called back from mercenary work in South America after the Still from Yazkua Weapon (2011)

death of his father, a powerful yakuza boss. He sets out to reclaim control of his gang, eventually joining an experimental government program that implants robotic weapons into his body.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Combining elements of splatterpunk, gangster intrigue, and science-fiction, Yakuza Weapon is too insane to not at least consider for the List. In some ways, it’s only weird in that peculiarly “Japanese” way of other action films of its ilk, but at times it moves into its own truly bizarre territory that seems without precedent.

COMMENTS: With the belief that if he’s not afraid of death nothing can kill him, Shozo is a seemingly immortal killer who gave up his yakuza family in favor of mercenary work in South America (or something). He returns after hearing of his father’s death and seeks to wrest control of his territory back from Kurawaki, a sleazy business executive planning to unite all the gangs under his control. After various crazy battles and the kidnapping of his fiancee Nayoko (a strong fighter herself), Shozo is finally bested by a rocket launcher and helicopter minigun. He is re-built as a weaponized cyborg by secret government agents, who use him to take down Kurawaki and his army of drugged-out henchmen. Eventually he has to fight his long-lost blood brother, Testu, who has some unique robotic firearms of his own.

Replete with gravity-defying fight scenes, intense bouts of yelling, a host of kooky characters, and plenty of unreal splatterpunk action, Yakuza Weapon is entertaining through and through, in large part because of its weirdness. Everyone is operating at high volume and high energy levels, especially co-director/co-writer/stuntperson/star Tak Sakaguchi, who literally broke his back for this movie during a particularly impressive one-take group fight scene. The low-budget and rushed shooting time are sometimes apparent (though the CGI for the yakuza weapon-bits looks pretty good), but the filmmakers’ stunt experience leads to an array of fantastic and often hilarious action scenes.

The story is stock stuff for this genre, with revenge and gang rivalries and robotic appendages and ridiculous drama not surprising anyone. But, the script is definitely strong, producing interesting characters and tight pacing that elevates Yakuza Weapon above many other competitively crazy splatterpunk-type films. There are some truly oddball characters—notably Kurawaki’s giggly brother and Shozo’s adorably clueless sidekicks—and a couple of completely unexpected moments. Nayoko throws a boat, Shozo collapses an entire building because he doesn’t want to walk up stairs, and Tetsu battles using the weaponized (and naked) corpse of his dead sister while he’s hyped up on some neon blue wonder-drug. That last part is definitely the weirdest thing in the entire movie.

Whether or not it turns out to be Certifiably weird, this film is a helluva lot of fun, and definitely memorable. The filmmakers’ obvious enthusiasm for the project shines through, making the audience smile widely as grown men shout nonsense and digitally-added blood splatters against the walls. It’s a beautiful thing.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…this is a film that constantly ignores Kurawaki’s injunction to ‘face reality’ (a principle that Kurawaki himself hardly upholds), instead preferring devil-may-care irrationality – and if its ambition far outpaces its budget, that only makes it resemble its hero, who is funny precisely for being dumb, hyperviolent, and far too big for his boots.”–Anton Bitel, Eye For Film (contemporaneous)

63. BRANDED TO KILL [KOROSHI NO RAKUIN] (1967)

“Showing these incomprehensible and thus bad films would disgrace the company.” –Nikkatsu studio representative’s explanation for refusing to authorize a 1968 Seijun Suzuki retrospective, immediately after the studio fired the director (presumably for making Branded to Kill)

Must See

DIRECTED BY: Seijun Suzuki

FEATURING: , Annu Mari, Kôji Nanbara, Mariko Ogawa

PLOT: As the film begins, Hanada, an assassin with a yen for the smell of fresh boiled rice, is the Organization’s #3 killer.  He falls in love with a beautiful but suicidal woman whom he meets on a job, then botches a hit when a butterfly lands on his gun barrel and throws off his aim.  By slaying an innocent bystander by mistake, Hanada inadvertently breaks his killer’s code and becomes a wanted man, and finds himself hunted down by none other than the Organization’s mysterious #1 killer.

Still from Branded to Kill (1967)

BACKGROUND:

  • The story of Branded to Kill is a notorious example of film studio’s shortsightedness in valuing conformity over artistic innovation.  Suzuki was hired as a journeyman action director for the Nikkatsu studio, directing moderately successful B-movies in the yakuza (gangster) genre.  As the director’s career developed he gradually began adding absurd and surreal elements to his pictures; the studio chastised Suzuki for his artistic tendencies and tried to reign in his flamboyance by cutting his budgets.  Heedless of Nikkatsu’s demands, Suzuki delivered the phantasmagorical Tokyo Drifter (1966); as punishment, he was restricted to making black and white films.  Called in to salvage a faltering production called Branded to Kill, Suzuki rewrote the script to create his most surreal movie to date.  Nikkastsu responded by firing Suzuki on the grounds that the films he produced for them were “incomprehensible.”  Suzuki sued the company for breach of contract and eventually settled out of court, but was blacklisted by the Japanese film industry and did not make another movie for ten years.
  • Nikkatsu and Suzuki later made up.  Suzuki directed Pistol Opera, a loose sequel to Branded to Kill, for a revamped Nikkatsu company in 2001.
  • The script is credited to Hachiro Guryu, a pen name often used by Suzuki and seven collaborators (known informally as “the Group of Eight”).
  • Star Joe Shishido underwent “cheek augmentation” surgery in 1957 to gain his distinctive, chipmunk-like look.  This film was intended by the studio to be his first vehicle as a leading man after playing heavies.
  • Annu Mari has said that she was drawn to the part of Misako because she herself was experiencing suicidal thoughts at the time of filming.
  • Jim Jarmusch, a Suzuki admirer, lifted two famous scenes from Branded to Kill for his film Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai: the shot where the assassin kills a man by shooting up a water pipe and the image of the butterfly landing on the killer’s rifle.  The Limits of Control also shows a strong Suzuki influence in the way it attempts to deconstruct and mythologize the spy genre in approximately the same way Branded to Kill splinters yakuza films into their basic story elements.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The repeated cardboard cutout butterflies and birds that unexpectedly swarm the screen as a confused and despondent Hanada leaves his latest attempted sex/murder assignation with Misako counts as a bizarre film’s strangest video, but it’s the simple image of Annu Mari’s alluring face impossibly materializing from a rain shower has stuck with me for a decade.  Misako is repeatedly associated with motifs of rain, birds and butterflies, and movie’s most bewitching images all revolve around her.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD:  Seijun Suzuki scrambled a standard yakuza script into a stylized hash; in doing so, he existentialized the material, lifting it into the realm of the mysterious, mystical and mythic.  Branded to Kill‘s B-movie skeleton—made up of shootouts, gratuitous sex and macho showdowns—gives the movie its shape.  But the new flesh that hangs off the recognizable frame is strange, unsettling, and beautiful.


Japanese trailer for Branded to Kill

COMMENTSBranded to Kill is traditionally branded as “incomprehensible,” an inapt Continue reading 63. BRANDED TO KILL [KOROSHI NO RAKUIN] (1967)

57. GOZU (2003)

AKA Gokudô kyôfu dai-gekijô: Gozu (full Japanese title)

INDIEWIRE INTERVIEWER: Are there any themes or images you find too upsetting or disturbing to show?

MIIKE: Normal things.”

RecommendedWeirdest!

DIRECTED BY: Takashi Miike

FEATURING: Yûta Sone, , Kimika Yoshino

PLOT:  Minami is a journeyman yakuza whose boss Ozaki is going insane, and who has been ordered by higher-ups to see to it that he is killed.  Since Ozaki once saved his life, Minami is conflicted about the assignment; but fortunately, an accident seems to take care of the problem for him.  That is, until the presumptive corpse disappears while he is stopped in a strange town outside of Nagoya, and Minami launches a desperate search for his boss that leads him into a surreal labyrinth of malleable identities.

Still from Gozu (2003)

BACKGROUND:

  • Gozu was one of five movies the prolific Miike made in 2003.
  • “Gozu” means cow’s head, and the full Japanese title translates literally as Grand Theatre of Perversion and Fear: Cow’s Head (sometimes translated as Yakuza Horror Theater).
  • Like many of Miike’s films, Gozu was originally intended as a direct-to-video release.  A successful Cannes screening got the movie noticed, and it was able to get wider theatrical distribution.
  • Harumi Sone, who plays the small role of the Inkeepers Brother, is the father of star Yûta Sone, and the executive producer of the film.  He brought the idea of casting his son in a yakuza film to Miike, though it’s reasonable to suspect he had a more traditional film in mind.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: In a film full of shocking imagery, the obscenely drooling cow-headed man who slowly approaches Minami to lick his face stands out.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRDGozu may be the culmination of Miike’s “weird and perverted”

English language trailer for Gozu

phase, loaded with his particular fetishes and combining the two genres he works best in: horror and the yakuza (mobster) film.  With its Eraserhead-like aura of personal alienation and fearsome psycho-sexual nightmares, bizarre identity shifts, and a cow-headed man as a mascot, Gozu‘s weirdness is never in doubt.

COMMENTS:  Sexual repression always makes a good base for a weird movie.  Our libidos Continue reading 57. GOZU (2003)