New to Blu: Arrow Video: Outlaw Gangster VIP 1 and 2 - Reviewed

Andrew reviews all six films in Arrow Video's forthcoming yakuza boxed set. He kicks it off with the first two movies. 

My introduction to late 1960s yakuza driven film noir began in college around the time I discovered Seijun Suzuki's Tokyo Drifter, Branded to Kill, Kanto Wanderer and Kinji Fukusaku's Graveyard of Honor.  Know for their signature style, funky mixture of melancholic jazz and original vocals often dramatizing the life of a yakuza hitman either fallen off the beaten path or simply on a path to self destruction, these often microbudget yet wholly engaging character driven yarns were often made on the fly yet possessed an undeniable air of cool that is distinctive to the period of these films' inception.  Although Toei was and still is among the top Japanese film studios and distributors, a majority of the urban youth yakuza pictures came out of Nikkatsu during the golden age from the mid-1950s throughout the 1960s.  Before entering the pinku eiga era of soft porn films in 1971 which found the leave of many of Nikkatsu's key players including directors Shohei Immamura and Suzuki as well as actors Tetsuya Watari and Tatsuya Fuji, the company was largely responsible for the aptly named 'Nikkatsu Noir' series of films which worked from the Western notion of film noir with focus largely on the inner workings of the yakuza way of life.  

Among the most popular and profitable series of films released by Nikkatsu involved what became known as the Outlaw: Gangster VIP series.  Spawning four more unrelated movies based on the same subjectMade under only two years between 1968 and 1969, a total of six films emerged under a two year period which focused loosely on the life of ex-yakuza member Goro Fujita and followed the morally conflicted gangster through a series of violent encounters as he tries and fails to extricate himself from the yakuza way of life.  Presented together for the time on home video in a new collector's edition boxed set by Arrow Video, this saga of six gangster features comes fully subtitled and digitally remastered with a wealth of extras.  Rather than do all six of these at once, the Movie Sleuth is going to try something a little different by giving each film equal time, spaced out over the next few days in a series of reviews.  With that, we kick off our overview of the Outlaw: Gangster VIP series by covering the first two features in the set, Outlaw: Gangster VIP and the swiftly made follow up, Outlaw: Gangster VIP 2.

Outlaw: Gangster VIP (1968 - directed by Toshio Masuda)

What would become a lengthy yet astonishingly quickly generated series of films began as a fictitious yakuza yarn in the form of Outlaw: Gangster VIP, a new kind of brutally realistic gangster film burst out of the Nikkatsu gate ordinarily known for their lighter yakuza films.  Loosely based on writings of ex-yakuza Goro Fujita, the film stars Tokyo Drifter leading man Tetsuya Watari as the titular gangster who we see, much like Akira Kurosawa's Yojimbo, as a wanderer who tries to maintain a distance from shedding blood but is inescapably drawn back to doing just that.  The setup is exceedingly straightfoward and simple: Goro (Watari) is fresh out of prison and wants to settle down with a normal way of life but finds himself once again in the midst of a yakuza civil war between rival gangs and must make the choice whether or not to unsheath his dagger while fending off the affections of an innocent and pure woman named Yukiko (Chieko Matsubara).  It's only a matter of time before yakuza hits involving machine guns, pistols and swords unleash all out pandemonium in Tokyo.  The first film in this series, for a low budget Nikkatsu production with director-for-hire Toshio Masuda at the helm, is contrary to the goofier and more colorful yakuza yarns that came before it such as Tokyo Drifter and Branded to Kill.  

Far closer to the meat and potatoes gritty style later mastered by Kinji Fukusaku, Outlaw: Gangster VIP is characteristic for being graphically violent in ways Japanese audiences weren't used to at the time, creating a far more realistic experience.  With close ups of slashed faces, stabbing punctre wounds and yakuza pinkie chopping, prior to Fukusaku and Miike, nothing remotely this ultraviolent graced the yakuza picture previously.  Guiding viewers through the backstabbing and ruthless double crossing is a confident and cool performance by Tetsuya Watari, who imbues the character with a kind of James Dean debonair and suave swagger yet exuding the quiet danger of a scorpion ready to strike at any given moment.  In a way, Watari is arguably the poster child of Nikkatsu noir, with his sharp and fearless eyes, his unforgiving stare and a relaxed confidence which stands out against his underlings and opponents attempting to intimidate that which cannot be intimidated.  Key to the film's mood and air of cool is the moody, often melancholic jazzy score which will perk up the ears of Quentin Tarantino fans who will swear they've heard that music before.   Despite the aforementioned grittiness, Outlaw: Gangster VIP is also handsomely photographed in widescreen with bright neon-fluorescent colors of nightclubs and brothels illuminating the frame.

While this Nikkatsu noir isn't earth shattering or for that matter achieving of artistic heights like the ones reached by Seijun Suzuki's yakuza pictures, this first entry in what would very quickly become a saga is a solid and compulsively watchable one.  Direct and unpretentious with a compelling central performance by Watari and a cool soundtrack with a wholly original theme song, this little Nikkatsu noir became quite the smash hit at the Japanese box office and showed the yakuza underworld with all the brutality and ugliness not seen before by audiences.  It dives deep into a violent life of crime but by giving us a morally conflicted character who is more or less the devil trying to do good, Outlaw: Gangster VIP won't disappoint fans of late 1960s yakuza and represent a turning point in the genre where the dramatization felt more honest and true than it ever had before.  So successfully critically and commercial in Japan was Outlaw: Gangster VIP that it immediately spawned four sequels which were all filmed and released within the same year as the first one (save for the sixth entry in 1969).  With that, let's get the weaker second film overwith.


- Andrew Kotwicki

Outlaw: Gangster VIP 2(1968 - directed by Keiichi Ozawa)

Is it just me or is the use of repurposed footage to recap the prior events of a film never a good thing?  It works great on television but I'll always remember the weakest moments of The Road Warrior being the repurposed footage from the first film to create the opening prologue.  With Outlaw: Gangster VIP 2, this time directed by Keiich Ozawa who would also go on to direct episodes four through six, the repurposed scenery from the first movie more or less signaled what kind of sequel this film would be: a lazy one.  Though a continuation of the antiheroic journey embarked by Tetsuya Watari's take on Goro, Outlaw: Gangster VIP 2 pretty much recycles the first film scene by scene though with far less compelling impact or richness to go around.  

As always, Watari is great but seeing the character go through the identical motions, conflicts and even the climax of the previous film all over again with little to separate itself from the predecessor struck me as tiresome to sit through.  It's also oddly the longest running film in the series, making the retread all the more tedious. That's not to say it's an incompetent film, just kind of a halfhearted recap.  As with the first film, we get Goro's conflicted relationship with Yukiko, rivalry between gangs erupting in elongated swordfighting battles with lots of bloodshed, and our antihero trying to inject some good into a world of evil.  For a brief time, Goro even takes up manual labor but that doesn't last long soon as nearby clans catch wind of the ex-yakuza's presence.  The impression one gets while watching this retread of dagger fights, close-ups of slashings, fierce eyes and romantic longing that cannot be fulfilled is half-hearted effort on the part of the Nikkatsu boys this time around.  To be fair, there's a key use of slow motion near the end involving a girl's volleyball team which happens to notice something really violent happening in the corner of their field, something not used in the first film.  

Still, outside of a slightly less pronounced color palette and a somewhat more static visual style with longer running takes, this is pretty much the first film all over again with only a changeover in locations and some of the actors.  Outside of that, this is most definitely a formulaic and forgettable retread which will work for newcomers to the series while boring those familiar with it.  Yes it piles on the bodies and slayings and yes we get to see more of the combustible relationship between Goro and Yukiko, but I'd be lying if I said this one did much the separated itself from the predecessor.  Completists will no doubt want to see everything but my friendly suggestion would be to skip this one and move onto the far more surreal and inventive third film which wisely tried a new director and actually managed to do something new with what Nikkatsu otherwise quickly established as an assembly line moneymaking series.


- Andrew Kotwicki

Well that's it for now.  Stay tuned for parts three and four in the ongoing journey through the Outlaw: Gangster VIP film series!

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