Andrew moves on to parts three and four of the Outlaw Gangster VIP boxed set.
After going through the first two films in Arrow Video's forthcoming Outlaw Gangster VIP yakuza film noir boxed set, I got the impression one of the reasons Nikkatsu studios was able to churn out an astonishing number of six films rounding out this series is because they're more or less all the same with minor variations. In each of these films loosely based on the writings of ex-yakuza Goro Fujita (with open disclaimers calling the films works of fiction), Tetsuya Watari as Goro wanders the Japanese cityscape of alleyways, brothels and nightclubs trying to do good in a yakuza world gone bad. When he isn't fending off the naive affections of Yukiko (Chieko Matsubara), he's slicing and dicing yakuza right and left after being caught in the crossfire of warring clans, stolen goods, and personal vendettas. Like Richard Roundtree's Shaft, Watari's Goro possesses an almost superhuman quality to be feared by his easily vanquished adversaries as well as an air of cool which allows the character to strut about with a swagger. Instead of playing Goro straight and unaltered by melodrama, the Outlaw Gangster VIP series elevates the character to an almost mythic status.
The first film by Toshio Masuda was such a strong introduction to this character and series that it almost self-terminated for me in the lackluster, half-hearted sequel by Keiichi Ozawa. While I've still two more films left to go in this startlingly long series made in an even more startlingly short period of time, as of current I can say the next two entries in this series are among my favorites, Outlaw: Heartless and Outlaw: Goro the Assassin. Although these are, as you expected, extensions of the first film all over again, one of them is so colorful it almost reaches the playfulness of Seijun Suzuki and the other one presented a new extremity towards the graphic violence as well as enhancing the ongoing forbidden relationship between Goro and Yukiko. For a series that I was afraid had quickly gone stagnant in one sequel, these next two entries injected a surprising amount of unexpected new life, drama and even joy into the brutally violent yakuza film series. Let's dig in, shall we?
Outlaw: Heartless (1968 - directed by Mio Ezaki)
Right out of the gate, Mio Ezaki's one and only entry in the Outlaw Gangster VIP series is far and away the most lyrical and funky of the bunch. Beginning with a new theme song sung by Tetsuya Watari himself with lyrics written by the real Goro Fujita which plays over open credits of yakuza gangsters being sliced and diced by Goro, I was immediately reminded of both Seijun Suzuki and the funky cool of Jean-Pierre Melville. While no less violent or dark than the predecessors, this one is far more colorful and wonderfully engaging with just a hint of playfulness. Take for instance one of the climactic yakuza fights, which just so happens to take place in an arena full of multicolored paint cans which will of course all be knocked over for the sake of the camera. It's a little trait in the scene that didn't really need to be there other than it added some sweet colors to the scenery and moments like these (there are many scattered throughout) simply enhance the viewing experience, making it far more expressionistic than realistic. Another welcome change is the tighter pacing thanks to a sharper editing job, giving viewers just enough to lure them into the next scene with many judicious cuts rather than long takes that seem to go on and on.
Visually, Outlaw: Heartless is as colorful as the first but is surprisingly twice as exciting to look at here and sonically the music is far more affecting and a pleasure to listen to. It's also a much more emotionally engaging film than the previous two with greater involvement with Yukiko and a powerful thread in which Goro tries to lend aid to a sickly woman only to find himself inexorably drawn into yakuza bloodshed once again. For as heavy and melancholic as these films can get, Outlaw: Heartless is the closest the series comes to out and out whimsy. The yakuza ultraviolence is still there, yes, but this time around the approach is in a sense of fun, giving viewers a far more enjoyable experience than a dour one. The mood is still largely melancholic but there's an impish, playful glee to this one that's unmistakable. The original theme song which plays during the opening and closing credits gives the whole endeavor just the right touch, rounding out this package as among the entries in this series I can easily recommend over others. Being a yakuza yarn, Outlaw: Heartless and it's director's uniquely expressionistic approach regard the Outlaw series not as a chunk of hard hitting reality but as pure escapism.
- Andrew Kotwicki
Outlaw: Goro the Assassin (1968 - directed by Keiichi Ozawa)
I have to admit the truth, my heart sank somewhat when I came to learn the director of the dour and uninspired retread Outlaw: Gangster VIP 2 would be at the helm for the remaining three films in this series. After reaching such a high note with the spectacularly entertaining Outlaw: Heartless, bringing Keeichi Ozawa back for the rest of the series seemed like backwards thinking to me. So I bit my lip and proceeded through Outlaw: Goro the Assassin and to me surprise and delight, Ozawa actually did something radically new with the formula set forth in the series. Instead of repeating all the high watermarks of Outlaw: Gangster VIP, he expands the far uglier canals of the yakuza underworld kept from being seen previously and even manages to enhance the distant relationship between Goro and Yukiko. With the first two yakuza films, as an avid consumer of 60s Nikkatsu noir I was largely cold and unaffected by what transpired in the first two movies. That said, the third and in particular this fourth entry finally reached out and grabbed me by the throat. While the movies which came previously seemed to go through the motions with the same characters doing the same old routine again and again, I saw actual progression in both Goro and Yukiko this time around and alas the tragic horrors experienced by Goro have genuine emotional weight now.
While recycling the same basic plotline of Goro trying to do good only to find himself ensconced in yakuza dagger battles, what struck me about this new film is how immediately edgy it was in contrast to what came before. Here, the violence is as hard as any of the ultraviolent Takashi Miike offerings made today. Early on, there's a scene where Goro is jumped by a rival yakuza clan and is immobilized to a wooden fence by having sharp metal spikes driven through his hands. It's quite graphic and startlingly grislier than anything seen in the Outlaw: Gangster VIP movies before. The previous films touched on the yakuza pimping and sex trade, but in Goro the Assassin, it confronts the ugly and often heartbreaking underbelly of prostitution directly. For 1968, graphic gang rape replete with closeups of the victim's naked body, humiliation and murder weren't things most people were used to seeing in the cinema and the payoff Goro delivers to the wrongdoers only serves to match the horrific victimization. Biggest of all, Goro and Yukiko have a moment of real mutual love and affection, if only briefly, something we never thought we'd see in these characters. The usual routine is for Goro to fend off Yukiko with threats of yakuza violence even though her love for him is unfazed by his gruff exterior. To have them finally share their love mutually is an enormous expansion to the series and only serves to pique our interest for what comes next.
- Andrew Kotwicki
As far as I'm concerned, the series just got a lot better with currently my two favorite entries in the series. I guess we'll have to wait and see what the last two films in the Outlaw: Gangster VIP series have in store for us.