New to Blu: Arrow Video: Outlaw Gangster VIP Black Dagger and Kill!

Andrew reviews the final features in the Outlaw series.

Four films into Arrow Video's Outlaw Gangster VIP boxed set chronicling the tumultuous but seemingly repetitious journey of Goro I'm convinced the best films so far in the series were parts three and four.  As previously mentioned in the last two articles, the loose tales of the violent misadventures of Goro (Tetsuya Watari) finds the titular antihero wandering in and out of the yakuza way of life, trying to shirk off his past only to be drawn back like a tractor beam as he fends off the affections of the innocent woman Yukiko (Chieko Matsubara).  The real reason to see these movies is to behold Goro making mincemeat of yakuza clans, singlehandedly wiping out dozens of gangsters only wearing sandals with his trusty dagger at his side.  The setup typically consists of Goro trying to do good but being who he is, evil follows him everywhere he goes and manages to destroy any semblances of decency left in the people he's trying to help.  Yakuzas and their own agendas get in the way and it doesn't take long for Goro to catch up to and do away with virtually anyone and everyone who crosses him or those he cares for the wrong way.

After striking such high ground with the boiler plate yakuza formulas in the last two movies, it would seem there isn't much left to do in the series.  Reusing the same cast members in each movie, the Outlaw Gangster VIP series managed to pull off the tricky feat of retelling the same story a total of six times with only one entry so far (part two) being a misfire.  In a way the series plays like a soap opera released in theaters with about as much production value put into each film as most television programs.  Keeping it from sinking into average Nikkatsu noir fodder is Tetsuya Watari who makes Goro into a larger than life figure with enough swagger to woo women without even trying and enough danger about him to frighten the Hell out of yakuzas who find themselves at the receiving end of his dagger blade.  With this, I will finally be taking a look at the last two closing entries in the remarkably quickly made Outlaw Gangster VIP series which, as previously mentioned, managed to generate a total of six films in under two years!

Outlaw: Black Dagger (1968 - directed by Keiichi Ozawa)

The Outlaw series hasn't enjoyed any flashbacks since the first two films, although the second one I have to discount for mostly using repurposed footage for a recap.  That changed however with Outlaw: Black Dagger whose opening prologue provides flashbacks throughout the movie to a fateful yakuza battle that claims the life of an old girlfriend of Goro's, Yuri (Chieko Matsubara) and forms a lifelong murderous hatred for the man responsible, a young yakuza master named Sueo.  Meanwhile Goro tries to go straight once again by accepting work at a gravel factory owned by a former yakuza and along the way Goro reunites with another long lost love who has since remarried another fellow yakuza.  After an accident at the factory lands Goro in the hospital, he meets a nurse named Shizuko (again, played by Chieko Matsubara) who is also at the receiving end of Sueo's efforts to woo her, landing Goro and Sueo in the same battlefield once again.  As with the other Outlaw films, old unpaid debts stir the violence of warring yakuza clans who tear through a local bar with many stabbings and slit throats.

Though no less violent towards women than Outlaw: Goro the Assassin, Keiichi Ozawa has scaled back the explicitness somewhat with less emphasis on graphically depicting sexual assault and more implication in it's place.  There's a heartbreaking thread where the bartender must watch her daughter (offscreen) being gang raped in order to keep the peace between herself and the yakuza tearing apart the area in search of one with an unpaid debt.  We also get a rather cringeworthy scene of a yakuza's fingers being stuffed into a metal pole before each one is broken backwards, depicted in widescreen closeup.  All of this of course is to set up the antagonism between the yakuza in large numbers and Goro so we can kick back and enjoy seeing the assassin slice and dice his way through these disposable gangsters in increasingly violent ways.  It's hard not to root for Goro thanks to Tetsuya Watari who I'm convinced can make you empathize with any technically bad character no matter how bloodthirsty he is.  By the end of each of these movies, we're just pining for Goro to destroy all these hateful and misogynistic bastards and for all the ups and downs that befall our antihero's journey, he never fails to disappoint in delivering the bloody slayings.  


Outlaw: Kill! (1969 - directed by Keiichi Ozawa)

In an effort to inject some new life into the long running yakuza series chronicling the slayings of Goro Fujikawa's dagger, Outlaw: Kill! posits itself apart from the previous films from the opening credits of still photos to the explosively ultraviolent opening yakuza fight.  While this series has treated the viewer to many a graphically violent yakuza slayings, this one starts with an eye stabbing in close up that would make Lucio Fulci blush, burning with hot tempura oil Takashi Miike would be proud of and a truly cringeworthy scene in which Goro (Tetsuya Watari) extracts a bullet wound with a pair of hot scissors in close up.  True to the saying that the best is often saved for last, Outlaw: Kill! attempts to close the series with a loud and stylishly blood soaked bang.  Brutal slashings aside, what truly separates this Outlaw entry is how little of the titular character Goro actually factors into the proceedings.  It takes some time before he even makes his first onscreen appearance and when he does, attempting once more to go straight while remaining devoid of any loyalties to local yakuza factions, Goro is more or less in the background this time around as multiple clans with many members engage in wicked sword and dagger fights.  For the first time, the viewer is somewhat left in the lurch without the aid of Goro to navigate us through the mayhem and the resulting film is a tad disengaging.

That's not to say it's entirely without merit, just a bit of a letdown for minimizing the character the film needs to spend the most time with.  A massive yakuza fight near the end in a punk rock dance club replete with glass floors, bright neon colored lights and increasingly exaggerated set pieces ala Seijun Suzuki help to put a cherry on top of this story.  It was also gratifying somewhat to see Goro not immediately reach for his dagger this time around, roughing up a yakuza gang for harrassing a saleswoman in a shopping mall (once again, played by Chieko Matsubara).  There's also a teasing moment where Goro is taken into a retired yakuza's home and upon going to the washroom to shower accidentally bumps into a naked Matsubara mid-shower.  For those who sat through all five of the previous films, director Keiichi Ozawa must have felt it was time to give the girl smitten by Goro for the whole series some nudity.  In any event, despite some highlights for Matsubara and Watari, both characters are mostly shoved aside in favor of oversized battles between warring yakuza clans.  While the body count and brutal slayings don't disappoint, they tend to lose their dramatic impact by minimizing Goro's involvement in them.  On the one hand, you can't fault Keiichi Ozawa for trying something different with the finale but at the same time it is a tad anticlimactic to reduce Tetsuya Watari and Chieko Matsubara's screentime so significantly.  


Having finally seen all six of the Outlaw Gangster VIP films now, I can confirm my favorite ones are the first, third and fourth entries for taking chances and producing solid yakuza Nikkatsu noirs out of one of Japan's most legendarily ruthless gangsters.  Did the series really need to be expanded to six films?  I don't know, as you could have done without parts two and six altogether.  As an avid consumer of Asian cinema, the Outlaw series will never reach the artistic heights of Tokyo Drifter or Branded to Kill and to call these films repetitious is being too kind.  I suppose when your first and middle chapters are your best efforts, disappointment in closing the series is inevitable.  That said, I'm glad I had an opportunity to check these out and who doesn't like seeing the suave and cool Tetsuya Watari as Goro taking a familiar gangster narrative to superhuman heights?

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-Andrew Kotwicki