Arrow Video: Street Mobster (1972) - Reviewed

Prior to the director-actor collaborative working relationship involving filmmaker Kinji Fukusaku and actor Bunta Sugawara that noticeably took shape with the Battles Without Honor and Humanity yakuza action film series, the two first made one another’s acquaintance with the 1969 yakuza picture Japan Organized Crime Boss followed by Bloodstained Clan Honor just a year later.  Their third feature together, the rough and gritty 1972 yakuza thriller Street Mobster, proved to be the sixth installment of Toei Studios’ Gendai Yakuza (Modern Yakuza) film series all featuring Sugawara under a different director per picture as well as being partially influenced by the very real ten-day Asama-Sansō hostage crisis fought between the United Red Army and the police at the time. 

A frequently brutally violent and unforgivingly dark ride through the lowest lawlessness the yakuza way of life has to offer, Street Mobster concerns street gang leader Okita (Bunta Sugawara) who after a life in kidnapping women to force them into the sex trade ala Kim Ki-duk’s Bad Guy finds himself in the midst of an urban warzone fought between rival yakuza factions Takigawa and Yato.  After being released from prison only to learn the yakuza underworld he once knew is rapidly changing, Okita crosses paths with Kimiyo (Mayumi Nagisa), a woman he once raped and coerced into a life of prostitution, and the two begin a rocky co-dependent affair. 

Setting the stage for a bumpy ride of a yakuza film while functioning as a kind of precursor to Fukusaku’s own eventual Graveyard of Honor concerning a madcap yakuza who goes rogue, Street Mobster sports all of the director trademarks Japanese filmgoers came to expect at the time.  From the frequent use of canted angles, tight close-ups, shaky handheld camera movement and fast deep zooms into an actor’s face, the overwhelming vibe one almost always gets watching one of the director’s yakuza pictures is that of unbridled chaos and disorder.  Thanks to Fukusaku’s regular director of photography Hanjirô Nakazawa who shot a majority of his pictures through the 1970s, we the viewer don’t walk into the filmmaker’s yakuza underworld so much as we’re dropped in the middle of a brawl while being tossed about like a ragdoll.  Very few filmmakers have such an uncanny ability to make you feel battered and rattled.

Street Mobster is significantly more violent than anything from the director previously with violent gang rape scenes as well as frequent stabbings, shootings and a rather graphic depiction of yubitsume.  The sexual politics of the world lived in by Okita and Kimiyo is both eye opening in its tragic poignance and shocking for the destructive co-dependent psychosexuality of their perverse and deeply flawed “relationship”.  Fukusaku complicates matters further by reminding the viewer of Okita’s actions which determined Kimiyo’s fate of servitude to criminals and gangsters. 

Aiding the film’s somber mood is recurring Fukusaku composer Toshiaki Tsushima, providing a score that largely amounts to soft yet melancholy jazz.  While key action sequences intentionally avoid using music, most of the rest is peppered with downbeat themes adding to an overall bleak and hopeless outlook on the youthful street gang way of life.  Of course, Fukusaku and his trademark visual style can’t carry the picture alone without the gifted and energetic performances by Bunta Sugawara and Mayumi Nagisa, playing mutually damaged characters trying desperately to find some measure of goodness left in an underworld that is cruel and unforgiving to its denizens.

Unlike some of the other Fukusaku efforts including his own goofball English language sci-fi romp The Green Slime, Street Mobster isn’t much fun and can at times be hard to watch.  However, it also represents an important stepping stone in the director’s illustrious career with regard to his union with Sugawara as well as the formulation of recurring themes regarding just how easy it is to fall into the trappings of a world driven by violence and thievery.  As with his other pictures, the bumpy camerawork can be hard on the eyes and potentially push dizzy spells onto others.  And yet the filmmaker’s twenty-sixth feature film effort seen today remains an indelible staple of the yakuza subgenre, shooting into the New York based periodical Complex’s third spot for top twenty-five best yakuza movies and serving as a benchmark in the director’s gradual finding of both his niche and his best leading man for the job.

- Andrew Kotwicki