Cult Cinema: Afraid to Die (1960) - Reviewed

Celebrated as well as infamous Japanese novelist Yukio Mishima, from his short film Patriotism to his notoriously televised coup d'├ętat and seppuku as well as Paul Schrader’s phantasmagorical biopic Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, was such a magnetic presence that it was inevitable he would become involved with the movies at some point.  Six years before dramatizing his eventual suicide with his writing/directing debut Patriotism, the accomplished novelist joined forces with Black Test Car director Yasuzo Masumura for the offbeat and satirical yakuza yarn Afraid to Die

In only his third film, Mishima takes on the lead role of a cowardly yakuza named Takeo.  Fresh out of prison after dodging several sneak attacks and going into hiding, the on-the-run yakuza finds himself torn between survival, vengeance and domineering love for a young woman named Yoshie (Ayako Wakao).  Co-starring the legendary Takashi Shimura as an aging yakuza covered in tattoos as well as Fires on the Plain’s Eiji Funakoshi, Masumura’s film is a familiarly convoluted yakuza thriller with an against-type frightened little boy in Mishima’s lost and confused yakuza.  

Contrary to the claustrophobic and bleak black-and-white look designed for Black Test Car, Masumura’s Afraid to Die is a lush DaieiScope color widescreen picture thanks to the efforts of The Sword of Doom cinematographer Hiroshi Murai.  Equally vibrant is the film’s jazzy score by The Lowest Man composer Tetsuo Tsukahara which builds a sense of urgency and danger lurking around every corner.  It also helps that the main theme song for the film was sung by Mishima himself.  In an unusual circumstance not always afforded to the then rising-star of an author, Mishima was offered a number of leading roles in films (much of which he turned down) before settling on Afraid to Die.

Mishima would go on to act in more films thereafter including master filmmaker Kinji Fukusaku’s Black Lizard (also penned by Mishima) before his infamous ritualistic suicide in 1970.  While the legacy of Mishima remains a controversial and divisive one, the celebrity novelist clearly brought a wealth of screen presence, charisma and energy to the silver screen.  He could have been a really great actor in film had he lived on.  For now, Afraid to Die is a good starting point both for Mishima aficionados as well as newcomers to the work of Yasuzo Masumura whose films are only recently beginning to receive the long awaited and much deserved attention and recognition for their contribution to the ever evolving and shape shifting yakuza picture.

--Andrew Kotwicki