Arrow Video UK and USA give the deluxe treatment to the previously unavailable Nikkatsu OUTLAW GANGSTER VIP sextet on six-disc Blu-ray/DVD combo.
Toshio Masuda's OUTLAW: GANSGTER VIP introduces us to Gorô Fujikawa (Tetsuya Watari, TOKYO DRIFTER), later known as "Gorô the Assassin." Born into poverty and losing his mother and baby sister at an early age, Gorô spent a few years in juvenile detention after stealing food to survive. He escaped with "brother" Sugiyama (Kyôsuke Machida, ESCAPE FROM JAPAN), the two parting ways only to meet up again years later in rival yakuza clans. When Sugiyama assassinates his chief, Gorô retaliates but only manages to gravely wound Sugiyama, with both ending up in prison. Three years later, Gorô is released and immediately gets into trouble when he saves naive provincial girl Yukiko (Chieko Matsubara, CRUEL GUN STORY) and her friend from violation by five Ueno clan, incurring a debt from chief Kenka which he quickly cancels by wounding the man when Kenka and his men show up to hassle two young Mizuhara clan members Suzumoto (Tatsuya Fuji, IN THE REALM OF THE SENSES) and Takeo (Mitsuo Hamada) showing him a night on the town. When Kenka's replacement Dosuken (Shôki Fukae, A COLT IS MY PASSPORT) learns that Gorô is in the company of Sugiyama's wife-turned-prostitute Yumeko, he sends Takeo's Ueno clan brother Tsujikawa (Tamio Kawachi, YOUTH OF THE BEAST) to assassinate him. When they do not find Gorô, they take Suzumoto instead. Rather than go to his boss Mizuhara (Michitarô Mizushima, UNDERWORLD BEAUTY) – who has turned to an ally clan to broker peace with the Ueno clan – he goes to Ueno (Yoshirô Aoki, KWAIDAN) himself and offers a finger in apology. When he discovers they have killed Suzmoto, he vows to kill him. Gorô is badly wounded in the fight and nursed by smitten Yukiko, who he repeatedly warns about the dangers and miseries of being a yakuza wife. Gorô learns from his boss that he must leave the clan as part of the peace agreement with the Ueno clan, but decides to take his revenge as a lone assassin when the Ueno clan makes things personal.
A modestly-produced and staged crime thriller that balances grim drama with moments of light comedy, OUTLAW: GANGSTER VIP lacks the outre touches of the more flashy STRAY CAT ROCK series, and in some ways seems very unlike the other yakuza dramas produced by Nikkatsu and rival Japanese companies during the period and earlier in the decade. The flashier gung-ho gangsters are presented as either young fools or corrupt with Gorô, Sugiyama, Yumeko, and Mizuhara as the grim voices of experience. The film also demonstrates the differences between the Mizuhara clan who are "on their way out" and the ruthless up-and-coming Ueno clan. Gorô is greeted by his boss upon release and taken care of while Sugiyama is forgotten about and his wife sent to the red light district. In a sequence that anticipates THE GODFATHER, the peace agreement ceremony between the two clans is intercut with the murder of a former Mizuhara clan member freed of his obligations and just moments away from happiness. As suicidal and outright stupid as Gorô's actions are – especially when he has chastised others for putting their debts and sense of obligation to the clan over love and family – we identify with him emotionally when he feels that there is nothing to lose. The climactic fight in a nightclub takes place with only the accompaniment of a torch song. The fight choreography is believably frenzied and messy, with the survivor left breathless and shambling away underneath the end title card.
Keiichi Ozawa's OUTLAW: GANGSTER VIP 2 is both a follow-up to the first film and a variation on all of the plot elements of the original. Having survived the fight with the Ueno clan and earned the name "Gorô the Assassin", our outlaw gangster arrives in a snowy mountain village to make amends to Yumeko who he discovers is deathly ill and being cared for by Yukiko. He finds himself in trouble again after standing up for a singing/dancing troupe a local clan is trying to force into prostitution. He is once again saved by his acquaintance with Kyu (Ryôhei Uchida, the flatulent Aozora of BLIND WOMAN'S CURSE), the head of a Yokohama clan going into partnership with the local one. He makes Gorô an attractive offer, but the man would rather work with his hands for a local logging company to support himself, Yukiko, and Yumeko. When Yumeko's condition worsens and Gorô is let go by the company, he goes to Yokohama to work for Kyu and finds their clan in a war with the Izumi clan. Gorô's tie to the rival clan this time around is former Mizuhara chief Asami (Hideaki Nitani, VOICE WITHOUT A SHADOW from the first volume of Arrow's NIKKATSU DIAMOND GUYS set) whose sister Keiko (Nikkatsu favorite Meiko Kaji, FEMALE CONVICT SCORPION) is in love with a Kuichi clan youth. When Keiko lures her lover away from an ambush by the Izumis, he and Asami are both assumed by their clans to be traitors who tipped off either side. Once again, Gorô tries to give an old friend and young lovers a chance only for the clans to betray them. Gorô is again injured and nursed, this time by another hooker with a heart of gold (Izumi Ashikawa, GHOST STORY OF YOUTH) along with a former enemy (Kunie Tanaka, SANJURO) soured on yakuza life, and takes on another clan and its leader on his own.
While not as nuanced as the first film, OUTLAW: GANGSTER VIP 2 is suitably diverting in its treatment of the similar characters and plot twists. Smitten Yukiko is once again less interesting than the other female characters (whose screen time is similarly limited), and one would assume Gorô would be a little more prepared for how low ruthless and underhanded the clans can be. The deaths of certain characters are strongly felt again, as is Gorô's righteous anger, but there is an air of overfamiliarity when the first two films are watched back to back. As with the first film, there are some stylistic touches that feel more western, like the intercutting and cutaways during death scenes to what seem like psychic vibrations felt by other characters. When Asami is stabbed in the park outside his home, his wife pricks her finger on a sewing machine needle, and the climax intercuts the fight with a volleyball game in the neighboring schoolyard.
With Mio Ezaki's OUTLAW: HEARTLESS, Gorô takes on a different backstory and Matsubara plays a different love interest while the same story elements are shifted around to better effect. Gorô is hired to collect three million yen owed by former yakuza casino owner Sawada (Ryôji Hayama, RETALIATION). When he sees that the man's wife Aki is sick, he decides to help them escape but henchman Shinzeki (Hiroshi Nawa, DANCING MISTRESS) intervenes and stabs Sawada. Before he dies, Sawada tells Gorô that he was framed by the yakuza boss and requests that Gorô take his wife to Nagano for treatment. Gorô confronts the boss at the casino, attacking him and collecting the three million yen. He is arrested for Sawada's murder, but Aki does not identify him to the police. Gorô and yakuza youth Kubo (Eiji Gô, GRAVEYARD OF HONOR) accompany resentful Aki to Nagano, but her condition worsens and they are forced to take her to a hospital in Yokohama. Gorô once again intervenes when he sees Koga clan henchmen hassling restaurant owner Tsume (Kaku Takashina, LAKE OF DRACULA) – formerly yakuza man "Tsume the Blade" – and his daughter Keiko (Matsubara). Chief Gohara (Isao Tamagawa, BRANDED TO KILL) takes offense but Gorô's old friend, former yakuza turned construction company head Sagara (Ryôhei Uchida again), steps in since is the brother-in-law of Koga (Fumio Watanabe, DEATH BY HANGING) and offers Gorô out of obligation since they depended on each other to survive as orphaned youths during the war. Gorô cannot accept help from non-yakuza but Sagara keeps an eye on him since Koga has been ordered by Tokyo clan boss Yasuoka (Asao Uchida, GANGSTER COP) to retrieve the three million yen and Sawada's brother Kenji the Razor (Kôji Wada, GATE OF FLESH) is also out for revenge, having been told by Shinzeki that Gorô murdered Sawada to run off with his wife.
Almost everything that you expect to happen to Gorô, the smitten love interest, the young sidekick, the yakuza widow, and other similar characters in the earlier films happens here but with some exceptions that make the film a novel enough venture. Although Aki and Sagara's wife Yuri (torch singer baby sister of Koga) are more interesting, Matsubara's love interest is less annoying here since her character at least has more of a sense of what it means to be a yakuza wife through her memories of her parents. The women here are more decisive, with Yuri being sent home when Sagara choses Gorô over Koga and not effecting the conflict between brothers-in-law with passive silence but definitely stating that the fault is her brother's not of her husband. Aki lies about not recognizing Gorô to the police not to protect him but because she wants not more involvement with the yakuza, and Keiko still loves Gorô but vents her anger when he seems resigned to being yakuza rather than trying to go straight (especially if it means being supported by her). The climactic battle is a construction site brawl in which the participants slip and slide through spilled paint while slashing away at each other.
GORÔ THE ASSASSIN opens with the titular character taking out the head of the Meishinki clan but delayed in his escape when pal Masa (Tatsuya Fuji, STRAY CAT ROCK: WILD JUMBO) is injured protecting him from an attacking henchmen and they are both arrested. Gorô makes parole three years later, but ailing Masa dies soon after asking him to track down his sister Mayumi in his home town of Ishihara. Arriving in the town, he steps in on young Meishinki henchman Ishimaru's attempt to collect money from a troupe of theatre performers who have been forced into performing as topless dancers. Rather than beat a lesson into Ishimaru, Gorô gives him money so he can save face with his boss. Having little luck finding Mayumi, Gorô takes a job at a local hotel as a boiler operator. Meishinki chairman Makino sends his advisor Shiroyama down to Ishihara to take care of Gorô but also sends sword-wielding Mr. Oba along separately after learning that Shiroyama has been sending money to local hotel receptionist Yuki (Matsubara again) because of guilt over assassinating her father. Mr. Oba and his men hassle Yuki into quitting her job and expose Gorô's past as a killer, beating rather than killing him and sending him on his way. Once again, Gorô warns off the smitten Yuki but puts a target on his back again when he rushes to the girl's aid when she applies for a reception job at a Meishinki-owned billiards hall which serves as a front for prostitution in order to pay back the money Shiroyama gave to her. Shiroyama steps in to save them and advises them to get out of town, but Mr. Oba and the local arm of the clan mean to kill Gorô and use the girl to get to him.
Keiichi Ozawa's second film in the series has Matsubara as a naïve but less cloying love interest, a more seasoned and embittered female counterpart in Masa's red light district prostitute sister, another ill-fated sidekick and his lover (whose sexual assault includes the series' first instance of nudity captured in a very leering Nikkatsu roman porno-era fashion), a disillusioned elder yakuza official, ruthless bosses, and ambitious middlemen. Once again, there are just enough twists and different takes on the same material to make it worth viewing. Perhaps more so here than in the preceding films is the sense of hopelessness most effectively conveyed, with one ill-fated relationship ending in a murder-suicide just as it seems as though the characters might have a chance of getting away. The fury of vengeful characters is also more palpable here thanks to some flashier cutting during the fight scenes and the soundtrack's emphasis on the slashing and clanking of blades rather than the earlier film's distancing effects during the climactic scenes.
No sooner does OUTLAW: BLACK DAGGER begin with Gorô massacring another clan than Matsubara exits the picture as Yuri, accidentally killed when she gets in the middle of a scuffle between her love interest and young Sueo (Tamio Kawachi, YOUTH OF THE BEAST) of the Buso group. Deciding once again to go straight, he tracks down ex-yakuza friend Muria (Ichirô Nakatani, YOJIMBO) who now owns a gravel company. Gorô tries to avoid getting involved in the local clan feud between the Shamaoka who have surrendered part of their territory (and a finger each) to the Buso clan. When Muria takes Gorô for a drink at a local bar, he discovers that the proprietress is Saeko (Sanae Kitabayashi, THE FAST LIVER), and ex-love now married to Shamaoka man Takani (Shigeru Tsuyuguchi, INTENTIONS OF MURDER). Upon learning of Gorô's reputation, Takani asks for his help but Gorô does not want to be indebted to anyone. Buso has sent his son Sueo to oversee the takeover of the Shamaoka territory even though Sueo has no interest in becoming his successor, his guilt over Yuri's death having pushed him into a downward spiral of drugs and sex. Buso sends Yasumoto (Yoshirô Aoki, SAMURAI REBELLION) not only to look after Sueo but also to put the screws on Shamaoka; which he does by telling Shamaoka that he will be easier on him if he "gives" him Takani's wife Saeko. When Takani interrupts Yasumoto's attempted rape of his wife, he is dragged off by Buso men to be tortured, but Gorô steps in. Believing that Shamaoka has hired Gorô, Buso decides to massacre the entire Shamaoka clan.
While OUTLAW: BLACK DAGGER once again shuffles around elements from the earlier films, it does so with a bit more energy and with a few more twists. The ill-fated young lovers – a Shamaoka youth who is humiliated when he loses a bet with the Buso and his waitress girlfriend surrenders her clothing rather than let him lose a finger – are barely established and his death is a blink and you'll miss it affair during the massacre, but the sibling relationship complication is used to different effect here as Muria's nurse sister Shizuko turns out to be a dead ringer for Yuri; although this twist serves only to have Sueo and Gorô cross paths again, after which it is the usual smitten girl being warned of future misery if she loves a yakuza. With a plot as cluttered as it is rushed, the film is the least inspired of the lot while still managing to entertain.
Although it ends like every other entry in the series, OUTLAW: KILL! would turn out to be the finale. Instead of opening with Gorô assassinating a clan leader, we find Iriezaki leader Matsunaga (Michitarô Mizushima, UNDERWORLD BEAUTY) surprisingly spry as he takes out three men sent by the Toyu clan to assassinate him. His self-defense claim is rejected by the court and he is sentenced to seven years and six months incarceration. During this time, the Toyu chairman (Fujio Suga, AN AUTUMN AFTERNOON) puts Hanai (Eiji Gô, ZERO WOMAN: RED HANDCUFFS) in charge of moving in on the Iriezaki territory. Although the Toyu are instructed to beat up any yakuza they find in the area, Hanai steps in when old friend Gorô wanders into town and tries to recruit him. Gorô puts a target on his back again when he humiliates a quartet of Toyu punks who hassle department store elevator operator Yuri (Matsubara again). When young Iriezaki debt collector Isao (Kôji Wada, GATE OF FLESH) and his elder partner are attacked by gun-wielding Toyu, Gorô steps in to keep Isao from losing face (along with his life when he initially runs from the fight). Back at Iriezaki headquarters, Gorô discovers that the executive in Matsunaga's absence is old friend Muriyama (Shinjirô Ehara, THE RICE PEOPLE) who gives him a place to stay with wife Minako (Yôko Takahashi, JOURNEY INTO SOLITUDE) and her sister who turns out to be Yuri. Guilt-ridden Isao – who Gorô has made out to be a hero – is eager to learn from Gorô, but the elder man is wary of his eagerness, pointing out that "one match can start a fire." When the Toyu chairman comes to a Turkish bath where Isao is working out, he attempts to assassinate him, sparking off a battle between the two clans to exterminate each other.
While the gore quotient was steadily upped throughout the series, OUTLAW: KILL! gives us an eye-stabbing, a scalding, and a sword slashing in the first five minutes, some truly bloody skewerings with rivers of blood, and a bit of bondage later that anticipates the more graphic displays of the later Nikkatsu Roman Porno films. Matsubara gets a little more to do this time around, not just nursing Gorô but actually removing a bullet (in graphic close-up). Dramatically, the film also is a bit more complex with Isao's humiliation, and Hanai and Muriyama both realizing too late that Gorô was right about his grim view of yakuza life and their disposability as middle men. The finale once again features a massacre in a club, but this time it is a psychedelic one where short-skirted girls dance on mirrored and glass floors which are sprayed with jets of arterial spray from below with Gorô at his most merciless.
Never released on DVD or Blu-ray before, the six OUTLAW GANGSTER films have come to Blu-ray and DVD from new 2K scans. The opening credits and opticals of all the films are a shade grainier and sport more speckling than the rest of the features, and the combination of some softness and some rare flaring along the edges of the frame combined with the slight bowing of horizontal and vertical lines in some wide angle shots seem to be the fault of the older scope lenses than any preservation issues or digital clean-up. Black levels are deep and neon colors are as bold as the blood. There are a few rare instances where the splice lines are visible just above or below the mattes. The LPCM 1.0 mono tracks are all relatively clean with some slight hiss and the occasional pop during otherwise silent moments. The optional English subtitles are mostly without error (Sugiyama describes Gorô's love interest Yukiko as "her lady"). Some but not all of the songs are translated in the films. The lyrics of GORÔ THE ASSASSIN's title song (which actually mentions him by name) is not translated during the opening credits but they are during the climax.
The three Blu-ray/three DVD set pairs up two films per disc. All six films are accompanied by theatrical trailers and still galleries but only the first disc has any substantial extras. OUTLAW GANGSTER is accompanied by an audio commentary by Japanese film expert Jasper Sharp who starts off covering the film's basis in the writings of ex-yakuza Goro Majima and comparing his WWII upbringing with that depicted in the opening of the first film for its hero. He also distinguishes the yakuza films of competing companies of the period with those of Nikkatsu who designated them as youth pictures in terms of their hero as a disaffected youth looking for his place in society as well as the intended audience. He also discusses Nikkatsu's conveyor belt model of production (with roughly seventy films per year), its emphasis on stars (many of whom ended their contracts with the company when they switched over to Roman Porno) over directors, and how Masuda was the company's most commercially reliable director but was overshadowed internationally by Seijun Suzuki (BRANDED TO KILL) because the former lacked the latter's flamboyant visual style. He also discusses the series' three "modernist" directors, including the influences of French and Russian cinema. The first disc also has "An Outlaw's Odyssey" (37:56) in which narrator Kevin Gilvear gives a rundown of the plots of each entry. This may seem redundant, but it not only allows him to point out recurring actors and plot elements but also puts names to faces where IMDb does not. He also discusses the series themes of chivalry, social relevance, its youth elements, and postwar hopelessness. The boxed set is limited to 3,000 copies on both sides of the pond and comes with a booklet featuring an interview with director Toshio Masuda by Mark Schilling, plus new writing by Schilling, Chris D and Kevin Gilvear. (Eric Cotenas)
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