Nikkatsu was Japan’s oldest film studio, dating as far back as 1912. By the 1960’s the studio was the leading producer of very popular urban youth films. These films encompassed several genres including drama, action and comedy films. But some of Nikkatsu’s most popular urban youth films were in the Yakuza genre.
Outlaw: Gangster VIP was conceived as a series of films based upon real-life Yakuza Goro Fujita’s semi-autobiographical novel of his experiences as a Japanese gangster. As with many Japanese series, the films were made back-to-back and released on the heels of the previous film, resulting in all six films being released between 1968 and 1969.
In the first film, Goro (Tetsuya Watari) is sent to prison for three years as the result of stabbing Saeko Sugiyama, a hitman and rival gang member of the Aoki clan. Upon his release, Goro discovers that his clan is in decline and the Aoki clan has become more powerful. Even worse, the hitman Goro stabbed is still alive and the woman who pledged to wait for Goro’s return has since married someone else.
The film begins with a haunting black-and-white montage of the young Goro and his travails in his early life. Left alone and homeless after both his mother and sister die from starvation, he is eventually sent to reform school for stealing food from a street vendor. Escaping from the school, he ends up a member of a Yakuza clan before being sent to prison for Sugiyama’s stabbing. In a weird twist of fate Goro recognizes Sugiyama as the older youth who escaped the reform school with him. But such is the loyalty of a good Yakuza, he stabs his erstwhile friend because he has become a rival. Eventually the two team up together to try and escape Tokyo before they are both killed by their enemies.
Gangster VIP 1 is an exciting action film. Director Toshio Masuda, who also directed the Japanese sequences for Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970), has a flair for dramatic and effective fight scenes. And while the vast majority of deaths are bloodless, there are enough scenes—a knife to the thigh, a slash across the face, and at least one effective arterial spray—that late 60’s Japanese cinema-goers were likely to be simultaneously shocked and thrilled.
Masuda also creates some excellent tension in the film’s last few minutes as Fujita’s and Sugiyama’s enemies close in on them. The duo send their women to the train station then fight their way across Tokyo so they can all leave together for a better life in the countryside. The cat-and-mouse chase, punctuated by shots of the anxious ladies awaiting their arrival at the station, is genuinely nerve-wracking. In the end the ladies escape and Goro, though bloodied, staggers down the street to an uncertain fate…at least until the next installment of Outlaw: Gangster VIP.
The film is sharp and the colors are vibrant. The sound is also excellent. This installment, however, has more grain than is usual for an Arrow presentation. It isn’t horrible, but is easily noticeable to fans of Arrow’s output. Extra features are also unusually sparse, with a visual essay by Kevin Gilvear which is basically just a 30-minute summary of the film series, so nothing terribly special; a promotional gallery and original Japanese trailer; and an audio commentary by Midnight Eye creator, Jasper Sharp. Sharp is more than knowledgeable and knows his Japanese cinema but, as happens too often with his commentary, he feels the need to prove this to the viewer by covering nearly every film any of the principal actors and actresses were in. Parts of the commentary are excellent but I wish Sharp wouldn’t go into the minutiae of every actor’s resume and cover more of the technical aspects of the film itself.
In the second installment of the series, Goro has escaped Tokyo and the Yakuza clans and is heading for the Japanese countryside, on the lookout for the two ladies he sent away in the first film. He arrives in town only to promptly become embroiled in the local Yakuza politics when he sees a female dancing troupe being sold into prostitution. He intervenes and naturally ends up on the wrong side of the local gang.
This installment of the VIP series contains less action and more drama and characterization. It’s an entertaining drama with enough violence for Yakuza enthusiasts even if the blood quotient is toned down a bit. One has to feel for Goro as the viewer witnesses his attempts at becoming honorable, but seeming always to be pulled back into the seedy Yakuza lifestyle.
This time the film is crisp and clear, with vibrant colors and great sound. Again, extra features are sparse, with only the Japanese film trailer and a promotional gallery. But the overall package is extremely nice, including all six films (I was only able to preview the first two) and a booklet featuring director interviews and new writing by several Japanese film scholars such as Mark Schilling, Kevin Gilvear and Chris D. This is the very first time any of the films have been released in American and the complete collection is limited to 3000 box sets. It is sure to become a collector’s item very quickly, so if you enjoy classic Yakuza yarns, this is a can’t-miss set.
For more information, you may check out Arrow Video’s website at: http://www.arrowfilms.co.uk/category/usa