Wednesday, August 21, 2019

A Yakuza can Always Go Home

When a formidable and handsome young yakuza is released from prison, all he wants is to find the sister of one of his fellow gangsters who died in prison. But he's not allowed a simple retirement any more than any other yakuza who ever sought it in a movie and 1968's Outlaw: Goro the Assassin (無頼 人斬り五郎) has no shortage of knife fights, betrayal, and shakedowns. It's part of a series of films featuring Tetsuya Watari as the cool and capable Goro. By this point, Studio Nikkatsu had put out scores of yakuza movies like this since the 50s and you can see the fatigue in many aspects of the production. While Seijun Sezuki was breaking new ground in the genre--and getting in trouble for it--movies like Goro the Assassin, directed by Toshio Masuda, were going the safer route and taking the old familiar ideas and adding more explicit sex and violence. And it's a pretty entertaining film for all that.

Really, the quality evident in this production is remarkable, and reflective of a well-oiled machine, when you consider it's the third film in a series of six--five of which were released in the same year! This is probably why some of the sets look a little familiar but the action and story keep everything feeling fresh enough.

Watari sure looks cool in that leather jacket with the collar up. Seeking his friend's sister, his first stop is the theatre where she used to work. But he finds the place has been turned into a strip club while he was prison and although no-one's heard of the woman he's looking for he decides to have a look inside. He tells the cashier the girls had better get completely naked because he's "very horny" in a cool, teasing way that implies he's, in reality, above such things.

How else to explain the fact that he's surrounded by beautiful women who lust after him but achieve no satisfaction? A stripper takes an evident liking for him after he diffuses a fight between the club manager and a young yakuza in the back room--somehow winning the love and devotion of both men in the process. Goro!

A beautiful woman named Yukiko becomes his real love interest--she's played by Chieko Matsubara, who also played Watari's love interest in Tokyo Drifter, and she's just as dismayed and bothered by his aloofness as she was in that film. But while Tokyo Drifter, a Seijun Suzuki film, has an interesting perspective on the perhaps self-perpetuating situation of the lonesome, lone wolf, Goro the Assassin is more of the familiar mud bath but, as with the sex and violence, pushes things a bit further in the same direction. Like many, many films of this kind, there's a scene where it seems like the gangster and the girl are going to go off together only for her to turn around at some point to realise he's gone. Goro the Assassin has that scene and then it's followed by another one that almost repeats the entire film and relationship within a few sudden occurrences to end on a somewhat more enigmatic note that emphasises that bitter-sweetness further.

Fights in the film generally consist of tantos, though there are a few swords and one gun. The choreography is pretty good but the really effective cringe factor stuff is the torture, like a scene where Goro has his hands pinned to a wall and another scene where a young yakuza's held down while his thumb is smashed repeatedly with a mallet.

With the pinned hands, one wonders if there were some conscious effort to invoke Christian symbolism. The movie focuses a lot on guilt and duty, maybe slightly more than other yakuza films. In one of the most interesting scenes, Goro manages to track down his friend's sister to where she's now working in a brothel. He unloads his resentment towards her for not showing up to the prison to collect her brother's body and she lets him--only to then reveal that she'd received notice of her brother's death too late to arrange matters for his burial. She tells Goro she'd allowed him to rebuke her because it satisfied her own desire for punishment--but now, of course, Goro has something to feel guilty about.

Goro the Assassin is currently available on Amazon Prime under the title of Outlaw: Gangster VIP which is actually the title of the first film in the series. I assume that first film is on Amazon somewhere, under some name.

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