Ladies and gentlemen!
Over the past few weeks, I have watched five quite outstanding Japanese movies released between 1955 and 1975. They have all been released by Arrow Films with plenty of excellent bonus material. In a time when traveling has become difficult due to the coronavirus pandemic, the cinematic world helps us discovering new cultures, landscapes and languages. I have always been interested in Japanese cinema since my early childhood but copies have always been hard to find in the Western world. I'm grateful that this has gradually been changing in a globalized environment and it's particularly interesting to discover some cinematic masterpieces of the past that have never been shown or released in Canada. These movies might be old but they are certainly everything but boring. Please read my reviews about the different sword fight, gangster and arthouse movies below.
Graveyard of Honor is one of the best and most influential Japanese gangster movies ever made. If it had been more popular abroad, this movie might have the same reputation as The Godfather, Once Upon a Time in America and The Untouchables have today. This film was later on re-imagined by legendary Japanese director Miike Takashi.
The original movie by Fukasaku Kinji is an adaptation of Goro Fujita's novel of the same title and partially based upon real-life gangster Ishikawa Rikio. The film's antagonist starts as an ambitious gangster who assaults and steals money from numerous families but is unfit to be a permanent member of any family due to to his unconventional and violent behaviour. Things spiral out of control when the antagonist assaults the boss of his current family and is banished from Tokyo for ten years. The gangster spends some time in prison before moving to Osaka and becoming a drug addict that hangs around with unreliable junkies and sick prostitutes. He quickly returns to Tokyo and brutally clashes with the only friend he had left who has become an influential gangster boss. The antagonist is now hunted down by two gangster families and the police as he fights for survival while trying to organize some changes in his life.
There are many brutal Japanese gangster movies released between the late sixties and late seventies but Graveyard of Honor stands out for multiple reasons. The movie features numerous interesting characters such as the sick prostitute who accompanies the antagonist or his estranged friend that he met in prison. The movie has many violent action scenes that have aged surprisingly well but also some quiet dramatic parts that emotionally portray the downfall of the ambitious antagonist. The cinematography is absolutely outstanding with parts of the movie filmed in black and white as well as in sepia to introduce changes and flashbacks that give the final result an experimental mockumentary style. Despite these unconventional elements, the movie is coherent, entertaining and fluid from start to finish.
To keep it short, anyone who likes gangster movies should know, buy and appreciate Graveyard of Honor. The movie has recently been reissued in a boxed set with Miike Takashi's re-imagined version by Arrow Films. This boxed set is a little bit expensive but crafted with much care and certainly worth every single penny.
Street Mobster is a violent Japanese gangster movie by prolific director Fukasaku Kinji who would later on direct influential genre masterpieces such as Battles Without Honor and Humanity, Graveyard of Honor and Yakuza Graveyard. Western audiences know him as the director of dystopian action thriller Battle Royale which was the last movie he was able to complete.
The story of this movie is rather simple. It follows the life of a violent gangster who attacks the members of an inflluential clan who try to extort money from him and associates. He spends some time in prison but soon forms a new gang that is particularly violent. He ultimately gets injured and is temporarily forced to join a bigger family for protection. When another and even bigger family from Osaka tries to increase its influence in Kawasaki, the film's violent antagonist decides to disrespect common conventions and brutally disrespects the different gangster families. The three involved families come to the only reasonable conclusion: they must cooperate to eliminate the antagonist and his associates to preserve peace.
The most interesting element about Street Mobster is its violent, nihilistic and egoistic antagonist who isn't interested in compromises, peace or truces. He desires to become the biggest gangster boss in the country by any means necessary. While this character is extremely dislikeable, he is brutally consequent and honest in his actions and therefore more complex and profound than one might think at first contact. The movie impresses with numerous violent scenes supported by dynamic camera work that have aged rather well and can still be considered offensive nowadays. The film has frantic pace and entertains from start to finish.
On the negative side, there are very few characters to sympathize or empathize with. As opposed to Western gangster movies, even the victims and outsiders in organized crime come off as careless and despicable. The story is also extremely thin and quite predictable. The action scenes are quite intense but also rather repetitive. The movie impresses at first contact but lacks creativity, depth and diversity.
To conclude, you should watch Street Mobster if you are looking for a particularly brutal, entertaining and fast gangster movie that has stood the test of time. This film certainly entertains while it last but doesn't leave any deeper impression due to its thin story line. Street Mobster is a feast for genre fans but can't compete with Fukasaku Kinji's later works.
Horrors of Malformed Men is a quite experimental movie by veteran director Ishii Teruo that has been inspired by the tales of famous mystery and horror author Edogawa Rampo who had himself been inspired by Western authors such as Edgar Allan Poe. This experimental movie at the pulse of its time combines several of these tales. The main issue is that this fusion isn't always fluid and leads to two completely contrasting parts.
The first half of the movie is a murder mystery tale. A medical student without any recollection of his past is trapped in a sinister asylum. He manages to escape when one of the guards attempts to murder him. The fugitive discovers the photograph of a recently deceased man from a prosperous family who looks exactly like him. The medical student decides to take the dead man's identity to find out the truth about his origins and escape from the police.
The second half of the movie is a supernatural horror tale. The medical student travels to the island of a mad scientist who transforms perfectly normal humans into hideous freaks to create a better society. He gets captured, manipulated and threatened by the scientist and attempts to escape the island and prevent the scientist's megalomanic plans.
It's probably a matter of prefence whether you prefer the first or the second half of the movie but they are so different from each other that few people will equally appreciate both parts. The first half is atmospheric, mysterious and surprising as it convinces with clever storytelling and intriguing characters. It recalls numerous European murder mystery films as especially the German Edgar Wallace films and the Italian giallo genre come to mind. The second half is much more brutal, experimental and frantic and ventures into experimental cinematography with hectic camera work, numerous flashbacks and colourful locations. It's a mixture of Japan's very own pink film genre of the sixties and American pre-war science-fiction and horror cinema somewhere between King Kong and Island of Lost Souls.
In the end, Horrors of Malformed Men is certainly daring, entertaining and unconventional. However, the script is all over the place and the conclusion might even be too unconventional for most open-minded cineasts. Ishii Teruo should have created two different movies here instead of putting together two ideas that don't gel.
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