Eight. Nine. Three. In the Japanese card game hana-fuda, it’s the worst hand you can get. Eight, nine, and three—ya, ku, and sa. Japanese organized crime families adopted the name “yakuza” because of this hand. Because you need to be lucky to survive as a yakuza. Because you’ve drawn the worst hand if you cross them. Because winning with a ya-ku-sa hand requires the utmost skill at reading an opponent. Others may claim it’s because it’s bad luck that leads to a life of crime, or because yakuza are born losers.
Or because in the Edo period, when the yakuza first emerged on the scene, they might have evolved at least in part out of the tekiya and bakuto social groups. Tekiya were peddlers, but peddlers of the cheapest and shoddiest goods, like Sham-Wows and medieval Japanese Snuggies. Often the goods were not only of poor quality, but were also stolen or illegal. Tekiya were one of the lowest social groups in medieval Japan, but lower still were bakuto, the gamblers. Gambling was illegal, and those who engaged in it in as professional a nature as one can with something illegal invited the scorn of mainstream society. That many members of mainstream society didn’t mind the occasional trip to a seedy gambling parlor didn’t stop them from looking down on everyone else who engaged in or made possible the vice.
Tekiya and bakuto began to organize themselves. Tekiya organizations undertook a number of administrative duties during markets and festivals, such as assigning space for peddlers and collecting fees. Once administration and money came into play, so did the need for private security—you couldn’t trust the government to run your security, considering how much of what was being bought and sold was illicit. And once you’re collecting money and manning your own security details, you have further need administrative structures: who charges what, who gets paid what, who answers to who. And hell, while you have your security patrolling the local market during a festival, you might as well also use them to encourage merchants to pay a little extra for the protection.
Similarly, bakuto operated in a shadow world where a lot of money was involved, and where the potential for confrontation—with cheaters, with drunks, with overly pious locals—meant that recruiting a private security detail was essential. With so much money changing hands, there is, once again, the need for administrators. And hey, gamblers lose money, so why not set up some way for a down on his luck chump to borrow a little should he find himself short? And then, naturally, you need the proper type of guy to go and collect on that loan should the hapless gambler prove unable or unwilling to pay it back.
Did the Japanese organized crime underworld known as the yakuza come from one of these two groups? Sure, why not? But why stop at just two potential origins? Why not add in the kabuki-mono (“crazy ones”)—samurai who dressed in outlandish attire, adopting crazy hairstyles and speaking in an elaborate slang that practically became its own language. During the Tokugawa era, when Japan was in a state of relative peace and stability, the services of samurai, including the flamboyant kabuki-mono, were not in great demand. Many became masterless mercenaries, or ronin, picking up work wherever they could find it. Less scrupulous ronin didn’t mind if that work involved something illegal. Could it be that this is where the yakuza come from?
Or from some combination of the above three? After all, if you’re looking to hire someone to protect your gambling hall or shake down local merchants, who better than a masterless samurai who needs the cash, understands loyalty, and already has his own sword?
But wait! There’s more. Perhaps chafing at the unsavory characteristic of any of these potential origin stories, many yakuza claim their organizations descend from machi-yokko, servants of the town, who protected their villages from seedy ronin and other thugs, who stood up for the poor and defenseless.Yakuza are not members of a secret society. Their identities are not secret. They have public headquarters. And yet their origin story is convoluted, contradictory, and shrouded in uncertainty. As is always the case when history gets mixed up with folklore and outright bullshit, there’s probably a piece of the true story in each individual tale. Certainly, the fact that yakuza ranks are still often referred to as tekiya or bakuto lends credence to the assertion that the organization evolved at least in some part from those old social orders, as does the fact that protection rackets and illicit gambling are and have always been two of the biggest businesses for the yakuza. And yes, some of the early yakuza were probably ronin, and others were probably ronin hired to protect people from other ronin, giving some credence to the popular (with yakuza) idea that their organization has been a noble pursuit meant to shelter the weak from the brutal.
So there’s what they say. There’s what historians say There’s what the police say. There’s what pop culture says. Wherever they might have come from, the yakuza evolved a structured society, with well-defined chains of command, initiation rituals, and behaviors. So let’s fast forward to a more modern era, where our ability to sift out truth from hearsay and self-aggrandizing bullshit is a little easier. Post-war Japan was left in a disorganized quandary, with many battle-hardened young war veterans suddenly out of a job, just like the samurai of the Tokugawa era. Drifting, directionless, enraged, impotent, frustrated—these were the confused and angry young men who, with few other options, drifted toward the yakuza and established the third type of gang member: gurentai.
Unlike bakuto and tekiya, both of which trace their origins back to feudal Japan, gurentai were a post-war phenomenon, and like much in post-war Japan, they were influenced by Western pop culture. Gurentai owed as much to Al Capone as to Chuji Kunisada—the John Dillinger of Japan’s Tokugawa era. Chuji Kunisada, who may or may not have been an actual person, gained fame when he led his gang in revolt against a lord who was taxing and abusing the peasants and served as the oft cited example of the mythical noble yakuza of old. Among the earliest yakuza films was 1927’s Chuji Tabi Nikki, based on the legend of Chuji Kunisada.
Even more than Al Capone, though, the new generation gurentai owed a lot to the popular American image of the gangster. In the years immediately after the war, Japan was restricted from creating its own entertainment. Even as those restrictions were eased over time, American overseers made sure no one made anything likely to get the Japanese all puffed up with national pride. Since pop culture abhors a vacuum, and since the Americans were de facto bosses, American pop culture flooded in to fill the void. Westerns. Gangster films. And thus was born the curious Japanese duality that has both affection for and resentment of Americanization.
Japan was full of discharged Japanese soldiers—20th century ronin—with nothing else to do, who fancied themselves as cool, clever, and hardboiled as Jimmy Cagney. Many of them gravitated toward yakuza organizations. As these groups grew, the traditional codes of honor and behavior that older yakuza liked to at least pretend guided their hand began to fall away, quantity instead of quality, chaos instead of order, and guns instead of swords. The era of the yakuza hoodlum had begun—the core story underlying the Jingi Naki Tatakai (Battles Without Honor and Humanity) series made in the 1970s.
Just as real life strove to mimic pop culture, so too was pop culture a reflection of real life. When Japan began to reassert its right to self-determination, and as the film industry started to rebuild, genres previously deemed taboo under the Americans (such as samurai films) re-emerged, and new genres were born. Early yakuza films were similar to samurai films, often dealing with “honorable criminals” living by the strict yakuza code of chivalry (jingi). Many of these films were set in pre-war Japan and thus, even as the real post-war yakuza were increasing the ranks of the gurentai, the movies could look back through rose-colored lenses to a belle epoque of noble outcasts and underdog heroes that probably never really existed.
During the 1960s, the man who emerged as the face of the virtuous-but-flawed yakuza was Oda Goichi, later rechristened Takakura Ken. Working primarily at Toei studios and in a film genre known as ninkyo eiga (“chivalry films”), Takakura made some 180 movies, many of them clinging to a familiar structure. Takakura Ken was the noble, old-school yakuza struggling to survive in a changing landscape. The movies not only reflected the situation faced by the real yakuza (Takakura grew up in Fukuoka, a hotbed of post-war gangland clashes), but was a mirror of the larger global social upheaval as the traditionalists of the previous generation clashed with the wild young upstarts of the 1960s.
Around the same time, Nikkatsu was inventing something that would become known as the “borderless” action film.
Nikkatsu Noir and Global Gurentai
Nikkatsu was Japan’s oldest major studio. It was formed in 1912, when four small studios and some theater chains joined forces to create Nippon Katsudo Shashin, or the Japan Cinematograph Company—or, more simply, as Nikkatsu. In the early days of Japanese cinema, they webecamere one of the heaviest hitters. During World War II, however, a proposal was floated to merge Japan’s ten motion picture studios into two. A counter proposal was made for three studios. Despite its venerable position, political fighting and shenanigans resulted in Nikkatsu getting the shaft. They were merged with two lesser studios, Daito and Shinko, to form Daiei Studio. However, Nikkatsu retained a separate business as a film exhibitor, and while Nikkatsu the studio may have been done, Nikkatsu the theater management company flourished.
After the war, the state of Japanese cinema was poor. The few domestic films that came out didn’t attract much of an audience. The Japanese movie going public was more interested in, and had easier access to, movies coming out of the United States. Nikkatsu happened to be the company distributing most of those films. The Japanese filmmaking industry rebuilt during the 1950s, and Nikkatsu the theater chain decided it was time for Nikkatsu the film studio to return. The existing major studios of the time—Toho, Shochiku, Daiei, Toei, and Shin Toho—did their best to block the resurgence, but Nikkatsu simply had too much money.
With new facilities, a thriving theater network, and studio execs willing to take a risk on young filmmakers, Nikkatsu began to lure both new and established talent. They concentrated on romances, comedies, and period dramas, but in 1956, the studio released Taiyō no kisetsu (Season of the Sun), the first of what would become known as taiyozoku, or Sun Tribe, movies. With modern attitudes, controversial topics, and polished Hollywood techniques and production values, the Sun Tribe movies were the first huge hits for new Nikkatsu, and young star Yujiro Ishihara became the face of the studio, and of Japan’s post-war youth in general.
Guardians of morality came down hard on the decadence and lustiness of the Sun Tribe films, claiming they cast an awful light on Japan, which of course made them more popular with the youth. However, no trend lasts forever, and Sun Tribe films eventually passed out of favor. Nikkatsu had to find something new. They hit upon it in 1958, when Yujiro Ishihara starred in two crime dramas by director Toshio Masuda, Sabita naifu (Rusty Knife) and Akai hatoba (Red Quay). The latter was a loose adaptation of the French film noir Pepe Le Moko. Such action films proved very popular, both with young men off to college and looking for vicarious thrills and a cool matinee idol to look up to, and to young women, who made Ishihara one of the country’s first teen idols. Nikkatsu didn’t miss the trend. They kicked off an crime film-heavy production schedule that signaled the birth of borderless action.
Nikkatsu’s new style of action films were dubbed “borderless” because they strove to adopt an international feel. Although American film noir is pegged as the obvious influence, in many ways it was the later distillation of that genre via French crime films that proved to be the model for Nikkatsu borderless action. The French crime films, best embodied by the films of director Jean-Pierre Melville, took the tropes of American film noir and added a peculiar French quirkiness to them. Noir is traditionally a grim, depressing style of film full of doomed, depressed characters. When the French adopted the style, they infused it with a world-weary sort of sarcastic smirking—not spoofing, exactly, but certainly doing something impish with it.
This incarnation of noir really seemed to click with the Nikkatsu screenwriters and directors, who like their counterparts in France reveled in scenes of cool cats in sharp suits drifting in and out of bars and nightclubs. In 1959, with the release of Jean-luc’s Godard’s À bout de souffle (Breathless), not only did borderless action writers and directors have a model for their films; so did actors. The man that so many Nikkatsu leading men wanted to imitate was not Jimmy Cagney or Humphrey Bogart or even Elvis (though his influence looms large); it was Jean-Paul Belmondo. Nikkatsu branded their hottest young leading men—all young, all drawing from Elvis and Belmondo—as the Diamond Line.
In the middle of the 1960s, rival studio Toei began making ninkyo movies, a style anchored by the popular Abashiri Bangaichi (Abashiri Prison) movies, starring Takakura Ken and directed by a mad young maverick named Teruo Ishii. The Abashiri Prison movies were updates of the old style movies, concerned with codes of honor and yakuza esoterica more than surrealism or existentialism. Takakura Ken may go to prison, and he may end up back in prison, but there’s something more hopeful in the movies than in, say, the ” no one gets out of here alive” bleakness of Nikkatsu’s Kenjû zankoku monogatari (Cruel Gun Story). Nikkatsu found themselves scrambling to keep up with the pace set by Toei. But they had the one thing Takakura Ken could not bring to the screen: rock ‘n’ roll era cool.
Although they appealed to a large audience, the Toei movies relied heavily on nostalgia for the past—a nostalgia that was not appealing to the young, worldly post-war generation—the same crowd that had made the Sun Tribe movies so popular.Nikkatsu started to make movies that were more modern, that were aimed at a younger generation who could not see themselves in Takakura Ken’s humorless nobility but could identify with the mischievous charm and too-cool-for-school attitude of an actor such as Ishihara, Akira Koabyashi, or Tetsuya Watari. They were still honorable—scumbag nihilism wouldn’t become the defining characteristic of movie yakuza until the 1970s—but they had a knowing smirk in place of Takakura Ken’s stoic visage. At the forefront of revamping Nikkatsu crime films was the man who basically created the borderless action style in the first place: Toshio Masuda. He did it by tweaking what he already knew how to do. Quite literally. The films at the forefront of Nikkatsu’s head-to-head with Toei were color remakes of some of Toshio Masuda’s films of the 1950s, directed again by Masuda. Among these was a remake of his groundbreaking Red Quay, this time titled Kurenai no nagareboshi (Velvet Hustler or Like a Shooting Star).
Velvet Hustler is the story of cocky, carefree Tokyo hitman Goro (Tetsuya Watari). When we first meet him, he casually steals a smart red convertible sports car from an airport, pulls up next to a limo, and blows away the occupants before casually returning the car to the same parking spot at the airport and leaving town to lie low in Kobe. Goro expects to be back in Tokyo in six months, but a year later he’s still cooling his heels in Kobe, waiting for the heat to die down. He spends most of the day sitting in a rocking chair on the docks, waiting for the foreign ships to dock so his crew of touts can pick up gaijin and spirit them away to nightclubs. Goro seems neither disappointed or enthused by his small-time pursuits. His only regret is that he can’t go back to his beloved Tokyo—like Pepe Le Moko, stuck in the Casbah and forever dreaming of Paris.
When he’s not hustling Americans into hostess clubs, Goro fools around with a local girl (Kayo Matsuo), verbally spars with a detective (Tatsuya Fuji) determined to arrest him for something, and hangs out in the coolest clubs in Kobe. He’s aloof but not rude, cool but not condescending, and he treats his crew well. Things start to change for the happy-go-lucky hitman when a woman (Ruriko Asaoka) from Tokyo shows up in search of her missing fiance, a jeweler who happened to be dealing with Goro’s Kobe bosses. Also in town is a nattily-attired man (Jo Shishido) with a pencil-thin mustache and a keen—possibly lethal—interest in Goro. Pretty soon, our laid-back anti-hero has more people to peek at from under the brim of his rakishly-tilted hat than he can keep track of, and many of them are armed.
As with Red Quay, much of the plot—Goro’s displacement, his longing for his old big city home, the determined cop shadowing his moves, the woman who shows up from that big city home to remind him of what he’s missing—is adapted from Pepe Le Moko. But where Velvet Hustler differs from Pepe Le Moko is in its tone. In fact, it differs from Red Quay in that respect as well. Goro, with his hat forever tilted down over his eyes and a half-smoked cigarette permanently attached to his lower lip, is not as twisted or confoundingly weird as characters you would find in another Nikkatsu action movie from the same year (Branded to Kill), and he’s not as bitter as Pepe le Moko—though he’s certainly more world-weary, perhaps mature, than Ishihara’s hitman-in-exile in Red Quay. If anything, he’s like one of the leisure-loving Sun Tribe kids who suddenly finds himself adept at killing people but is never in any hurry to do anything other than take it easy.
One of the best scenes comes in a swinging nightclub. Nikkatsu borderless action films almost always had superb nightclub scenes full of go-go dancers, mini-skirts and cocktail dresses and slim suits, mods, and mop-topped pop bands playing in front of psychedelic backgrounds. In Velvet Hustler, as the youngsters are thrashing about like extras in a beach party movie, Goro begins to “dance.” Everyone comes to an abrupt halt as he does something that is basically just slowly walking back and forth, slouch-shouldered, head hanging back like he’s asleep, an expression on his face that might pass for a slight smile. His only concession to the traditional concept of dancing is a slight movement of his arms. Before too long, though, the entire club has fallen in line behind him—the coolest dancers are always the ones who are un-self-conscious about how ridiculous they look.
Scenes like that will determine if you like this movie or not. Velvet Hustler is largely about mood, and enjoying the movie involves cozying up to the amiable, leisurely pace. If you are looking for fight scenes and tense shootouts, you’re out of luck. This movie is a reflection of its main character: cool, laid back, not in a hurry to get to anywhere. Goro is an easy character to like, even when he’s being a bastard. The movie begins with him assassinating the head of a rival crime syndicate, but one quickly forgets that’s why he’s hiding out in Kobe. The fact that he steals a car and guns down two men on the highway shows that he’s obviously a killer, but the almost flippant way he handles the rest of his life makes it hard to recall the more dreadful aspects of what he does for a living. The protagonists from the first wave of Nikkatsu borderless action were doomed and depressed existentialists, and the protagonists from Toei’s Kinji Fukasaku era were murderous scumbags. Smack dab in the middle of those two eras is Velvet Hustler, and Goro is a man who seems to have one foot in hardboiled pulp fiction and the other in childlike innocence. Velvet Hustler occupies a world that is seedy but also oddly innocent.
The film succeeds because of Goro, and Goro succeeds because of Tetsuya Watari. Although he hoped to become an airline pilot, young Tetsuya couldn’t pass the entrance exams. So he decided why the hell not try his luck at acting. He showed up for a “new faces” call at Nikkatsu and was discovered while he was lounging around in the studio cafeteria—I assume with the same nonchalant lack of urgency and aura of cool that he shows as Goro. Studio execs recognized his potential, and before too long they were touting him as the next Yujiro Ishihara. Like Ishihara, Watari’s first role was as the younger brother of a more established star, Jo Shishido, in a movie where the duo play race car driving brothers out for some manner of revenge.
Rarely is there such perfect synergy between a lead actor, a script, and a film’s art direction. Like Mario Bava, Toshio Masuda and art director Takeo Kimura painstakingly craft every angle, every background, every color to communicate a certain ambiance that is every bit as vital to the story as the script and the actors. Masuda worked as a screenwriter and assistant under Inoue Umetsugu, known more for his work after he moved to Hong Kong’s Shaw Brothers studio. The man could stage a nightclub scene like no one’s business (except maybe Jess Franco), and his taste in such things defined the official nightclub that would show up, with only minor tweaks, in tons of films from both Japan and Hong Kong during the 1960s.
While Umetsugu lost himself in swirling lights and exquisite cocktail fashion, it was Masuda’s job to connect the dots in the screenplay, to make sure that there were relatable human elements in between the jet setting clubs and colorful production numbers. When Masuda was promoted to director, he brought with him a style that was very much a melding of his own and his mentor. Velvet Hustler revels in flashy club scenes full of multi-colored lights and mod gals in go-go boots. Jo Shishido’s hotel room is a blindingly garish hurricane of lavender and purple. But amid the colors, the sets, and the clever use of shadows and lighting, Masuda embeds quiet, human moments that give the film an inviting sincerity and warmth. You feel like you are hanging out with these people.
Watari we already know carries the film, but he’s not left out in the cold all alone. Joining him is an able and accomplished group of Nikkatsu supporting players. Tatsuya Fuji is low-key but effective as the cop determined to put Goro in prison. We’re never entirely certain why he’s so obsessed with Goro. The Tokyo gangster lives a pretty simple, harmless life in Kobe. A little mischief, sure, but nothing to rile up such single-minded determination in the inspector. In Pepe Le Moko, the local inspector was obsessed with catching Pepe because he wanted to both show up the sneering big city cops from France and because Pepe himself was one of the most notorious criminals in the world. But not Goro. It seems like Goro was pretty small-time, if capable, when he was in Tokyo. It could be that the motivation for Tatsuya Fuji’s obsession with the suave young killer is rooted in jealousy. The two men seem to be roughly the same age, but where Goro leads a carefree life of whiskey, women, and goofing off, Fuji’s Detective Uzu carries himself with an air of conservative tedium more befitting an older man.
It might be less Goro’s crimes that infuriate Uzu than it is the freewheeling lifestyle and easy cool that the hip young gangster flaunts. Goro is the post-war embracing of globalized swingin’ sixties culture. Uzu is more traditional, more repressed. It’s clear in a few subtle scenes that he envies Goro—most notably in the way the two men interact with Ruriko Asaoko’s Keiko. Uzu is awkward and official around her, even as he tries to be more casual and seem cool. And then up will ooze Goro, making quips and come-ons with no self-consciousness at all. You can imagine Uzu going home to a sterile apartment to reheat food on a hotplate while Goro will be going home to everything Uzu can’t have.
Ruriko Asaoko and Kayo Matsuo also fulfill roles carried over from Pepe Le Moko—the anti-hero’s local love interest, and the sophisticated woman who represents everything the anti-hero lost when he had to flee his home. Both women are more symbols than actual characters, but that’s because we see them through Goro’s eyes, and he can’t help but think about what each one represents. He enjoys Yukari’s company, maybe even loves her, but his dissatisfaction with Kobe can’t help but manifest itself as an associated sense of dissatisfaction with the woman from Kobe. Kayo Matsuo could have played the character with petulant childishness, as is all too often the go-to style, but while she has her angry moments, we also see her act very much the woman. Matsuo the actress isn’t going to let you forget that Yukari the character is someone worth falling in love with.
Keiko, on the other hand, represents everything Goro lost—or everything he imagines he lost. It’s obvious that Goro, like many people, views his previous life through a rosy filter. Just as he can’t see Yukari as anything other than Kobe, Keiko is Tokyo for him, and it’s more what she represents to him that he falls in love with than it is the woman. Despite hardly knowing each other, Goro becomes obsessed with her simply because she is his one link to the past, and her presence is both a salve upon and a painful prodding of his loneliness. Asaoko turns in a more subtle performance than Kayo Matsuo, but only because her character is more complex. Just as Goro is torn between his affection for Yukari and his obsession with Keiko, Keiko is torn between Goro and… well, it’s hard to say. Certainly not her missing fiance. Maybe Uzu, or what Uzu represents. She has no romantic interest in the cop, but ishe lives a life with one foot in Uzu’s world of tradition and responsibility, and one foot in Goro’s world of nightclubs and hijinks.
And somewhere in there is Jo Shishido. The man who the same year he was in Velvet Hustler would star as one of the most crackpot characters in Branded to Kill is surprisingly subdued here, allowing Watari to remain front and center.
In the 1970s, things got difficult for Nikkatsu. It was again vying with Toei. At the same time, the real world of the yakuza was undergoing a dramatic shift as more and more “hoodlums” entered the ranks. Many of those yakuza were involved in the film industry—not just in the predictable role of shady producers and embezzlers. In 1968, Toshio Masuda and Tetsuya Watari teamed up for Gangster VIP, the first in a long series of movies based on the memoirs of real-life yakuza Goro Fujita. Around the same time, a gangster named Noboru Ando took it a step further by not only having his memoirs turned into a series of movies, but by also starring as himself in those movies. These movies had a harder edge and more streetwise authenticity. It was getting harder to champion the noble yakuza, the sentimental yakuza, even the suave and stylish yakuza. Real-life yakuza were too in-the-face of modern society, and there seemed to be a lot more screaming, scumbag yakuza than there were whistling, poetic yakuza.
To keep pace with an increasingly disillusioned society, Nikkatsu launched its “New Action” style. The characters were angrier, more violent, more hedonistic. Then Kinji Fukasaku started cranking out yakuza movies at Toei, and that was the nail in the coffin for the Nikkatsu action film. Toei’s pictures were a reflection of public disgust and fascination with the ever-seedier truth. Nikkatsu couldn’t compete, not even with their New Action line, though they had a fair number of hits and made a star out of Meiko Kaji. Fukasaku’s films, often starring lean and mean-looking Bunta Sugawara, were as much a game-changer as the borderless action films had been. Gone was the Nikkatsu artiness, replaced by a gritty, disorienting cinema verite style—hectic, desperate, confused, and claustrophobic.
Nikkatsu films had looked to film noir and la nouvelle vague for inspiration, while the Toei films were looking to police dossiers and tabloid newspapers. Nikkatsu adapted yet again, phasing out action films and shifting to “romantic pornography,” or “roman porn.” Many of these sex films still bear the unmistakable Nikkatsu stamp, a certain artistic ambition and exquisite weirdness—but that had been the case with Nikkatsu action, as well.Velvet Hustler isn’t the most famous of Nikkatsu’s gangster films. It’s understandable that such an amiable, happy-go-lucky film would get lost in the shuffle between earlier, more serious action films like A Colt is My Passport and later, more outrageous films like Branded to Kill. But Masuda and Watari both named it as one of their favorite films, and it’s a wonderful example of just how good, how forward thinking, crime and exploitation movies can be. Plus, it’s just really fucking cool.
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