During the 50’s and 60’s, Japan’s oldest film company Nikkatsu was enjoying a renaissance period. In 1954 – following a 12-year hiatus as the nation’s film industry experienced a glut during WWII – the studio, under the vision of Kyusaku Hori, began producing edgier films that would appeal to a young adult audience. During this resurgence, their filmic output would shift focus towards youth-orientated dramas, comedies, action, and of course, crime films.
Director Toshio Masuda might not be a name that’s well-known to global audiences, but for Nikkatsu, he was a prominent force with an impressive box office record during their golden age. During the decade between 1958-1968, he directed no less than 25 films for the studio, with many of them being hits. However, in his final year working with the studio, Nikkatsu was undergoing a slump, and Masuda would leave to pursue other endeavors. But not before unleashing Outlaw Gangster VIP, the first in a series of six films chronicling the memoirs of real life gangster Goro Fujita. The film would lay the foundations for the studios edgier hard boiled crime and action films that would follow afterwards, and serve as the definitive breakthrough role for blossoming star Tetsuya Watari.
Outlaw Gangster VIP is the only film in the series to be directed by Masuda, and it’s a strong start to the saga. Watari plays Goro, a gangster who was sent to prison for three years for stabbing an assassin who wants to take out his boss, Katsuhiko Sugiyama (Kyosuke Machida). Upon his release, he learns that his own gang have fallen down the food chain of organized crime, and the man he got sent down for sticking a blade in might not be so dead after all.
When Goro is released from prison, he finds himself going right back to his criminal ways. However, Goro is an old school romantic and believes that women shouldn’t be exposed to the criminal underworld. As soon as he’s out of the slammer, he catches the eye of a damsel-in-distress and the feelings are reciprocated. Though, he still has the problem of an old foe’s syndicate to deal with before they take over the city’s criminal underworld. Love blossoms, but scores need to be settled and violence ensues.
Goro, like most gangsters, has a tendency for committing acts of remorseless violence and bloody retribution whenever the job requires it. Or is it remorseless violence? Sure, it takes a mind-set of cold, calculated viciousness to be able to succeed as an assassin – yet Goro is a man weary and tormented through his line of work, even though he’s efficiently skilled at it. The film itself has all the tropes of your typical gang warfare yarn; but the lovesick melodrama and romantic subplot gives it a bit of heart and makes criminal Goro a somewhat sympathetic character. Not all of us possess a capacity to take the life of a fellow human being, but most of us to possess the capacity to love, and it’s something we yearn for when we don’t have it in our lives to some extent. This is the single characteristic that makes Goro an identifiable character.
That being said, the film’s strongest qualities are the slick action set-pieces and moments of exciting violence. While it is admirable to add depth to a character living outwith the parameters of the law by extenuating his more human qualities, the reality is that Outlaw Gangster VIP really works best as an action film. That’s not to say the melodrama is to the film’s detriment; all it means is that its human core doesn’t have the same impact as its sensationalist qualities, like knife fights.
For Outlaw Gangster VIP 2, the directorial reigns were handled by Keiichi Ozawa, and he would go on to helm all but one of the subsequent sequels in the series. In this sequel, Goro wants to put his past life behind him and start fresh. But, for guys like Goro, violence is an inescapable crutch, and something will always pull them back into the game of spilling blood. Here, it’s to pay for a friend’s medical expenses, and Goro reverts back to his old ways of being a lovelorn, coldblooded killer.
The age old tale of always being pulled back into the life of crime has been a benchmark of the genres storytelling since its inception. Even if the reasoning behind it is noble – like it is in Outlaw Gangster VIP 2 – the nature of it is still the same: Violence is an all-encompassing circle that breeds more violence. All this film does is reinforce the fact that Goro is a tragic case who is stuck in his ways. Yet, it poses the question as to whether he actually deserves to live peace; while it easy to root for criminal antiheroes, should we condone murderers trying to run from their pasts, even if they can’t? In this case, you almost feel sorry for the poor chap. He just wants to love, but the universe has other plans in mind for the unfortunate bastard.
Like the previous film – which this mostly re-treads, albeit in a lush, snow-capped setting – there is plenty of stylish fight scenes to satisfy one’s lascivious desire for bloodshed – and plenty of sorrowful melodrama that almost tugs on the heartstrings. Outlaw Gangster VIP 2 is a solid sequel that’s enhanced by some well-choreographed action and visually appealing scenery. It doesn’t rewrite the formula, but it applies it effectively and is one of the best film’s in the series.
The next film, Heartless, directed by Mio Ezaki, employs the conscientious themes established in the first two films. Once again, Goro’s noble intentions only end up making matters worse for himself as he fails to collect on a debt payment owed to his boss. When Goro arrives to collect, he discovers that the husband and wife he’s been sent to fetch are broke and ailing in health. Always one to sympathize with the opposite sex, he tries to save the wife from her predicament, only to unleash the wrath of his aggrieved employer and his yakuza heavies.
Heartless differentiates itself slightly from its predecessors by switching up the scenery once again and adding the most memorable characters of the saga up until now. The amalgamation of action and melodrama remains in embedded in the story – as it does with the other films. Though it’s further confirmation that Outlaw Gangster VIP is a series happy to remain rooted in its own comfort zone, this is one of the strongest entries in its cannon overall. Credit must be given to director Mio Ezaki for his craftsmanship and mastery of the genre. It’s not quite on par with the second film, but it does exceed the series’ progenitor.
Goro The Assassin would see Ozawa return to the helm. In this installment, Goro and his compatriot murder the mob boss of Meishin-Kai. The crime costs them time in prison, but by this point Goro is so unyielding in his motivations that he shows no signs of remorse. Two years later, Goro is released from prison with his incarcerated friend dying hospital. He asks Goro to keep an eye on his sister, so Goro leaves with the intention of keeping his promise. Naturally, it doesn’t take long for our hero to run into trouble and all hell breaks loose.
To describe Goro The Assassin, it would be easy to reiterate the same things said about the aforementioned films in the series. It’s a repetitious saga. However, there is consistency in Goro’s character and the ethos that define him: The continuity is a strength of the series, and while thematically it doesn’t budge from what’s been set in stone since the first film, the action remains exciting throughout. In this installment, there is some beautifully poignant bloodshed spilled, and it’s during these moments that the journey is at its most rewarding.
Black Dagger is the standout entry of the Outlaw Gangster concatenation. Once again, this installment sees Goro looking to distance himself from the life of crime, even though he’s still very much at odds with yakuza outlaws who keep rearing their ugly heads. As is the norm at this point, he agrees to do a final job for a friend he’s loyal to. While on the job, he encounters and old flame, it’s only a matter of time before he’s pulled down the rabbit hole of slicing his way through yakuza clans. It’s the same ol’ song and dance, but the execution is at its strongest here.
Kill! Is the final installment in the series, and the fact it was released in 1969 – a year after the original got the franchise underway – is a testament to the work ethic of everyone involved. To churn out six films – all of which are of a reasonably high quality – in such a short time span is an impressive feat. Unfortunately, Kill! isn’t the grand finale the saga deserves, but it is an enjoyable send-off nonetheless.
In Goro’s swansong, the lone wolf crusader strolls into a city to find two warring crime families at war with each other. The Iriezaki family and the Kanto Touyu-kai are locked in a conflict over territory, but Goro tries to remain neutral – that is until he gets involved with a woman he finds being harassed by hoodlums… again. When he intervenes and discovers the savages are members are one of the crime families, Goro is inadvertently dragged into a final battle. Unfortunately, it’s just not one for the ages.
Overall, the Outlaw Gangster VIP series is consistently enjoyable, even if it is a tad predictable. The protagonist has the same appeal as the antiheroes found in spaghetti westerns: strolling into town, saving the damsel-in-distress then proceeding to take on the outlaws that stand in the way between him and justice. Couple that with elements of noir and Nikkatsu’s borderless action films, and it’s an interesting series stylistically. Its importance cannot be understated, as it served as a precursor to the iconic genre fare that has defined Japanese cinema since, but especially during the 1970’s with the hard boiled yakuza movies the nations film industry would become synonymous with. The series is an insightful time capsule of post-war Japan as the country shifted towards industrialization. However, more than anything, the series’ main strength is establishing a set of thematic character principles and sticking with them throughout. No film is a masterpiece by any means, but they are influential and deserve to be seen by more people – and, thanks to Arrow, they will be.
This isn’t Arrow’s most packed release in the extras department. There is a commentary track by Jasper Sharp that delves into the history of the studio and provides a detailed account of the time period’s cinematic landscape. More impressively, the video essay by Kevin Gilvear provides deep insight into all six films. In addition, there are trailers to all of the films and an image gallery. The quantity is lacking, but the quality of what we are given is more than satisfactory.