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Director: Yasuharu Hasebe
Writers: Yoshihiro Ishimatsu, Keiji Kubota
Cast: Akira Kobayashi, Jô Shishido, Hideaki Nitani
Length: 94 min
Label: Arrow Films and Video
Release Date: May 12, 2015
Video codec: MPEG-4 AVC
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
Audio: Japanese: LPCM 1.0
- Newly commissioned interview with star Jô Shishido
- Interview with critic and historian Tony Rayns
- Original theatrical trailer
- Photo Gallery
Japanese filmmaker Yasuharu Hasebe was a pioneer in the early wave of taboo-breaking “violent pink” films, culminating in a successful 30 year career. The term “violent pink” refers to a facet of Japanese cinema that emerged on the heels of the American “roughies”, lurid fare that offered nudity, sex, and violence to its audiences. This variety of exploitation film was frequently dismissed by critics as artless pornography, unacceptably combining sex and violence even as cultural standards were shifting. Despite the negative association, some critics assessed Hasebe’s work on the grounds of compelling and stylish storytelling that lends narrative structure to the provocative imagery, making Hasebe’s work integral to the evolution of Japanese cinema.
Hasebe’s fourth feature Retaliation displays a revisionist’s eye for crime cinema with a generous sprinkling of the violent sexploitation fans of “violent pink” came to expect. On the surface, the film is packaged as a straightforward Yakuza revenge film. Hasebe’s early work, however, is credited for two distinct elements that helped redefine viewers’ expectations of the genre: eroticism and the exclusion of a “chivalrous” criminal protagonist. Hasebe reunites with Massacre Gun (1967) star Jô Shishido, starring alongside stalwart Akira Kobayashi (Kanto Wanderer), as well as revenge film icon Meiko Kaji (Lady Snowblood; credited here as “Masako Oto”), to create an unapologetic portrayal of rival gangs vying for power. Arrow Films has provided a wonderful restoration of the film, the mark of its influential creator reverberating today.
Retaliation concerns a convict named Jiro (Kobayashi) who, after eight years served for murdering a rival gang member, is released from prison. He returns home to find his old gang has disbanded, and his aging boss sick and bedridden. He’s approached by the powerful Hazama family to run Takagawa City, a place where industrialism encroaches upon the traditional agricultural lifestyle, and rival gangs compete for land wrested from the peasant farmers. Jiro agrees, hoping to restore honor to his family, and is accompanied by six other outlaws chosen to assist him. Surprisingly, he’s paired with Hino (Shishido), the brother of the man Jiro murdered eight years prior. The two agree to set aside their differences temporarily for a common purpose. This, however, is the world of the Yakuza, where double-crosses, torture, and murder grease the gears of the underworld’s machinery.
Jiro is a curious protagonist whose utter ruthlessness belies any honorable intention he may harbor in restoring his family’s honor. He orchestrates a gang war in order to entrench himself as the boss of Takagawa City. His manipulative behavior runs counter to previous depictions of reformed or reforming criminals who still operate within the strict laws of the underworld; Jiro has gone rogue, beholden to no boss, and certainly no laws. Hino, too, is driven exclusively by his desire for vengeance, helping Jiro only to ensure the man dies by Hino’s own hand once the mission is complete. There is no reconciliation for either, only selfish pursuits at the cost of many innocent lives.
Retaliation is shot with a voyeur’s eye by Muneo Ueda, whose roving hand-held camera shoots through windows, behind objects, and gazes down long alleyways – no doubt for production stealth and thriftiness – managing to capture the sinister essence of inscrutable gangsters. This style also impacts the viewer’s experience in a secondary way, secretly cowering with the peasants as witnesses to a brutal street war. Despite being produced in 1968, the film is refreshing in action sequences played out with swords and daggers rather than the over-stylized gunplay (often mimicking sword-like movements) we’ve grown accustomed to in contemporary action cinema.
Arrow Films 1080p restoration looks tremendous, and even though cinematographer Ueda prefers a darker palette, the color and detail remain sharp and clean for a rewarding home viewing experience. Its great to see the company putting in such an effort championing titles that have otherwise been difficult to obtain in North America.
The film’s audio is taken from the original uncompressed mono, but the conversion to a digital format maintains a clear balance between the dialogue, music, and sound effects of the single channel recording. The music score by Hajime Kaburaji appears minimally throughout, mixed seamlessly into the action, and offers a punchy theme that announces each act.
The Special Edition Blu-Ray offers great supplemental features including a new interview with star Jô Shishido, original theatrical trailer, and beautifully newly commissioned artwork by Ian MacEwan that adorns the cover and booklet alike. The piece with Shishido is especially worthwhile, as the famed actor compares his roles in both of Hasebe’s films Retaliation and Massacre Gun. There is an additional interview writer/historian Tony Rayns, who helps to place the film and Hasebe in a historical context.
Decades after its release, Retaliation remains a significant entry in the landscape of 1960’s Japanese crime films, especially considering its “violent pink” sensibilities. Hasebe receives compelling performances from his reliable leads, priming the viewer for the inevitable showdown between Jiro and Hino. On occasion, it can be confusing to keep track of a large number of underdeveloped gang members, but the narrative is reasonably sound, and possesses moments of effectively staged action. Sequences of rape and torture, though difficult to watch, feel better suited to this type of fleshed-out story designed with a menacing tone rather than plotless abuse for its own sake. With its remorseless anti-hero, Retaliation operates under its own moral code free from the dictates of the Yakuza, and can be considered essential viewing for students of Japanese exploitation cinema.
Apologies for no screen shots available.