Crime cinema is one of the most interesting genres for me, but typically also one I spend the least amount of time exploring in my area of interests. Quality films in the the crime genre are abundant so that’s not a issue for me. What is are usually the kind of stories that can be told in this genre, and how typically I don’t find myself caring much about these crime stories leading characters. I find the amount of memorable character, for me, even harder to find as after a single film I never seen them again. However, as I venture more in depth into foreign (outside of the US for me) cinema I learn there take on the subject I find a bit more interesting. Hence, my venture into the first of six (one of five films to come out in 1968) in the Outlaw: Gangster VIP franchise.
Outlaw: Gangster VIP follows Yakuza Goro Fujikawa (played by Tetsuya Watari) becomes disenchanted with his lifestyle after serving three years in prison, and seeing a changed Japan. Starting off strong, Outlaw: Gangster VIP shows a glimpse of Goro rough life as a child during the opening credit sequence, and the film never loosen its dramatic grip on you. Establishing early on in the film characters history, motivation, and displaying Goro contrast of his rough exterior compare to his inner kindness. At 90 minutes, Outlaw: Gangster VIP is very bold, and ambition in narrative storytelling is quite a successful accomplishment. Nearly everything in the film from a writing perspective works better than the film probably intend it too.
For example, throughout the film snippets of certain characters are given to the viewers at different points in the story. These snippets are later expanded on as the film progresses into discussing it themes on violence, loyalty, and moving forward through a slow pace. In particular, the character Takeo Tsujikawa (played by Mitsuo Hamada) embodies all these themes greatly. Serving somewhat as a surrogate of the new youth idolizing the life of the Yakuza while Goro Fujikawa is the wise old veteran trying to set him on the right path. Several scenes in the film illustrate why Goro wants to set Takeo on the right path, and as well facing the consequences that comes from his misguided view on the Yakuza lifestyle. It’s a classic dynamic you’ve seen in many films, and here it works all the same.
Continuing on, another aspect of the film that greatly serves it narrative are the characters, and the interactions they have with one another. A no brainer of course, but the dialogue, and the discussion among the characters in the film feel so natural. It doesn’t come across as if the film itself is dictating how these character talk. Rather, it’s the characters themselves moving the story forward, and their storied history. The way the character speak to each other, and how they react to an individual does as much to convey character traits as much as the spoken words.
If there’s any area Outlaw: Gangster VIP falters in is the romantic subplot involving Goro, and Yukiko Hashimoto (played by Cheiko Matsubara) is only half convincing. From Yukiko point of view her romantic feelings for Goro is sensible with what’s reveal about her in the film. However, from Goro perspective his romantic feelings for Yukiko don’t add up entirely. It simply comes off as a facade to get out of a uncomfortable situation. It’s a spoilerific scene that makes Goro yearn for Yukiko be questionable. Aside from that small drawback, the film plays out without a hitch. The seemingly large cast of characters never become too much to keep track off. It balances the small human aspects of it story without it losing itself with this Yakuza gang war that develops in the background. In spite of its many theme, and relatively short length at 90 minutes there’s always something important in occuring in the film. Finally, thematic exploration especially since by the end of the film you end up with a film that’s a lot thoughtful than the name would imply into a nice package.
Tetsuya Watari plays Goro Fujikawa (a character based on a real ex-gangster) in the first of many ventures. Watari excels in this portrayal of the Goro in both the physical, and emotional aspect required of him. His exterior, much like the character, is rough, and his line delivery shows no hint of a gentle soul. However, his eyes tell a different story whenever the camera focuses on him. Goro is a layered, and therefore Watari switching between contrasting personality for the same character feels natural. You will believe that Tetsuya Watari can defend himself against a against an entire gang of knife wielding Yakuza by himself relatively well because of his commanding on screen presence. Simply put, Watari creates an quite an iconic character for the crime genre, even if the series as a whole is relatively unknown as of this writing.
Another noteworthy performance is by Mitsuo Hamada who plays Takeo Tsujikawa. He’s given more ranging material compare to Watari, but given a less layered character to portray. However, is able to hold his own much like Tetsuya Watari. Tsujikawa portrayal is more expressive of his overall turmoil, and happiness that his character faces. Relying less on body language, but doesn’t take away anything from his scenes. Whenever Tetsuya Watari ain’t the main focus Mitsuo Hamada is a fantastic choice to share the spotlight with. His scenes often relies on his comedic timing, and dramatic chop to make scenes. It’s a delicate balance that if done incorrectly a scene would have easily appeared too comedic, or too dramatic. Understanding this delicate balance, Hamda knows exactly how to deliver his lines in every scene. Plus, the times he shares the screen with Watari makes for some splendid bit of acting, as well as make for some of the best moments in the film in terms of writing.
In terms of supporting cast members, besides Mitsuo Hamada, there’s Kyosuke Machida whom in spite in being in the film as much as Hamada, but he gets to shine in some heavily dramatic scenes. Tatsuya Fuji also gets a small part as Suzuki, but unfortunately his role is also brief ending before making much of an impression. Same thing for Yoshiro Aoki, although he’s more of the lacking variety sort since he’s villain of the film, and has to appear more scummy regardless of the scene he’s in. Yet, in spite of the small roles the supporting cast receives they all turn in good performances with what little they’re given. Finally, there’s Chieko Matsubara, and Kayo Matsuo whom are the only ladies of any noteworthy roles. They play the supportive ladies which tended to be common in films in general during the 60s, and earlier. Both actress do fine in the role, but only in her final scene does Chieko Matsubara get to deliver a good scene. However, her co-star Kayo Matsuo despite appearing less leaves a bigger impression. Helps with the fact her scenes in the film tend to be other topics instead of constantly delivering dialogue on how much she wants to stick with her man.
Finally, this review (and any other on this film for that matter) would do a huge injustice if not mentioning action coordinator Kakuo Watai, and cinematographer Kurataro Takamura. Firstly, Kurataro Takamura eye for visuals gives the film plenty of classic wide shots, and long takes to absorb late 1960 Japan. Making the film look very beautiful throughout many points in the film. I would even say thanks to the visual choices made it visuals have gotten better with time. There’s also the action sequence by Kakuo Watai which surprisingly are impressive considering the year it was made in. Granted, like with action sequences during this era of filmmaking there’s the usual suspects of spotting actors standing waiting for their cue to perform in the sequence. All the film’s set pieces have these issues made easier to spot thanks to the long takes, and white shots, but they don’t diminished the elaborate (for the time at least) set pieces. Being an obvious highlight of the movie, even if they’re more over the top in comparison to the rest of the film. The execution of them, and staging of these action sequences ensures it warrant a viewing from any viewer. Lastly, the score by Harumi Ibe is pretty good. Fitting tonally whenever it’s used, and sometimes adding more impact to a scene.
Outlaw: Gangster VIP is a slow drama thick with great storytelling, and a fantastic cast of characters. Director Toshio Masuda crafted a film that age extremely well visually, and narratively. Many of the themes in the film are given careful thought in how they’re explored while also never forgetting about its characters. Balancing the large scope gang war with the human element thrown in you have a film huge in its scope that succeeds in what it sets out to do. That’s also including the technical achievement of the film which at times, along with everything else working in great cohesion with each other, will make you forget you’re watching a 50 plus year old film.