Based on a real-life yakuza, Nikkatsu’s gritty 1960s crime series is about a man on the wrong side of both the law and rival gangs.
Produced in rapid succession over the course of about a year and a half, Nikkatsu’s six-part Outlaw series exists within an interesting hinterland between two distinct phases of the Japanese yakuza genre. The first and perhaps most famous entry in the run, Toshio Masuda’s Gangster VIP (1968), was released by Nikkatsu in the wake of Seijun Suzuki’s spectacularly unceremonious dismissal from the studio following their dissatisfaction with Suzuki’s Branded to Kill (1967), a move that caused great waves of discontent within the industry at the time. And the series wrapped up more than two years before the genre’s next major shot in the arm, Kinji Fukasaku’s Battles without Honour and Humanity (1972) for Toei, which spawned a series totalling five films (also released recently by Arrow Video), a second series dubbed New Battles without Honour and Humanity and numerous in-name-only spinoffs. The popularity of Fukasaku’s films can be attributed to their kinetic execution, grisly violence and the tabloid-esque sensationalism generated through them being based on a series of newspaper articles that were in turn based on the memoirs of notorious yakuza Kôzô Minô.
Despite the ‘all events and characters in this film are fictional’ disclaimer that appears at the start of Gangster VIP, and intermittently throughout the rest of the series, the Outlaw films are based on stories by Gôro Fujita, a former yakuza all too familiar with a lifestyle that’s governed by clan loyalty and debts paid with blood. The Outlaw series, then, can be seen as a missing link between the ‘Borderless Action’ and ninkyo eiga (chivalry films) that characterised the genre during the preceding decade or so, and the jitsuroko (true account, or actual record) films that came to dominate throughout the 1970s such as Battles without Honour and Humanity. Incidentally, Fujita’s writings would also go on to be adapted by Fukasaku with Graveyard of Honour (1975), another hit for Toei.
Starting in the mid-1950s, the Outlaw series stars Tetsuya Watari as Gôro Fujikawa, an on-again off-again yakuza henchman who often finds himself on the wrong side of both the law and rival clans (and sometimes even his own). But despite his best efforts to resist the pull of yakuza life, he frequently has to get his hands dirty to correct personal injustice. The first – and strongest – film of the series, Gangster VIP, sees Gôro freshly released from prison after a three-year stretch for stabbing a hitman in a bar (his former mentor Sugiyama, who now works for an opposing gang). A free man once more, he is disenfranchised with the kill or be killed mentality of his former peers and intends to shun his old ways. However, he finds his old clan in serious decline, pitted against the stronger Aokis group. He also has to frequently dissuade the curious advances of Yukiko (series co-star Chieko Matsubara), a young woman he happened to save while she was being harassed by a street gang. Yukiko becomes overly intrigued by both Goro’s criminal life and his attempts to abandon it, dutifully tidying his messy lodgings, supplied to him by his old clan. Goro manages to patch things up with Sugiyama (Kyôsuke Machida), who survived Goro’s blade but is now ailing from tuberculosis. But when gangland power plays culminate into personal tragedy, Goro feels compelled to exact gruesome revenge.
Perhaps best known in the West for the similarly-themed noir Rusty Knife (1958) and the Japanese sequences of 1970’s Tora! Tora! Tora! (along with Fukasaku), Toshio Masuda perhaps wasn’t the most audacious director working for Nikkatsu. However, he imbues the series opener with enough stylistic curveballs to elevate it above much of the competition. It’s also a film with a deceptive amount of emotional pull. Its climatic scene of vengeance, hauntingly set to the crooning tones of a nightclub singer, adds a satisfying twist to what could’ve easily turned into a disappointingly standard good-guy-gets-revenge-by-killing-all-the-bad-guys sequence. And a scene where one of Goro’s assigned underlings attempts to flee the city with a newly-requited love, only to be met with merciless refusal by his profession, is a more heart-breaking moment than the genre is usually willing to permit. Watari’s character often philosophises over the wasteful and futile nature of the yakuza game, with a regular motif throughout the series being Goro trying to protect those who naively get caught up in the carnage and to get them out before it’s too late. However, his efforts are usually met with failure. He is also haunted by memories of a tough upbringing, as illustrated by the film’s monochrome opening credits sequence featuring young versions of Sugiyama and himself escaping from a detention centre for delinquents. Indeed, Watari, and by extension the film, may not be ‘cool’ in the same way as number three assassin Jô Shishido in Suzuki’s jangly Branded to Kill, or the shotgun-toting Shishido in Yasuharu Hasebe’s Massacre Gun (1967), but that’s arguably not the point of his character (a latent self-insert for Fujita, exorcising the regrets of his real-life criminal past). Having said that, Gôro does rise to the occasion in fine style when the going gets tough, often finding himself a key player in many of the series’ chaotic raids, messy knife fights and protracted back alley brawls. And his effectiveness quickly earns him the title ‘Gôro the Assassin’. These sequences are surprisingly grisly for the period and bring a sense of scrappy realism to the whole series.
The second film, Gangster VIP 2 (1968), directly continues the story, starting with Gôro and Yukiko, along with Sugiyama’s seriously unwell wife (Kayo Matsuo), trying to make a new life for themselves in the countryside. But as Yumeko’s condition worsens, Gôro has no choice but to accept a job that will take him back into the fray. Using his wits and his trusty blade, he has to survive a new series of deceptions and double crosses as turf is fought over. Keiichi Ozawa replaces Masuda in the director’s chair for Gangster VIP 2 and manages to replicate the formula of its predecessor admirably. Gôro remains an enigmatic yet sympathetic protagonist and continues to be eminently watchable, and Matsubara’s Yukiko possess a quality that subtly sets her apart from other female hangers-on. However, this film doesn’t quite gel as well, even though most of the elements from the first film are present. What is missing is Masuda’s subtle yet effective stylistic flair. Ozawa’s attempts at visual creativity, such as intercutting the film’s final knife fight with stylised cutaways of nearby students playing volleyball, are interesting additions but feel muddled, and don’t land as well as Masuda’s forays into similar territory. Gangster VIP 2 is an enjoyable sequel to be sure; it just doesn’t quite match the quality of its predecessor. As a bonus, eagle-eyed fans will notice a young Meiko Kaji (of Lady Snowblood and Female Prisoner Scorpion fame) in an early yet somewhat pivotal supporting role.
Ozawa is replaced by Mio Ezaki to helm the series’ third film, Outlaw: Heartless (1968). Written by Ezaki and Gan Yamazaki, the film doesn’t directly follow on from Gangster VIP 2 in the same way that that film had followed on from the first. Instead, Heartless seems to almost function as a soft reboot, as indicated by the change in series nomenclature and, most intriguingly, by the complete recasting of Matsubara. Indeed, the recasting of actors into different roles from one film to the next in a given series was a typical strategy for Nikkatsu at the time, and as such it becomes an increasingly more common sight as this series progresses (actors Eiji Go and Kunie Tanaka show up a couple of times in different guises for instance), but Matsubara’s changes are the most readily apparent and have the most noticeable impact (or lack thereof) on the dynamic of each film.
Heartless starts with Gôro, now working as a yakuza enforcer, trying to save a man who has been unfairly duped into owing money to the Mikimoto clan. The man, Sawada, is however slain by one of Gôro’s entourage, concerned that ‘the Assassin’ has gone weak. Gôro forcibly steals the 3 million yen that the clan had cheated from Sawada to give it to Sawada’s widow. Gôro is pursued by the gang, as well as Sawada’s irate brother (a character who goes by the name ‘Ken the Razor’), who mistakenly believes Gôro to be the murderer. Matsubara plays Keiko, the naïve daughter of a former yakuza-turned-bar owner, who Gôro crosses paths with. Like Yukiko before her, Keiko is drawn to Goro’s tough yet sympathetic demeanour, despite the disapproval of her father and from Gôro himself.
One can’t help but feel that a rinse and repeat policy is in force with Heartless, as the film is littered with recycled moments: a knife fight that takes place behind the scenes of a nightclub as a song is performed echoes the superior climax of Gangster VIP, for example. But despite their familiarity, the film’s violent clashes (arguably bloodier than its predecessors) remain bracing, sometimes thrilling. Watari remains eminently watchable, even though creative changes behind the scenes have diminished some of the shading that made his character especially interesting in the first two films (for instance, the opening framing device that sheds light on Gôro’s traumatic upbringing is absent here and will be for the rest of the series). Matsubara also excels playing a new character in a now somewhat familiar universe, and her chemistry with Watari remains as strong as before even though she has a somewhat more incidental role to play this time.
Keiichi Ozawa returns to see out the remainder of the series. Outlaw: Gôro the Assassin (1968) sees Gôro, after another year in the slammer, taking a handyman job at a hotel resort. A woman who works there (Matsubara in yet another role) is embroiled with some gangsters, with one of them slipping her regular payments as a means of trying to redeem himself for the murder of her father several years prior. As the yakuza begin to throw their weight about the hotel, Gôro has little choice but to get involved, as they are all too familiar with his now legendary status as an outlaw in relation to both the police and fellow yakuza. Meanwhile, Gôro is also trying to track down the sister of his former cellmate to pass on an important message, requiring him to search various gang-controlled nudie bars and strip clubs. As a result, Gôro the Assassin moves the series into slightly sleazier territory, anticipating the wider industry’s move toward more exploitative fare in the early 1970s.
Penultimate entry Outlaw: Black Dagger (1968) plays the most with the continuity of the series. The black dagger of the title pertains to Goro’s famed weapon of choice, which is feared and respected by Goro’s enemies in equal measure. However, this marks the first time in the series when any kind of big deal has been made about it. Towards the tail end of the film’s opening night time knife fight between Goro and some bad guys in an abandoned snowy street, a woman from Goro’s past makes an unexpected appearance. Yuri (Matsubara) has ignored Gôro’s advice to stay away and has returned, just long enough to be accidentally stabbed by one of Goro’s opponents (Sueo, the ‘young master’ and son of the leader of the Buso clan). She dies in Gôro’s arms while Sueo makes his escape. A couple of years pass (moving the series into the early 60s) and Gôro manages to find work at a quarry. However the owner, Miura, is in debt to the Buso clan. After an accident on the site, Goro is put in the care of a nurse (played again by Matsubara). Her identical resemblance to Yuri sends Gôro on a little bit of a loop, and Sueo develops something of an obsession with her as well. As the Buso clan square off against Miura, as well as some old friends who are loyal to a rival group, Gôro unsheathes the black dagger once more.
The series’ final film Outlaw: Kill! (1969) starts with a clan boss going to jail after an assassination attempt results in a tempura restaurant being wrecked during the ensuing carnage. With a power vacuum now in full force, the fraught status quo between various underbosses and rival clans begins to unravel. Goro, back in town, resists falling back into the yakuza life once more and seeks legitimate employment. Out shopping (for pants of all things), he soon crosses paths with a group harassing Yumiko (Matsubara), a department store elevator girl. Later, he looks up an old friend he first met in prison, a veteran yakuza called Moriyama, who offers him a place to stay. Little does Gôro know, however, that Yumiko is the sister of Moriyama’s wife, Minako, and that she is also staying with them. Inevitably, Goro winds up becoming the target of various movers and shakers in the underworld, despite Moriyama’s best efforts to keep him out of their affairs. As one may expect, this doesn’t end well, prompting one final killing spree – perhaps the most gruesome and spectacular of the lot.
With Ozawa’s return, the second half of the series starts to rest on its laurels somewhat. As such, Gôro the Assassin, Black Dagger and Kill! do run the risk of blurring together for the viewer. Black Dagger may be the highlight of the latter half of the series, featuring several moments of compelling drama in what is an otherwise efficient potboiler. But part of the problem with the series in general lies in the excessive repetition of plot points; every film pretty much ends the same way, and there is only so many times a formula can be applied before an immunity is built up. Kill! may be the biggest offender in this regard, as it tries to recreate several moments from the past, especially from the first film. The swift and surreptitious assassination of a key supporting character while out in public with his wife is extremely redolent of Gangster VIP’s most emotionally charged moment. And its climatic fight in the VIP and backstage areas of a nightclub uses the same audio visual technique that worked so well in that same film – having the fight unfold without diegetic sound, accompanied only by the music being played by whoever is performing on the stage of the club (except this time it’s a psychedelic rock band instead of a melancholic club singer).
Although Watari still sells the hell out of the role, Gôro’s character is also on autopilot at this point, seeing as his arc hasn’t really developed since Gangster VIP 2. Matsubara also suffers from a similar malady. Although she always remains perfectly likeable, each of her characters basically embarks upon the same arc – a somewhat naïve love for Goro that develops within 10 minutes of knowing him. This dynamic is changed up somewhat in Black Dagger, where Matsubara plays two roles, one of which states in no uncertain terms her disapproval of yakuza. But it is strange to see Goro and other characters get hung up on the fact that one character is (understandably) the spitting image of the other, whereas Matsubara’s other incarnations in other films of the series are treated as new entities with zero baggage. It bizarrely draws attention to her predictable yet paradoxically mercurial presence throughout the Outlaw series, and it’s a tactic that undermines the development of any real emotional investment in the overall continuity of the series, as an actor who is killed in one film may very well turn up as a different character in another. Any relationships that do manage to blossom, such as the budding romance between Watari and Matsubara’s characters in Gangster VIP and Gangster VIP 2, get swept under the rug by time the next film starts. However, maybe there is something deeper to be said about the series seemingly going back to the drawing board, severing emotional bonds and repeating the same mistakes – a thematic extension of the vicious circle that is Goro’s vicious life.
That’s not to say that there isn’t any more fun to be had. Ozawa’s confidence in handling the films’ action set pieces visibly grows as the series goes on, although the introduction of a stylised stabbing sound effect does detract from the realism of these sequences a little bit. This building prowess reaches critical mass in the aforementioned nightclub scene that caps Kill! and the Outlaw series. Despite it being a conceptual carbon copy of Gangster VIP’s conclusion (which had already been sort of replicated by a sequence in Heartless), it still manages to stand out as one of the most visceral and exciting moments of the series. The use of the floor with clear glass sections between the dance floor above and the VIP room below is a particularly inspired location. These horizontal windows, used by horny businessmen to sneak upskirt looks at the young clientele dancing above them, are put to creative use by Ozawa and his camera team when the blades are drawn, making for a more expertly realised juxtaposition than Ozawa’s previous attempt with the volleyball players in Gangster VIP 2. It may get bogged down by repetition, but at least the series goes out on a high.
Overall the Outlaw series, while formulaic, offers up decently entertaining yakuza thrills for the most part. The first film is definitely the highlight, perhaps even a minor classic of the genre, and while the rest of the series is not quite up to that same standard, there are still plenty of things to like in each entry. Watari is excellent throughout and is the glue that holds it all together. The series’ shifts between savage drubbing and crestfallen romanticism (the latter wonderfully underscored by a recurring, and very Enio Morricone-esque, music motif of strummed acoustic guitar and solemn trumpet) offer an interesting, if a little too consistent, variant on the genre as a whole. For fans of Japanese genre cinema from this particular period, the Outlaw series is definitely worth checking out.