Friday, August 01, 2008

Cool Japanese Gangster Cinema of Yore

Most of the Japanese gangster films I've taken in have been directed by Fukasaku Kinji or Takeshi Kitano (I'm a bit behind on my Suzuki Seijun, if you'll forgive me). Takeshi you probably know, and I've always had mixed feelings about his films and his endless self-showcasing; Fukasaku I enjoy far more, though since digesting his legendary, gritty 70's gangster series usually called The Yakuza Papers, I've had a limited appetite for more, having gotten the point quite well. Alas, I haven't thus far been able to explore many of the classic gangster films from the 1960's, the films that inspired such filmmakers and established the formulas from which they departed, in part because a lot of them - viewed as money-making vehicles for domestic audiences at the time, like the Nikkatsu Action films playing this weekend at the Cinematheque - haven't ever been distributed in the west, and are as yet unavailable on DVD, even in Japan. Aside from being a lot of fun to watch, this makes them of considerable historical interest; I could see quite a bit of Battles without Honour and Humanity in tonight's first feature at the Cinematheque, 1968's Gangster VIP, which - despite a somewhat faded print - I enjoyed utterly. (It tells the story of a young, virtuous hood - indeed - battling corrupt bosses and trying to make his way in the world and look out for his friends and his girlfriend). Velvet Hustler, from the previous year, has wonderful colours and owes a lot to the French New Wave; guest Marc Walkow, touring with the films before the prints are sent back to Japan, so he can project subtitles onto the screen as they play, described the film as "continually threatening to break out into a musical," for instance as star Watari Tetsuya whistles the film's theme song while performing the opening assassination. I actually didn't stay for the whole film - one movie at the Cinematheque was about all my ass can take, these days, new seats or no - but I enjoyed watching Watari shitkick some obnoxious American sailors in a barfight, and I think I'll come back for a few more of these films - maybe Roughneck tomorrow, and definitely A Colt is My Passport (which I hear is particularly good) on Sunday at 5:30. It was especially nice to see a generous helping of Japanese audience members in the cinema tonight (tho' I didn't spot any of my students). Walkow reports that, Gangster VIP's fading aside, everything else in the series looks quite good; based on tonight's experiences, I think the next few days are definitely worth checking out...

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