Wednesday, March 02, 2016

Gun and Sword review, plus Seijun Suzuki Retrospective part 2

Kinji Fukasaku - director of The Yakuza Papers films and Battle Royale - writes in the introduction to Chris Desjardins' Gun and Sword: An Encyclopedia of Japanese Gangster Films 1955-1980 that these films are about "the way some people organize a parallel existence [to mainstream society] and codes of behaviour that directly challenge the rule of law and what we often think of as the forces of good."

He's thinking here of Yakuza, samurai, and maybe the Mafia, but for me, it's impossible to read this sentence and not feel that in a way, Yakuza films provide an extreme exemplar of any subcultural movement, where people reject the values of society for their own "code of organization and fellowship," as Fukasaku puts it. This perhaps would explain why an old punk (be it myself or Mr. Desjardins) would be drawn to these movies. Indeed, anyone who has found it impossible or undesirable to find fulfillment by mainstream terms, who has sought out alternate codes and practices, seeking alternate leaders to trust and new values to live by, will be able to find themselves in a Yakuza film, whether criminal or not...

Since I previously posted on Chris D. and the Seijun Suzuki retrospective ongoing at the Cinematheque, I have received my own copy of Gun and Sword in the mail. It's an impressive tome. It's unfortunate that some of the past publishers that considered it ultimately did not - particularly FAB Press (who put out the Cinema Sewer anthologies and Robin Bougie's Graphic Thrills books, and also published Stephen Thrower's essential bible of American exploitation independents, Nightmare USA). For those familiar with FAB, it's pretty easy to imagine a book full of colour movie posters and stills from the movies Chris writes about - and  a beautiful volume it would be, indeed. But it would also appeal only to a very specific niche of readers (Yakuza movies are not exactly mainstream fare) and it would be a hefty, expensive venture, since the book is over 800 pages long; you can't really blame FAB for chickening out.

Chris D. writes his own preface about the publication history of the book - it was even considered by Quentin Tarantino's imprint at one point. Thing is, as published by Poison Fang, the book is by no means humble; it's got no colour save on the cover, and it looks (I guesstimate) to be a standard 8X4 size, though it's a thick tome indeed, as you could imagine. But it's still invaluable for anyone who loves Japanese crime cinema. It offers writeups of every Yakuza film Chris D. has been able to find and watch - including ones he tracked down on VHS without subtitles - all organized alphabetically in sections according to the studio that produced the film. Where the author has been unable to see particular films, they still get listings with what information is known about them; occasionally, as with the first remake of Gate of Flesh, Chris writes at some length about these movies, too (he begins that particular review with "It would be fascinating to see this," then describes why, based on his knowledge of the filmmaker and the other versions of the movie). Fukasaku himself, in a preface written shortly before his death, praises the authority of Desjardins: "He's got it all and he's got it right," describing Gun and Sword as "a remarkable book of scholarship."

The book reminds me a little, in fact, of Barry Gifford's The Devil Thumbs A Ride, which offers short prose pieces recounting the story of various classic films noir; in both books, each writeup is concise, rather hard-boiled in its language choices, and ridden with spoilers: no punches are pulled. These writeups are entirely entertaining in themselves, regardless of whether you're ever likely to have the opportunity to see the films in question - somewhat more challenging in the case of Gun and Sword. But Gifford's book is a slim little thing, of no use whatsoever as a reference, and as entertaining as each article is, if you know your films well enough, you start to notice that there are plot details he gets wrong throughout (I won't trouble myself to dig up examples, but get the book and read it, and you'll probably notice a few). There's still plenty of entertainment value to be had - especially, in one of the more contemporary entries, when he describes Blue Velvet as "phlegm noir," panning the film as a kind of academic pornography, in a piece of writing published only a few years before David Lynch adapted Gifford's own Wild at Heart and collaborated with him on films like Lost Highway. But The Devil Thumbs a Ride is not a work of scholarship; Gun and Sword is. As potent and colourful as the prose is (prostitutes are regularly referred to as "whores," say), it is valuable BOTH as a reference book and as a treasury of entertaining descriptions of very entertaining films.

Let's take, for example, Youth of the Beast, which screens next week at the Cinematheque. After an entry detailing the cast and crew and such, Desjardins writes about the film:
One of Suzuki's absolute wildest. It begins in a similar vein to Fritz Lang's THE BIG HEAT with a prominent cop who may be on the take supposedly committing suicide.  But Suzuki and his writers supply additional sordidness here by making it a death pact with the lawman's whore mistress. We then witness maniac tough guy Shishido swaggering through squalid streets, surreal nightclubs, campy early-sixties apartments beating-the-shit out of anyone who gives him any lip. He infiltrates two gangs and starts the old YOJINBO/ Man with No Name-game of playing one bunch of outlaws off against another. About midway through, it is discovered he is an undercover cop investigating his colleague's death, and guys start tying him upside down to chandeliers and sticking sharp things under his fingernails. This has many odd interludes including a gangster boss's addict mistress hallucinating a hoodlum skipping playfully away from her with her packet of dope - something that causes her to fall off a stairway landing; Shishido reporting-in to a police substation that is disguised as a knitting school; Shishido using a can of hairspray as improvised blowtorch to torture info out of a movie theater manager on the gang's payroll, etc... There is much wild and wooly action choreographed in a riot of carefully selected color and boisterous humor. And it is graced with a downbeat, deliciously ambiguous ending involving Shishido, the suicided cop's wife, and villain Kawaji. 
Chris D. then assigns the film a four star rating - four out of four, which he does also with the film Youth of the Beast is paired with, Gate of Flesh (this week's Kanto Wanderer gets only three stars, with Chris D. saying it is "quite good," but "not as visually stimulating as some of Suzuki's other films"). I mean, even if I didn't have Youth of the Beast on my shelf (I do), this is writing I can read for pleasure, no less entertaining when it comes to films that I suspect I will never, ever see. Even the titles of these films are entertaining: The Hot Little Girl, Tale of Dark Ocean Chivalry - With the Courage of Desperation, United Cries of 100 People, Outlaw Killer - Three Maddog Brothers...

Maybe my only quibble with Gun and Sword is that writeups for certain films are harder than others to track down in the book, since occasionally the titles used are not the ones the films have since become known by. This in no way diminishes it if your desire is just to read about these movies, but can be a bit frustrating if you're using the book as a reference. The Call of Blood, which played last week, has an alternate title, the Cinematheque notes, of Our Blood Will Not Forgive, but Gun and Sword lists it as Our Blood Won't Allow It - which will take a long time to find if you don't know the alternate title and are only looking under the letter C. My Gun is My Passport - as it is listed in the book - has become authoritatively known, thanks to the Nikkatsu retrospective that toured through Vancouver a few years ago, and the subsequent Eclipse box set of Nikkatsu films, as A Colt is My Passport; but it's only by blind luck that I stumbled across the listing for it in the book. (Since Chris gives it a *** 1/2 star rating, it DOES appear in the index, but again, under M, not C; the index ONLY takes in the best of the films described, is by no means a thorough guide to the book's contents). And when you don't find the listing for a certain film, is that because it's listed under a different title, or because it's not IN the book? You can't know, unless you go A-Z in the section for the relevant studio, looking at each title to see if it's the one you want. Suzuki's Story of a Prostitute, for instance - screening tonight and tomorrow - is not listed under that title anywhere in the Nikkatsu section, despite, thanks to a Criterion release, that now being the title the film is best known by, but there's no alternate title obvious for that one and it takes time to go through the nearly 200 pages devoted to that studio to see if there's an alternate. Dope that I am, I got to N before I realized that the film probably simply isn't in the book, because hey, IT'S NOT A GANGSTER FILM! It's about comfort women in Manchuria and the brutalizations they experienced. Duh, but if the indexing were somehow a little more thorough, I might have saved myself some frustration.

That's a quibble, though - it's a great book with a so-so index. It makes me want to watch all my Yakuza films then re-experience them through Chris D's prose. If that sounds good to you, go here (Chris D's Amazon page).


Two things: the Flesh Eaters' Forever Came Today is out now on CD for the first time ever, via Superior Viaduct. It would be my pick for best Flesh Eaters record. It's not the one most important to me (A Hard Road to Follow) or the most aesthetically ambitious (A Minute to Pray, A Second to Die), but the one that is consistently their toughest, darkest, most compelling ROCK album, with my favourite singing from Chris D, I think... Check out "Shallow Water," say, here. You might need a lyric sheet (provided with the CD).

Secondly: Chris D. has responded on Facebook to my frustrations above re: alternate titles. I still kinda wish that the indexing for the book had been more thorough, had found a way to cut through the confusion - maybe by indexing all the titles in romanized Japanese? Or providing a director index? Or somehow cross-referencing the films by year, so if you know what year the movie is from, you can maybe find the title? Hell, I dunno. But to some extent, he writes, the problem is endemic to Japanese gangster cinema, and the carelessness with which it has been distributed here - thus being unavoidable. He writes:  
Just a note, Allan, about English titles for Japanese films. Though this is not true of the accepted mainstream Japanese masters (i.e. Kurosawa, Ozu, who seemed to have somehow earned the rare privilege of titling consistency, one seems to get a different English title for half the Japanese genre films by directors like Suzuki and Fukasaku every couple of years every time a new retrospective comes into being, either evidencing poor scholarship on the programmers' part or an obsession with translating the titles themselves, let alone doing any research for what the original export distributor upon the film's release might have called it in a foreign (i.e. English) language. CALL OF THE BLOOD by Suzuki is an excellent example. When it was part of a Suzuki retrospective in the early 90s, it was called OUR BLOOD WON'T ALLOW IT, and later, OUR BLOOD WON'T FORGIVE. Unlike the Chinese Hong Kong and Taiwanese film industry in the 1960s through the present, whose companies picked an English title of each film and stuck to it. You get virtually none of this confusion with Hong Kong genre films, despite their sometimes negligible quality compared to their Japanese counterparts. Except for the big guns like Kurosawa (or their worldwide release of giant monsters pix), they had no such compunction about sticking to an English title (if even bestowed with one) on lesser known genre films. In fact, when the films were originally available for export, they often retitled the English subtitled version numerous times. There was a genuine apathy about creating confusion about these movies outside Japan. Most of these titles, the defeatist-minded export arms of the originating Japanese studios thought these movies would never be revived, except for perhaps Japanese TV. I go into this in less detail in the closing pages of the Gun and Sword introduction.

No comments: