Saturday, July 27, 2019

Massacre Gun (Japan, 1967)

It’s been said that every man must have a code. And, if we’re in a movie, that’s likely to be the code decreeing that no cruelty must go unmatched, no betrayal unpunished, and no slight un-avenged, no matter the cost to you, your loved ones, or society at large. According to this credo, men are nothing more than unfeeling puppets animated by an irresistible moral symmetry that sees violence as its own reward and no brutality too great if settling a score is the goal.

This scenario is often presented as a cautionary tale; as the camera slowly pans over the corpse-littered landscape at the film’s conclusion, it’s difficult not to imagine an unseen narrator clucking his tongue somberly and saying “Do you see?” However, it’s very difficult to imagine what is to be gained from seeing this tableau played out as often as it is in pop culture.

Fortunately for the Japanese, they had directors like Seijun Suzuki and Yasuharu Hasebe to astheticize these revenge dramas to within an inch of their lives, ornamenting their nagging ritualism with the quirks of personal expression. Though, of course, not all of Suzuki’s films were Branded to Kill, and not all of Yasuharu’s Black Tight Killers. Both men, while contributing their share of eccentric oddities to the Japanese crime film canon, were also well capable of towing the line for their masters at Nikkatsu and reliably churning out artful and competently made potboilers.

Such a film is Yasuharu’s Massacre Gun. It is a film generic enough to be a genre template, while at the same time being noteworthy for its style almost to the exclusion of its content. Which is to say that it is a very nice looking film, as dense with gloomy atmosphere and signifiers of urban cool as its heroes are with honor and regret.

The film opens with hitman Kuroda (Branded to Kill’s Jo Shishido) being ordered by his boss, the sadistic Akazawa (Takashi Kanda) to murder his lover. Shockingly, Kuroda dutifully heads straight to his girlfriend’s apartment and, under the guise of an out-of-town getaway, drives her to a remote stretch of road and summarily executes her. Kuroda is a little conflicted about this, as you would be, so, later, when he confesses to his younger brother Saburo (Jiro Okazaki), he responds to Saburo’s outraged pleas that he quit Akasawa’s gang by doing that very thing, thus incurring the kingpin’s wrath. Never mind that he could have quit the gang before killing his girlfriend, which clues you in that Kuroda may have more problems than an exaggerated sense of honor.

Saburo, an aspiring boxer and jazz drummer (accompanying Stray Cat Rock’s Ken Sanders as Chico, whose mournful torch songs comment on the action like a Greek chorus) is also in the employ of Akazawa. When, acting as a sparring partner for the boss’s star fighter, he loses control and KO’s him, Akazawa, already enraged by Kuroda’s defection, responds by having his goons crush Saburo’s hands.

At this early point in the film, it’s clear that Kuroda and his two brothers have been chafing under Akazawa’s grip for some time, and the final straw comes when the gang trashes Club Rainbow, the nightclub owned by third brother Eiji (Tatsuya Fuji, likewise of the Stray Cat Rock films.) At this point, the brothers decide to strike back against the crime lord, taking over a handful of his operations with surprising ease.

This turn of events puts Kuroda at odds with his best friend and former fellow gang member Shirasaka (played by Tokyo Drifter’s Hideaki Natani), who runs the Black & White Bar with his lover Shino, whom actress Tamaki Sawa gives a spooky, Cassandra-like presence. Of course, since the world of Massacre Gun is one in which men are rendered incapable of acting in their own best interest by their sense of honor, Shirasaka swears fealty to Akasawa and tells Kuroda that, the next time they meet, they will meet as enemies.

Finally, brother Eiji assassinates Akasawa and is taken down by the gang in a veritable tsunami of bullets that is downright comical in its overkill. Because this is not only hurtful, but rude, the stage is set for Kuroda to have his revenge.

Throughout all of this, Ysuharu employs all the arty bellwethers of alienation and isolation to portray his protagonists’ state of mind. These guys are incapable of relating to anybody, he seems to be shouting, much less even hearing them! I lost count of how many deep focus shots there were of a person having a conversation with a person whose back was turned to them while standing a good twenty feet behind them. Lessening the chances of boring old sanity prevailing is the fact that the only people suggesting that maybe all of this killing isn’t necessary are mere women, those same mewling killjoys who have been keeping us guys from setting off fireworks in our mouths since we were in short pants.

The film’s climax, when it comes, really puts the “mass” in massacre, an all-hands on-deck gun battle featuring a towering platform that seems to only exist so that Jo Shishido can assume his trademark sniper’s pose and pick off all of his former friends and associates with alacrity (I was wondering if Kuroda built it himself, which would have been difficult in the middle of enemy territory, even if he was disguised as a TV repairman or something.) In keeping with the film’s allusions to Greek Tragedy, this scrap ends with everyone dead, except for the relative innocent Saburo, who is left behind to assess the horror.

And the lesson of all this is… what, really? “Don’t try this at home?” But how can us men be expected to heed such a warning when our sense of honor compels us to murder our friends and loved ones simply because someone with a bigger gun told us to?

I’m sorry; I don’t mean to suggest that I don’t enjoy films like Massacre Gun. I do. It’s just that, as someone who grew up with a very different idea of masculine strength from the one presented in this film, I sometimes have to step back and remark upon how absurd it all is.

OK, I’m done.

Friday, July 26, 2019

It's the FRIDAY'S BEST POP SONG EVER Podcast, Episode #21: Since You've Been Gone

On this month's FBPSE Podcast, I once again talk about a man you've probably never heard who wrote a bunch of songs that you probably have heard of. In this case, it's Russ Ballard, whose compositions include "New York Groove', "God Gave Rock and Roll To You", "There's Something Going On" and "Since You've Been Gone", which not only has the same name as a much more famous--though less grammatically correct--song, but was also performed by Clout, Rainbow, and Cherie Currie. So dig in!

Please know that if you have some kind of beef with Stitcher, you can also download the podcast from Amazon and iTunes. And once you've obtained it through the streaming service of your choice, I wouldn't be mad at you if you left a review, a rating, or even subscribed. Is that so much to ask?