Monday, May 11, 2020

Retaliation (Japan, 1968)

By Hollywood standards, you’d think that Yasuharu Hasebe barely had time for a bathroom break between making 1967’s Massacre Gun and its sequel, Retaliation, which came out less than a year later. But that’s just the way Nikkatsu, with its systematic approach to quickly and economically churning out low budget genre entertainment, did business in those days. And directors like Yasuharu, who reliably churned out one crowd pleasing pulp movie after another, were the studio’s life blood. Hell, he even turned out a third film The Singing Gun¸ between the two.

Massacre Gun was only Yasuharu’s second film, following his psychotronic debut Black Tight Killers. In comparison to that film, Massacre Gun is a surprisingly conservative film, with very little of the stylistic experimentation of its predecessor, which may account for its success. As the career of Yasuharu’s mentor Seijun Suzuki attests, Nikkatsu didn’t put a lot of effort behind films that it thought were weird. And Black Tight Killers may just be as weird as Suzuki’s chosen method of career suicide, Branded to Kill, which famously featured Jo Shishido as a rice-sniffing hit man.

etaliation is less of a direct sequel to Massacre Gun than it is a spiritual one. Both star Jo Shishido and Hideaki Natani as similar but differently named characters. Both films concern a trio of Yakuza foot soldiers who rebel against their boss and become hunted by them as a result. And though the differences between the two movies are mostly formal they are nonetheless considerable.

For one, that Massacre stars Jo Shishido and is filmed in shadowy black and white makes it seem more akin to the Nikkatsu New Action films that came before it. While Shishido has a substantial role in Retaliation, the above the title role goes to Akira Kobayashi, one of Nikkatsu’ touted “Diamond Line” of charismatic male stars. This fact made the studio loosen the purse strings enough to give Yasurahu a decent budget this time. And his most obvious expense was to film in Eastman Color, giving him the opportunity to splash around a lot of that fire engine red blood that Japanese filmmakers of the time were so fond of, and also lens a lot of naked female flesh. The resulting increase in violence, simulated sex and nudity makes Retaliation read like a precursor of the more violent “Pinky Violence’ and “Roman Porno” films that the studio started making in the 1970s. Acting as a harbinger of this is Female Convict Scorpion/Lady Snowblood star, Meiko Kaji, who has a small role as a captive farmgirl.

The film begins with Yakuza assassin Jiro, played by Akira Kobayashi, returning from an eight year bid to visit his boss, the godfather of the Ichimanji Family, who is on his deathbed. The godfather tells him that Hasama (Hideaki Natani), the Godfather of a rival clan, has been paying his medical bills and asks that Jiro pay him a visit and thank him for his kindness. Hasama is impressed by Jiro and recruits him on the spot. He asks that Jiro go to Takagawa City, a rural farming community turned boom town thanks to a factory being recently built there. The reigning Yakuza clan there, the Tono, are rapidly being displaced by a new gang, The Aoba Clan, who are driving the remaining farmers off their land and selling their property to the factory’s owner at a profit. Hasama promises that, if he can put an end to the conflict, Jiro can have complete control of the city. Taking Hasama at his word Jiro heads to Takagawa with JoJi (Jiro Okazaki) an ambitious younger Yakuza, by his side.

Meanwhile, another assassin named Hino (Jo Shishido) is tailing Jiro, planning to avenge Jiro’s murder of his brother. His first attempt fails when Hino’s tearful wife intercedes. This happens a few times in the film as, Hino’s wife appears to always be hovering on the sidelines waiting for her chance to jump in and tearfully plead with him to give up his life of crime. Each time, Hino begrudgingly accedes, reminding Jiro “You’re mine. Don’t forget that.” As Hino’s dogged pursuit makes him Jiro’s virtual traveling companion, the two of them eventually forge a reluctant bond, Hino agreeing to accompany Jiro to Tagakawa City.

And when the trio of Jiro, Hino and Joji reach the city, Retaliation doubles down on the Kurosawa homage. A la Seven Samurai, Jiro, Hino and Joji find themselves sympathetic to the plight of the humble farmers and appalled by the strong-arm tactics of the Aoba clan. The Aobas, you see, are a new strain of Yakuza: crude young street thugs with none of the respect for honor and decorum that their elders have, and prone to rampaging through the streets and terrorizing the women and children for fun. Thankfully, a la Yojimbo, Jiro manages to escalate the conflict between the gangs until it leads to an apocalyptic gun battle that greatly reduces their numbers.

It is appropriate that Retaliation concerns itself with generational conflict, as it is a film which occurred at a time of transition for a studio that famously survived economic turbulence by changing with the times. And it’s audience. Given those times were the 1960s and 1970s, that’s no small accomplishment. During that time, Yasuharu Hasebe was one of the few directors who directed films in every one of Nikkatsu’s cycles, including New Action, Pinky Violence, and Ero Guro. When the studio started leaning more toward full-on porn at the start of the 80s, he finally called it quits, thought not before directing such appetizing titles as Rape!, Raping! And Rape! 13th Hour. He then closed out his career directing for various television series, including the classic Tokusatsu show Spectreman.

Of course, people like myself who yell about movies on the internet tend to spend too much time parsing genre. The truth is that, if a film is well made, which Retaliation certainly is, your enjoyment of it should not depend on how it’s bagged and tagged. That I enjoyed Retaliation very much is largely due to Yasuhara Hasebe’s unfailing commitment to his craft. It’s beautifully lensed, well-acted, fast paced and peppered with expertly staged action throughout. File it under: recommended.