How is being an Outlaw Gangster different from just being a gangster? By definition, they're all outlaws, aren't they? It turns out, no, it takes a very special soul to be an outlaw among gangsters. Especially if one is also, as the title of this collection implies, a VIP.
This simple appellative explains a lot about the protagonist of this loose series of Yakuza movies. Goro Fujikawa, played by Tetsuya Watari in every one of the six movies included in this box set. Goro was born in poverty, lost his entire family when he was young and ended up in a juvenile detention center soon after. Hardship leads him to become a Yakuza, and a particularly effective one who eventually gets the nickname Goro the Assassin, with a reputation to match. The six movies included, all about Goro, are Gangster VIP, Gangster VIP 2, Heartless, Goro the Assassin, Black Dagger, and Kill!
However, these movies aren't about the rise of a young man to prominence in crime, followed by a delirious fall from his perch due to his hubris. That would be a gangster movie. Yakuza movies are about brotherhood and honor: specifically, how the veneer of observing codes of honor and established hierarchies puffs up what are basically petty, violent thugs who bully women and attack each other because they have nothing else to offer society. Goro sees through the illusion, but he also doesn't know how to do anything else. He's a low level tough who would rather be a manual laborer than a Yakuza, but he keeps being pulled back into the criminal world.
There's a pattern in these films, which are variations on the same theme rather than a story with any sense of rich continuity. In each film Goro, while trying to distance himself from the Yakuza world, finds a love interest, invariably played by Chieko Matsubara. In the first two movies, she is actually the same character, the naive Yukiko who falls in love with Goro after he protects her from some Yakuza punks. In the four subsequent movies, she plays different characters, all essentially the same role: she hates Yakuza, but Goro's soft heart wins her over despite his gruff exterior and his repeated warnings that there's nothing good about being a Yakuza's wife. (In a weird twist on the formula in Black Dagger, the fifth movie in the series, Chieko Matsubara plays a dual role as a woman who loves Goro but gets killed in one of his many knife fights, and as a nurse living in another town who eventually falls in love with him.)
Other actors plays multiple roles throughout the series, which can be mighty confusing if one tries to figure out how all of the movies piece together into a coherent whole. The answer is: they do not. Each movie is generally set in the mid-1950s. Goro, who is often just getting out of jail, swears off the life of the Yakuza. Then he happens to spot some young Yakuza doing some Yakuzing, and beats them up single-handedly while offering them advice on how to live their lives better. He gets embroiled, always against his wishes, in Yakuza business, and makes friends who are almost invariably killed off tragically. Then, after making some kind of arrangement to get Chieko out of the way, he gets revenge on the bad guys, gets horribly wounded himself, then limps away from town, knowing he can't risk being with the woman he loves. He'll only bring her misery.
So without a rich on-going story to offer, what is valuable in these old Japanese Yakuza films? Two things makes these films interesting. Though they are admittedly repetitive (and were made in pretty quick succession, the first 5 coming out in 1968, according to IMDB, with the final film, Kill! being released in 1969), Tetsuya Watari turns in a winning performance as Goro. He's a big man, and convincingly plays a street tough who can ably fight his way out of tough situations. He also has a vulnerability in his performance, a friendly smile, and enough range to play the devastation his character goes through every time all of his friends die and he's doomed to get bloody revenge, as happens at least once a movie.
The other fun aspect of these Outlaw Gangster pictures are the knife fights. While guns figure in occasionally, there is rarely more than one in a fight, and it's always wielded by a villainous coward. Real Japanese gangsters carry short swords, and fight almost exclusively by running at each other and hoping to blunder their blade into somebody's stomach. That might make the fighting seem silly, but there's a real vitality to the knife fights in this series. Three different directors made these movies (Nikkatsu action veteran Toshio Masuda helmed the first, Mio Eazki the third, Heartless, while Keichi Ozawa directed the rest) and they each bring a different energy to the fights. Typically, the combats take place in small, cramped areas, so even when surrounded by a group Goro is usually throwing them against walls, bottlenecking his enemies so he can face them one by one. The fights are messy, always bloody, sometimes gory (particularly in the later films), and tend to have a similar rhythm: long shots of terrified men staring at each other, then wild slashing.
They are staged as the opposite of typical samurai fights in Japanese cinema. A samurai fight is generally has two warriors standing on either side of the battlefield. Swords come out, they make their stances, then lunge. The warriors are now on the opposite sides, just as reposed. In a moment, one of them collapses from an expert, perfectly timed and directed attack. The knife fights in the Outlaw Gangster series have none of this elegance or expertise. It's manic bloodshed, often cleverly staged in storm drains, in train yards, once in a warehouse where buckets of paint get knocked over while the combatants fling each other around. In Kill!, which apparently abandons the 1950s setting so we can have a scene in a rock club with a psychedelic band playing, dancers are all on a glass-bottomed dance floor, with a gentleman's lounge underneath (situated primarily so the "gentlemen" can look up dancer's skirts, it seems.) Goro does his end of movie massacre in this lounge, so we can watch the action from above, the dancers oblivious to the bloodshed going on below.
The whole box set is a wild ride, but one that caters to a very specific audience. If you're not really into 60s Japanese cinema, where the studios banged out movies by several dozen each year to see what would stick with the dwindling audience, there might not be enough here to inherently hold your interest. The movies repeat themselves, and while the melancholic tone and negative attitude toward Yakuza may set it apart from similar genre movies (a precursor, maybe, to Fukasaku's complete deconstruction of the Yakuza myth of honor in his series aptly titled Battles Without Honor and Humanity) and the knife fights are awesome and bloody, it's not the entry point for 60s Japanese genre cinema.
For people like me who eat this stuff up, though, this whole set of movies is a treat. As usual, Arrow has done a terrific job presenting the films (compare the video on the films themselves to the included trailers to get an idea of how they could have looked with less care.) In terms of extras, there are trailers, which were pretty useful for placing actors with faces since IMDB is nearly useless with Japanese movies at this level of obscurity, and image galleries of production stills and posters for each movie. The first disc includes a 37 minute video appreciation of the films, and a full length commentary on the first movie. The video appreciation basically summarizes the films with some wry observations on some of the repetitive aspects of the films. The commentary track, by Japanese cinema expert Jasper Sharp, is scholarly and dense with information about the actors, the studio and the context of the filmmaking.