In May of 1968, Japan's oldest movie studio, Nikkatsu, released a little Yakuza drama called Outlaw Gangster VIP. It proved rather popular and profitable, and so they released a remarkable five sequels to it in just under two years. It is rather understandable then that these films get a little repetitive plot-wise.
Testy Watari plays Goro Fujisawa, a Yakuza warrior who has (rightfully) earned the nickname Goro the Assassin but has grown tired of the gangster lifestyle and hypocritical honor codes. In each film he tries to escape the gangs to live a normal life, meets a girl (always played by Chieko Masturbara though in all but the first two films she portrays a different character), but is inevitably dragged back into yakuza activity. His gang is in conflict with another gang (who are often led by some old friend of Goros), drama ensues, knives are drawn, and Goro ends the film just as alone and lost as he was in the beginning.
After binge-watching these films, I have to admit I stopped paying much attention to the plots after about the second one. The unfolding drama was so similar, and so uninteresting to my mind in each subsequent film, that my thoughts often wandered away until the next action sequence.
Those sequences though, are well worth the watching. For unexplained reasons the Yakuza tend to render their violence with knives rather than gun-play, which places the action closer to the realm of those old samurai films rather than something John Woo would create years later. The staging of these fight scenes is really quite good, causing each battle to be different, exciting, and fresh. Likewise, the camera work is remarkably artistic. The movement is fluid and the angles and staging make those sequences really fly.
Arrow Video has once again done a great job of presenting some rather obscure films in a wonderful way. The video has been cleaned up a great deal and the films look great. There’s a bit of graininess present throughout the series, and the occasional scratches and debris. During Black Dagger, there are a few moments when a white, horizontal line bobbles at the top of the screen. But overall, considering these are low-budget, highly obscure Japanese films from the 1960s, this set looks great.
The extras aren’t quite as impressive as some of Arrow’s other releases but considering how little information is available about them (just try Googling the movies and you’ll soon see what I mean) what they do have is impressive.
The set includes every film from the series (Outlaw Gangster VIP, Outlaw Gangster VIP 2, Heartless, Goro the Assassin, Black Dagger, and Kill!) restored from the original film elements. There is a nicely informative feature that summarizes each film and a detailed audio commentary for the first film. Trailers and promotional stills are also included as is a very nice book filled with an interview of the director and some essays on the films.
A note on the packaging: Arrow has included both Blu-ray and DVD copies of each film. They come two films to a disk and the Blu-rays stack on top of the DVDs and they are held tightly to the casing by little plastic nobs. Be careful when removing them, ensure you have pressed all those nobs down or you can possibly damage the disks. Two of my Blu-rays are now unplayable because I pulled too hard on the disks trying to get them out.
Interestingly, Arrow decided to do a limited edition of only 3,000 copies of this release. These films certainly aren’t for everyone but if you have interest in this sort of thing then this is a terrific set and well worth the purchase. But you better get it now.