Tag Archives: yakuza

Branded to Kill – Review

11 Jun

There are many film makers that create movies that leave me baffled. David Lynch and his fever dreams like Eraserhead and Inland Empire stand out, but who can forget the psychedelic nightmares of Alejandro Jodorowsky and his films like The Holy Mountain and Santa Sangre? A name that never really stood out to me was Seijun Suzuki, a Japanese film makers that was actually blacklisted from directing because of the odd and unmarketable nature of his movies. One of, if not his most infamous creations is the 1967 gangster film Branded to Kill. This is a movie that takes genre conventions and blows them out of the water. Is this film just one giant narrative mess or is it a satirical, yet experimental, look at the gangster subgenre? That’s for the viewer to decide.

Goro Hanada (Joe Shishido) has the honor of being the third ranked hit man in the Japanese underworld. He also has found a strange, and often unsettling, kind of love in his newly wedded wife, Mami (Mariko Ogawa). Hanada is assigned many important missions by the yakuza, including the killing of three seemingly unrelated civilians. He is also approached by a mysterious woman with a death wish named Misako (Annu Mari), who hires Hanada to kill a foreigner that she will be seen with the following day. When this new mission goes wrong, Hanada is soon on the run and betrayed by almost everyone he knows, with the only possible exception of Misako. Things only get worse for Hanada when he finds out the mythic hitman, known only as Number One (Koji Nanbara) is gunning for him and will stop at nothing until he is dead.

Take that summary with a grain of salt since Branded to Kill was not the easiest movie to follow, and it took me a little while after finishing it to fully process what I saw. At it’s core, this movie tells a classic gangster noir tale about murder, love, femme fatales, and betrayal. What makes Suzuki’s film so odd is the way this simple story is told. There are jumps in time and location that is incredibly jarring and takes a while to get used to. This movie is only an hour and a half long, but it felt so much longer than that because time and space was played with so much. The story could take place over the span of a week or a couple of months. Telling a totally linear story was clearly not Suzuki’s intention. While I do very much appreciate the strangeness, the odd continuity, and all of the confusion that goes along with it, I’m not sure how this really fits with telling the story. What I mean is that I can’t really thematically see any reasoning for telling the story like this. The third act gets really out of whack, which is appropriate for the action, but I’m not sure about the other two acts.

Despite Branded to Kill being totally strange, it still has a classic noir vibe which I really like. The lighting is harsh and the violence is sudden, but definitely leaves an impression. Another great example of noir that pushes the boundaries is another Japanese film called Pale Flower, which I reviewed quite some time ago. Branded to Kill takes it to another level, however, and some of it genuinely shocked me. This film came out in 1967, which is still some years before exploitation cinema hit audiences internationally. This film almost pushes things to that exploitive level. Like it comes real close. There are things in this movie that would have made mainstream audiences in America at this time lose their minds. Hell, there’s some things that would make modern American audiences gasp. I have to give Suzuki credit for daring to go the extra mile.

This brashness and willingness to go places traditional films of the time went didn’t come without a price. This is one of those movies where the history kind of provides a good context as to how to look at an appreciate the film itself. Seijun Suzuki made 40 B-movies for the Nikkatsu Company. That’s a lot of time dedicated to working for a company, but it didn’t last forever. Nikkatsu was not pleased with the original script for Branded to Kill, so they had Suzuki rework it. Instead of keeping it the traditional gangster tale, he made it something completely different, which is the movie I’ve done my best to illustrate as a crazy, untraditional ride. Nikkatsu was even more upset with the end result, and this got Suzuki fired. Jokes on Nikkatsu. Over time, Branded to Kill has become something of a cult classic.

Branded to Kill is certainly not for everyone, and it even took me a little bit of time to fully wrap my head around what I just saw. It takes a gangster story with hints of noir and turns it into a dreamscape where time and logic are unimportant. Sometimes I felt like this worked against the film, but most of the time I was really into the weirdness. I have to give Seijun Suzuki credit for making a movie that no one else at the time seemed interested in making, even if it end with him getting fired from Nikkatsu. For any fan of off the wall kind of movies, I’d recommend Branded to Kill. Anyone looking for something easier to comprehend, you can find plenty of other great gangster stories out there.

Final Grade: B

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The Machine Girl – Review

24 May

I’ve mentioned in previous reviews that a guilty pleasure of mine lies in the realm of Japanese B-movies, more exclusively those that fall into the “splatter film” category. I’ve reviewed RoboGeishaTokyo Gore PoliceMeatball Machine, and Helldriver. Now, adding to this list is The Machine Girl, an over the top blood bath directed by Noboru Iguchi, and gore effects by the master of B-grade splatter movies, Yoshihiro Nishimura.

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Ami (Minase Yashiro) is an average school girl who is very protective of her little brother, Yu (Ryôsuke Kawamura), especially since their parents killed themselves over a criminal investigation involving a murder that they were framed for. One day, Yu and his friend are killed by Sho (Nobuhiro Nishihara), the son of a samurai/yakuza boss, Ryûji (Kentarô Shimazu). Ami vows to get revenge for her brother, but is caught by Ryûji and has her left arm cut off (in a shower of blood that made me chuckle). Ami teams up with the parents of Yu’s friend, Suguru (Yûya Ishikawa) and Miki (Asami). They construct for her a machine gun to attach to her arm, and after some training, wage a war on the yakuza boss and his son.

Just typing this summary out made me realize how absolutely goofy the whole premise of this is. It wasn’t very easy to get it all down and make it sound somewhat interesting at the same time. That’s because the appeal of The Machine Girl is the visual chaos that fills pretty much the entirety of the movie. If you see the trailer, the summary that I wrote down seems a bit more interesting because you have a sense of how silly it really is. Like I said before, this kind of movie is my guilty pleasure. I recognize the fact that they really aren’t good movies. But, and this is a big but, they make me laugh and there’s plenty of blood and gore that paints the screen red.

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So, for the sake of being a proper critic, let’s objectively look at the movie. First of all, it looks really cheap, but that’s because it is really cheap. The movie is shot in HD which is common for movies of this kind and is pretty appropriate for the silly nature of the movie. If it was shot with beautiful cinematography, it would look and feel weirder than it already is. The acting in it is sub par and over the top. I can promise you that there is lots of fist clenching, teeth gritting, and yelling as characters run into battle. Finally, the writing is completely ridiculous. Honestly though, there really isn’t anything special about the dialogue. You could take all of it out and still know exactly what is going on.

A major plus for this movie is the insane camera work that is used during the more violent scenes. When Ami fires her machine gun arm near the camera, it seems to jitter a little bit like it is affected by the power of the gun. Iguchi used the same technique in RoboGeisha, which has a lot of similarities in its style. The gore effects by Yoshihiro Nishimura are also really cool. There is some CGI used for the blood and the gore, but a good deal of it is done with more physical means. Lots of arterial spray and limbs that go flying. The make up used for a character who has nails rammed into his face looks both disturbing, but very funny in its own dark way.

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Above all, that is really my main reason for watching all of these. The blood, the gore, and the action are so silly and over the top that I can’t help but be intrigued. The writing and acting may be bad and the HD may look cheap, but I can’t say that this wasn’t a really fun movie to watch. There were times where I got a little bored or was ready for the movie to be over, but most of the time I was into what was happening and wondered just what could possibly happen next. A machine gun arm, a flying clamp that rips heads off, a drill bra, and more make this a one of a kind movie. Well, perhaps not. It has been compared to Robert Rodriguez’s Planet Terror, which is without a doubt a much better film. Still, I can see how much joy the film makers had making this because the finished product is so kinetic and enjoyable. It’s hard to explain how a movie is when you can really tell the makers were trying to make a movie that they would love to see themselves. The Machine Girl is one of these movies.

So, yeah. This isn’t a good movie, but it is entertaining and silly as hell. I don’t always feel the need to put on some highly artistic movie that will make me reconsider everything I know about film making. Sometimes I just want to see some limbs fly and a girl with a machine gun arm kill some bad guys. This gave me exactly what I was expecting, and for that, I can’t fault the movie. This isn’t for everyone, and to the people who have seen it and hate it, I completely understand. The Machine Girl stupid fun, and I personally had a good time.

Outrage – Review

25 Apr

Over the years, Japanese film maker/actor Takeshi Kitano has proved that he has what it takes to hang with the most elite crime film makers. I’d like to think of him as the Martin Scorsese of Japan. He’s done a lot of work with Yakuza stories, but has more recently branched out into other genres like romance and comedy. With Outrage, Kitano showed a return to form with a tale of violence and betrayal that takes place with break neck speed. Outrage is a fine piece of film making, although I felt like I was experiencing cinematic whip lash by the time the credits began to roll.

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Partnerships aren’t very simple if you’re a member of the Yakuza. Ikemoto (Jun Kunimura) made peace with and decided to become associates with rival Yakuza gang leader Murase (Renji Ishibashi) while they were in prison. Now that they are out, things don’t seem like they are going to pan out quite like they had in mind. Sekiuchi (Soichiro Kitamura), boss of the Sanno-kai family orders Ikemoto to sever all ties and completely wipe out Murase’s family. This task is quickly handed down to Ikemoto’s violent, yet surprisingly calm subordinate, Otomo (Beat Takeshi aka Takeshi Kitano). All out war erupts and no one can trust their closest allies, as betrayals and double crossings take over the criminal underworld.

Prepare to be very confused. I know I was. This movie hits the ground sprinting and doesn’t stop until the last frame of the movie. Calling this movie slow is like calling Charles Manson sane. This speed works both to the advantage and disadvantage of the movie. The advantage was that I was never bored. I had to really try my best to keep up with all the characters and their motivations, which seemed to change very often. The disadvantage is that the movie felt sloppy at certain points. Some of the characters remained sorely undeveloped, so when a scene involving their demise came about, it felt empty. Sometimes it’s best to slow down and let the audience latch onto a character, and really get to understand what makes them tick.

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Then again, who ever said the criminal underworld was simple? I respect the movie for not holding the viewer’s hand and guiding them from point A to point B. Outrage demands your full attention, and if you let it slide for just a minute, you might have a lot to catch up on. Perhaps it would have been nicer for the film to be longer. Think of if Casino was only an hour and forty minutes, but still had every plot point in it. That would feel really crammed. When I did find myself getting lost or agitated, there was something that would rope me right back in and realize that this is a good movie, you just have to get used to it. These scenes I’m talking about were normally quick pieces of brutality, but sometimes it was just a funny character or situation. That’s another good point about Outrage. Kitano injects it with a very dry and cynical sense of humor.

It’s interesting to see a lot of American gangster films and then switch over to another culture and see their take on it. There’s something unique about Yakuza films that really tickle my fancy. Their organized crime culture seems so different, yet at the same time, so similar. There’s stories of greed and violence, but set in a different place with different rules. Sometimes it was a little hard to keep track of the different families and who belonged on which side because the hierarchal structure of their syndicates and families is different than the ones shown in American gangster films. Still, it’s an fun experience to compare and contrast these cultures.

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To me, Outrage wasn’t disappointing, but it wasn’t quite exactly what I wanted either. The speed of the movie is relentless which causes some major problems in its storytelling, but the entire picture that it paints is really cool. There is no real main character to speak of. One may argue that Kitano’s character is the main character, but not all of the action really focuses around him. It’s more of a conglomeration of many different characters and how their motives clash and cause violence to erupt in a wonderfully bloody fashion. Definitely give this movie a watch. I know I’ll watch it again. I still can’t put this on a list of best gangster movies, and I can’t even call it great. It’s a respectable film, nonetheless.

Gozu – Review

17 Feb

There are movies that exist that make me thankful to live in the world that I do. A good portion of these films fall into the sub genre of surrealism. Gozu, directed by horror icon Takashi Miike, is an example of a movie that pushes this genre to its limits and creates a blurred line between comedy and nightmarish terror. Is it the best this style has to offer, probably not, but it certainly has its fair share of memorable moments and insanity to keep your attention.

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Minami (Yûta Sone) is given a very difficult order by his yakuza boss to kill his mentor and best friend, Ozaki (Shô Aikawa), after it’s become clear that he’s gone off the deep end. After accidentally completing his task, all that is left is to dispose the body at the yakuza dump. All is going fine until Minami discovers that Ozaki’s body is missing from the car. In his odyssey through a Japanese suburban hell to find the body gets stranger and stranger, Minami begins to question his morals, his relationships, and his own sanity.

I consider myself an individual who loves surrealism, being a fan of film makers like David Lynch and Luis Buñuel. Gozu is certainly surrealism to its core, and for that I was pleased. The film still seems a bit off in a bad way. There were times where things got really weird and were supposed to be “interesting,” but I found myself checking the time or playing with my cat. This mostly happened in the scenes involving the motel employees, as strange as they were. Strange doesn’t always mean interesting though. It’s all about the execution and the overall atmosphere of the scene.

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There are still really great scenes of nightmarish surrealism. One of my favorite, and I think hysterical, scenes is when Minami goes into a diner and there’s a man talking on the phone saying the same thing about the weather over and over again. It’s not the most bizarre thing to happen, but it had me laughing and scratching my head at the same time. The goat head’s scene should really be recognized as an excellent piece of horror, if you can call it that. Finally, and I think most importantly, there is the most unconventional birth scene I have ever seen. Forget The Fly. This is the hardcore shit.

A thought that I had after Gozu was over was that there is no way that it would pass here in America. Sure, there are people who’ll get it on DVD and enjoy it, but if it was ever released in main stream theaters, people would be running home to their mommies and daddies. This might sound condescending, but I don’t mean it that way. What I’m trying to say is that America has become so strict with its censorship and its apparent laziness when it comes to certain summer blockbusters. There’s rehash after rehash of old shows or remakes of classic films when there’s films like Gozu that may never see the light of day.

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Like most of Takashi Miike’s work, Gozu is not a very easy film to get through both because of its form and context. It looks very cheaply made when it comes to image quality, even though the special effects look really cool. This certainly isn’t my favorite of Miike’s work and isn’t my favorite surrealist film. It sometimes relished too much in its own bizarre nature, when it was actually starting to get a little boring. Luckily there were excellent scenes in-between that made up for its uneven pacing. If you’re new to Takashi Miike, start with something else like Audition. If you enjoy movies that transport you to a world that you’re more than ready to leave when the film is over, and you can appreciate Miike’s low budget filming style, than you should check out Gozu. Good, but not great.