Release Date: February 4th, 1967 (Japan)
Directed by: Takashi Nomura
Written by: Shūichi Nagahara, Nobuo Yamada
Based on: a novel by Shinji Fujiwara
Music by: Harumi Ibe
Cast: Joe Shishido, Jerry Fujio, Chitose Kobayashi, Ryōtarō Sugi
Nikkatsu, 84 Minutes
Japan really made some visually stellar and interesting motion pictures in the 1960s. This one takes its inspiration from classic film noir, French New Wave and the spaghetti westerns of its time.
In fact, despite being a simple Yakuza crime flick, this has a score very similar to the ones you’d hear in Sergio Leone’s western movies.
Beyond that, this feels similar to Seijun Suzuki’s crime movies from the same decade. Although, this one is less stylized and surreal.
Director Takashi Nomura’s work here is incredible and since I’ve never seen any of his work before this, I kind of want to check out what else he’s done based off of how enjoyable, artistic and technically savvy this film is.
It’s also pretty well acted from top-to-bottom and features characters you’ll like and despise.
One thing that really stands out about this movie is the energy of it. The big finale is absolutely incredible and way ahead of its time in how it was shot, executed and presented.
Additionally, the cinematography is beautiful and it truly embraces the best parts of the classic film-noir aesthetic with a high contrast visual style and the clever use of shadow and light.
While I hold the Seijun Suzuki and Akira Kurosawa Yakuza films in very high regard, this lesser known film by the uber talented Takashi Nomura deserves to be in the same circle as those other amazing and game changing pictures.
Pairs well with: other neo-noir styled Yakuza movies, such as some of the ’60s films of Seijun Suzuki.
Release Date: October 5th, 1989 (Germany)
Directed by: Mark Goldblatt
Written by: Boaz Yakin
Based on: The Punisher by Gerry Conway, Ross Andru, John Romita Sr.
Music by: Dennis Dreith
Cast: Dolph Lundgren, Louis Gossett Jr., Jeroen Krabbe, Kim Miyori
Marvel Entertainment, New World Pictures, 89 Minutes, 76 Minutes (heavily cut), 98 Minutes (workprint version)
“If you’re guilty, you’re dead.” – Frank Castle
While I know that this isn’t as good as the 2004 Punisher movie, this is still my favorite film of the lot and Dolph Lundgren really embodied the version of Frank Castle that I envisioned as a kid in the late ’80s, just discovering Punisher comics.
I loved the fuck out of this movie when I saw it in 1990, once it hit video store shelves in my area. I would’ve loved to have seen it in the theater but I lived in a small town with small theaters that played it safe, didn’t take risks and have now mostly been replaced with better theaters offering more variety… and alcohol.
Dolph Lundgren is just fucking perfect in this and nothing else about the film really matters. Sure, I like Louis Gossett Jr. but he’s kind of a non-event in the picture, as is everyone else, except the mob boss turned vigilante that helps the Punisher fight ninjas in an effort to rescue his kidnapped son.
This wasn’t made by Cannon, it was in fact made by New World, but it has that Cannon vibe to it albeit with an even cheaper budget. Still, its a solid mix of gritty, ’80s action, a badass hero and more ammo wasted than an Argentinian coup.
One sequence that really stands out is where we get to see the Punisher battle a hoard of machine gun ninjas in a decrepit carnival funhouse. Granted, I also loved the big finale that saw our hero and the mobster douche machine gun the crap out of ninjas.
All in all, this is just a badass flick with uber amounts of testosterone, one of the best, most physically intimidating action stars of all-time and it feels true to the source material. It’s certainly better than everything that came after that Thomas Jane Punisher movie.
Pairs well with: other Marvel live-action films pre-MCU.
From The Rageaholic/Razörfist’s YouTube description: An American Cop in Japan. Their country. Their laws. His rules. My review.
Release Date: September 22nd, 1989
Directed by: Ridley Scott
Written by: Craig Bolotin, Warren Lewis
Music by: Hans Zimmer
Cast: Michael Douglas, Andy Garcia, Ken Takakura, Kate Capshaw, Luis Guzman, Stephen Root, Richard Riehle, Vondie Curtis-Hall
Paramount Pictures, Jaffe-Lansing, Pegasus Film Partners, 125 Minutes
“I usually get kissed before I get fucked.” – Nick Conklin
Ridley Scott has done some great films. While Black Rain isn’t often times in the discussion of Scott’s best works, it is one of his best looking motion pictures.
Being that this is pretty much neo-noir, it shares a lot of the same visual style as Blade Runner. However, instead of seeing a futuristic Los Angeles on the screen, we are given modern day Osaka. Or what was modern day in 1989.
Sure, this doesn’t have Replicants and flying cars but it does show us how late ’80s metropolitan Japan wasn’t too far off from Scott’s vision of the future.
The story follows two cops played by Michael Douglas, in maybe his coolest role, and Andy Garcia. They witness a Yakuza hit in New York City, capture the criminal and then have to escort him to Japan, where he escapes and they then have to work with the Osaka police in an effort to catch him and bring him back in.
What the cops soon find out, once their stay in Japan is extended, is that the Yakuza guy they caught is in a massive gang war. Now these two find themselves in the middle of it all while the local Osaka police are slow to act due to their hands being tied by their strict laws.
This is also like two buddy cop films in one, as Douglas’ Nick Conklin works with his New York partner for the first half and then has to work with his assigned Japanese partner for the remainder of the film. But unlike your typical buddy cop formula, we’ve got two guys from very different cultures, clashing but ultimately finding respect for one another. It’s kind of like what we would get with the Rush Hour movies nine years later and with less comedy and more testosterone.
The thing that I really like about this flick is not only the clash of cultural styles but the mixing of genres. You’ve basically got a neo-noir Yakuza biker movie. It also has a pretty hard edge to it and is unapologetic about its violence and what modern critics would deem “toxic masculinity”.
Black Rain is a cool fucking movie, hands down. While it is sort of a Yakuza movie seen through Western eyes and made for that audience, it really isn’t too dissimilar from the best films that genre has to offer. Ridley Scott doesn’t specifically try to replicate Japanese gangster cinema, so much as he just tries to make a film within his own style that just happens to take place primarily in Osaka. And frankly, it all seems to fit pretty well together.
Unfortunately, Scott had issues filming in Japan due to the budget. He actually had to shoot the big finale back in California. I really would have loved to have seen a sequel but I’m assuming that Nick Conklin only got one outing because of the financial strain of going back to Japan for another movie.
Then again, Scott didn’t really have much interest in sequels to his films until more recently. So maybe we can get Black Rain 2? Assuming Michael Douglas can still go at 75 years-old. But hey, Sylvester Stallone is bringing Marion Cobretti back, so why not?
Pairs well with: Blade Runner, Someone to Watch Over Me, Rising Sun and ’80s neo-noir.
Also known as: Urufu gai: Moero ôkami-otoko, lit. Wolfguy: Enraged Lycanthrope (Japan)
Release Date: April 5th, 1975 (Japan)
Directed by: Kazuhiko Yamaguchi
Written by: Fumio Konami
Based on: Wolf Guy by Kazumasa Hirai
Cast: Sonny Chiba, Kyosuke Machida
Toei, 86 Minutes
“There is a nastier pathogen than syphilis. It’s the one they call hatred of humans. I had clearly caught that infection from Miki.” – Akira Inugami
Man, this is a bizarre movie. But it’s also a horror Yakuza movie from Toei Studios in the 1970s. They spent a lot of time making tokusatsu television and Sonny Chiba action movies though, so this was a weird hybrid of all the things they were good at back in the mid-’70s.
Chiba is essentially a werewolf. However, we never see him actually turn into a werewolf, there is just dialogue about how he’s channeling his wolf power and his animal instincts. There is also some sort of phantom ghost tiger thing that keeps attacking people and ripping them to shreds.
The films is also full of drugs, whores, gangsters, syphilis and really weird sexual encounters.
At one point, Wolf Guy Chiba meets his mother, who is also his wife and he suckles her breasts. Yeah, it’s fucking weird as shit but hey, this is Japanese cinema where weird shit is allowed to fly, nothing has to make much logical sense and no one really seems to care as long as something really cool happens every five to ten minutes.
If I’m being honest though, I have no idea what the hell I watched. But I did mostly like it. I love Chiba, I love Toei and bizarreness is right up my alley. And luckily, this wasn’t so bizarre that it was like some Takashi Miike shitshow. He’s literally made shitshows, that’s not just an expression.
Wolf Guy is an insane movie. It won’t be a movie for most people. But the right kind of audience should love it. I don’t love it but I guess I appreciate it for what it is: pure madness, but cool pure madness. And not so visually off putting that I have to wash my eyes out for ten hours after seeing it.
Pairs well with: ’70s Japanese horror and tokusatsu, as well as ’70s Sonny Chiba action crime movies.
Also known as: Koroshi no rakuin (Japanese)
Release Date: June 15th, 1967 (Japan)
Directed by: Seijun Suzuki
Written by: Hachiro Guryu
Music by: Naozumi Yamamoto
Cast: Joe Shishido, Koji Nanbara, Annu Mari, Mariko Ogawa, Hiroshi Minami
Nikkatsu, 98 Minutes
“This is how Number 1 works: first he exhausts you, and then he kills you.” – Number 1
While I have only seen a handful of Seijun Suzuki’s motion pictures, he has become one of my favorite directors of all-time. Between this and Tokyo Drifter alone, he has proven to me that he is a true auteur with an incredible eye, an enchanting style and impeccable craftsmanship.
I thought Tokyo Drifter was one of the coolest, if not the coolest, movies I have ever seen. Branded to Kill is nearly as cool and just as perfect as Tokyo Drifter.
Suzuki has a way of taking something pretty standard like a Yakuza picture and making it much more interesting than it needs to be. But that is also why his films are so unique and incredible and not just forgettable chapters in a massive genre of Japanese cinema.
The bizarreness of this film can’t be understated. The main character is an assassin for hire and is ranked Number 3. He is in a battle with the other ranked assassins throughout the film but is specifically being targeted by Number 1. He also has a fetish that sees him obsessively inhaling the aromas of freshly boiled rice.
The movie is mostly a series of assassin battles playing out, as these killers try to outwit and survive one another. The story also has strong film-noir elements in its visual style, use of a femme fatale and constant twists and turns. It is one of the most artistically sound Japanese neo-noirs of all-time, right alongside Suzuki’s Tokyo Drifter.
It is easy to see where some other noteworthy auteur directors were influenced and inspired by Suzuki’s work here. The film almost has some David Lynch qualities too it, decades before Lynch really emerged and crafted his own interesting oeuvre. It would also influence John Woo, Chan-wook Park, Jim Jarmusch and Quentin Tarantino.
Interestingly enough, this film made no money upon its release and Suzuki was fired for making films that “…make no sense and no money.” Suzuki successfully sued the studio and caused a major controversy within the Japanese film industry, which resulted in him being blacklisted. He didn’t make another film for ten years and became a sort of counterculture hero. Because of this, he became recognized as an artist with something more to say than just a standard director pumping out low budget gangster movies for a paycheck.
Nowadays, this film is heralded as an incredible body of work and even has its own Criterion Collection edition.
Over thirty years later, Suzuki filmed Pistol Opera for Nikkatsu, the studio he had the falling out with. That film was a loose sequel to this one.
Pairs well with: Seijun Suzuki’s Tokyo Drifter, as well as some of his other films: Youth of the Beast, Pistol Opera and Gate of Flesh.
Also known as: Koroshiya Ichi, lit. Koroshiya 1
Release Date: September 14th, 2001 (TIFF)
Directed by: Takashi Miike
Written by: Sakichi Sato
Based on: Ichi the Killer by Hideo Yamamoto
Music by: Karera Musication, Seiichi Yamamoto
Cast: Tadanobu Asano, Shinya Tsukamoto, Nao Omori, Alien Sun
Omega Project, Omega Micott Inc., Emperor Multimedia Group (EMG), Media Blasters, 128 Minutes
*written in 2014.
“Put some feeling into it, already! If you’re going to give someone pain, you’ve got to get into it!” – Kakihara
Ichi the Killer is a gruesome movie. That is probably an understatement, actually.
All I can say is that if you are going to watch it, be prepared for some serious shit. Then again, if you are familiar with the earlier works of director Takashi Miike, you probably know what to expect to a certain degree. This just takes his love of ultraviolence and brutality to a whole new level.
Visually, the film is pretty close to being a masterpiece. The use of lighting and environment paints an emotional context over the scene before a character even speaks. The art direction and cinematography are amazing. The use of color is spectacular and tonal shifts from scene to scene is brilliantly done. What we have with this film is a beautiful picture comprised of ugly and horrible things.
The story is bizarre and unsettling but what else could one expect from a film that pushes the bar so high in the gore factor. The plot also pushes that same bar and then pushes it even further. The characters are complex, their motivations are sometimes confusing but by the time the credits roll, it all adds up.
Out of the earlier works of Takashi Miike, this may be my favorite film.
Release Date: April 12th, 1962 (Japan)
Directed by: Kenji Misumi
Written by: Minoru Inuzuka
Based on: The Tale of Zatoichi by Kan Shimozawa
Music by: Akira Ifukube
Cast: Shintaro Katsu, Masayo Banri, Ryuzo Shimada, Hajime Mitamura, Shigeru Amachi
Daiei Motion Picture Company, 95 Minutes
“Then why don’t you live a decent life?” – Tane, “It’s like being stuck in a bog; it’s not easy to pull yourself out once you’ve fallen in.” – Zatoichi
The Zatoichi films are movies I have heard about for a really long time thanks to having friends that are big fans of jidaigeki pictures. Unfortunately, I have never seen any of them until now. It is a pretty big injustice that I have to rectify and absolve myself of. But since I have the Criterion Channel, I now have access to twenty-five of these pictures. So why not start with the first?
This film introduces audiences to the character of Zatoichi, a blind masseur and master swordsman. He is hired by a yakuza boss named Sukegoro, who thinks that his skills will come in handy due to an oncoming war with a rival gang led by Shigezo. Shigezo responds by hiring a legendary ronin, Miki Hirate.
The film shows that Zatoichi is very humble and because of this and his low social stature, he is often times underestimated by the men around him. Zatoichi also shows that he uses his handicap to his advantage, as he turns the tables on those trying to take advantage of his blindness.
It is revealed that Zatoichi’s rival Hirate is ill with tuberculosis. This makes Hirate eager to fight Zatoichi because he feels that death at the hands of a great warrior is a better fate than dying of his illness. All the while, Hirate and Zatoichi develop a strong bond and friendship, leading up to their confrontation.
The film’s story plays out really well and it is actually quite stellar and builds up to something great, as you reach the climax. This is of course enhanced by the talent of the main actors and the quality of the film from a technical standpoint.
For 1962, this is one of the best Daiei films I have seen, up to this point. Hell, it is one of the best Daiei films, period. It is also cool seeing that Daiei had this jidaigeki franchise alongside their more famous kaiju pictures, just as their rival studio Toho had Kurosawa’s jidaigeki epics alongside their Godzilla franchise.
I’m not sure how well the quality maintains over the course of this long film series but it was off to a good start with this picture. I can assume it will go the route of James Bond or Godzilla, where quality tends to taper off but you still get an occasional high point, here and there.
Release Date: April 27th, 1948 (Japan)
Directed by: Akira Kurosawa
Written by: Akira Kurosawa, Keinosuke Uegusa
Music by: Ryoichi Hattori, Fumio Hayasaka
Cast: Takashi Shimura, Toshiro Mifune, Reisaburo Yamamoto, Noriko Sengoku
Toho Co. Ltd., 98 Minutes
“He tormented you, made you sick, and then deserted you like a puppy. And you still wag your tail and follow him.” – Dr. Sanada
Drunken Angel is just the seventh film directed by Akira Kurosawa. While that would be a lengthy career for any director, this was really the beginning of his long and storied journey of cinematic creation. He had 23 more films after this and many of them are considered the best ever made.
Probably the most notable thing about this picture is that it was the first of sixteen collaborations between Kurosawa and his favorite lead actor, Toshiro Mifune. Kurosawa and Mifune would go on to make Seven Samurai, Yojmbo, Rashomon, Throne of Blood, The Hidden Fortress, Red Beard, Sanjuro and several other films considered to be true classics. In fact, their director-actor relationship was one of the longest running and greatest in motion picture history.
This picture also teams up Kurosawa with another one of his favorite actors, Takashi Shimura. In this film, Shimura plays a cranky drunk doctor while Mifune plays a young Yakuza gangster that the doctor treats for a bullet wound. The doctor then diagnoses the young man with tuberculosis and insists that he quit his drinking and wild lifestyle, to which the youngster refuses. The two develop a shaky but strong bond and as the story progresses, their worlds collide in unforeseen ways. Mainly, the doctor’s assistant has ties to an evil and strong Yakuza boss that is moving into the area to take it back from Mifune’s character.
The film is considered to be Kurosawa’s breakout film and for good reason. It uses a lot of the themes that became synonymous with Kurosawa’s work and it utilized them better than anything before it. This was his most fine tuned picture when it came out and really opened up doors for him on an international stage. Without this picture, we might not have gotten his masterpieces.
Drunken Angel is the first post-World War II Yakuza picture but it doesn’t reflect a lot of the common tropes that would come to define that genre of Japanese film. In fact, Drunken Angel, in style and tone, is much more in tune with the American film noir pictures of its era. It also shows an American influence on the Japanese culture after the war, especially in regards to the youth culture through their hair styles, style of dress and the blazing jazz performance in the middle of the movie.
Akira Kurosawa made a damn fine picture for 1948. His work also helped to put Toho on the map before they really started hitting it big with the Godzilla pictures that would start the following decade. For a film that is nearly seventy years-old, it is still effective and hits the right notes.