Director: Yasuharu Hasebe
Writer: Yasuharu Hasebe, Ryuzu Nakanishi
Cast: Jo Shishido, Tatsuya Fuji, Jiro Okazaki, Ryoji Hayama, Takashi Kanda, Hideaki Nitani, Ken Sanders, Tamaki Sawa, Yoko Yamamoto
Running Time: 89 min.
By Kyle Warner
One look at the credits of popular Japanese action movie tough guys like Jo Shishido, Ken Takakura, and Bunta Sugawara lets you know that we in the West have only seen but a sampling of their career’s work. In all likelihood, we’ll never get to see all the films of our favorite foreign actors. Considering this, I almost feel like a minor celebration is in order when a film from so long ago and so far away is put out by distributors for a new generation of fans. Filmed at Nikkatsu Studios by director Yasuharu Hasebe (Stray Cat Rock: Sex Hunter) and starring Jo Shishido (Branded to Kill), 1967’s Massacre Gun had never been available on DVD or Blu-ray in the US until now.
If you know what the Nikkatsu action movies of the period were like, then you have a pretty good idea of what to expect from Massacre Gun. There’s a certain familiarity to the film that’s immediately apparent, but I think it’s a comforting familiarity. Massacre Gun presents stars we know and love and it lets the film go to places that the writers and studio knew had worked before. I don’t think there’s any denying it’s a somewhat formulaic genre piece, but the formula works and the cast and crew clearly understood the ingredients, so it all turns out to be a highly enjoyable movie.
Yakuza Boss Akazawa believes the men that work under him couldn’t survive without him and so he doesn’t seem to worry when he puts them through hell time and time again. The film begins with Akazawa asking Ryuichi (Jo Shishido) to kill his girlfriend. It’s not all that clear as to why. Ryuichi is conflicted, but he goes through with it, and drives her car into the ocean. Ryuichi hates himself for doing it, but he never raises a finger against his boss. Instead, Ryuichi’s brothers Saburo (Jiro Okazaki) and Eiji (Tatsuya Fuji) speak up on his behalf. In response, Boss Akazawa breaks the boxer Saburo’s hands so that his boxing dream will go unfulfilled. Ryuichi has had enough, he breaks ties with Akazawa. In response Akazawa trashes Ryuichi’s club. Things keep escalating until the two sides find themselves in a bloody turf war.
The classic Nikkatsu gangster movies were heavily influenced by the crime films of America. Sometimes they try to hide it away, but Massacre Gun wears its influences with pride. The club that Ryuichi and his brothers operate is an American-themed nightclub with jazz musicians and American dancers. The film’s jazzy score is a nice touch, as it manages to both set the film apart and lends some added melancholy to the story.
The action in Massacre Gun isn’t based in strict real-world realism but rather a more film-like reality. Men sometimes need to get shot a dozen times before they take the hint and fall over dead. Massacre Gun saves the best action for last, giving us a great sequence as Shishido — armed with a semi-automatic rifle (a massacre gun?) — fights alone against a small army of thugs. Like most the Nikkatsu’s ‘new action’ films, Massacre Gun is a blend of action and film noir, but I’d say that the noir elements are the dominant stylistic choice here. Shot in inky black and white, much of the film has our characters looking appropriately downbeat as cigarette smoke snakes towards the ceiling and hard drinks sweat on the bar. Jo Shishido and Hideaki Nitani (Tokyo Drifter) are especially good in these moments, as they appear to be genuinely haunted by the amount of violence that’s being doled out amongst former allies.
Acting out externally are the younger characters Eiji and Saburo. Eiji decides to take Boss Akazawa’s mistress as his lover in order to get back at the old bully. Tatsuya Fuji (In the Realm of the Senses) is really good in the role, playing the most passionate member of the group. My favorite character is actually the innocent and broken Saburo, who feels a bit like a casualty of his older brother’s war. He’s the one man that has a legitimate future but it’s taken away from him by Akazawa. Jiro Okazaki (Retaliation) was the least experienced member of the main cast, but he pulls off a great performance as the most relatable male character.
Director Yasuharu Hasebe was similarly lacking in experience in 1967, having only directed one movie prior to Massacre Gun. Like Okazaki, the relative inexperience doesn’t show, and there are virtually no major missteps to the writing or directing. Hasebe would go onto make more crime films for Nikkatsu and directed some popular Meiko Kaji films like Female Convict Scorpion: Grudge Song and a few entries in the Stray Cat Rock series. When the studio moved towards making pink films, Hasebe stayed on and rose in popularity after helping to create the ‘violent pink’ film genre.
Massacre Gun arrives on Blu-ray and DVD from Arrow Video. Special features include a 17 minute interview with Jo Shishido, a 37 minute interview with historian Tony Rayns, a trailer, and a booklet with an essay written by Jasper Sharp. Shishido’s interview covers his youth, what got him into movies in the first place, and his contribution to action cinema in Japan. He admits that some of the crime films he made have started to blur together because he made so many of them, but he singles out A Colt is My Passport as his favorite (a good choice, sir). He also talks about his contribution to Massacre Gun and how he choreographed much of the action. Shishido is now in his 80s but he’s still cool and funny, and fans should enjoy the interview. Tony Rayns is one of my favorite historians on Japanese cinema. His interview here talks about the history of Nikkatsu, Japan’s oldest film studio. As Rayns puts it, anything that could go wrong for a studio did go wrong in Nikkatsu’s long legacy. It’s a highly informative interview. The trailer for Massacre Gun is kind of amusing because it adds in shots from A Colt is My Passport in order to enhance the trailer’s action. The Arrow Video Blu-ray is region free, so readers overseas shouldn’t have any difficulty watching the disc.
I really enjoyed Massacre Gun and I think that other fans of Jo Shishido and Nikkatsu action will like it as well. Similarly, I think it’s a good entry film for viewers interested in the genre but are unsure of where to start. There are better, more popular films made by Nikkatsu and Shishido, but Massacre Gun has a bit of everything that fans love about these sort of films.
Kyle Warner’s Rating: 7.5/10