Director: Yasuharu Hasebe
Writer: Yoshihiro Ishimatsu, Keiji Kubota
Cast: Joe Shishido, Meiko Kaji, Hideaki Nitani, Tamio Kawachi, Eiji Go, Tatsuya Fuji, Jiro Okazaki, Shoki Fukae, Shoki Fukae, Kaku Takashina
Running Time: 94 min.
By Kyle Warner
There are two primary types of yakuza film. The genre began with films about chivalrous gangsters. These classics depicted yakuza as outlaws, yes, but they lived by a code, they were often romantic, and they did right by their neighborhoods. In the late 60s and into the 70s filmmakers deconstructed the yakuza, depicting them as ruthless bastards out for personal gain who cared little for honor or who got hurt along the way. This second type of yakuza film is perhaps best represented in the filmography of Kinji Fukasaku. His famous series Battles without Honor and Humanity explains the new depiction of the yakuza world so well you don’t even need to see the films because the title says it all. I think you could say that Yasuharu Hasebe’s 1968 film Retaliation is something like a bridge between the two types of yakuza film.
The film begins when Jiro (Akira Kobayashi) is released from prison after an eight year stint for killing a rival yakuza. In the time that he’s been away his yakuza family has fallen apart. Jiro’s old boss is sick in bed, but he’s been taken care of by the Hasama Family. The Hasama see potential in Jiro and ask if he’d be willing to take a crew (who mostly consist of wannabe gangsters) to a developing town and take over the territory. Because Jiro’s an old-school, loyal yakuza, he agrees.
Much of the story has to do with buying up land from farmers that are generally unwilling to sell. Jiro often calls himself a real estate agent and he’s not really joking. Two local gangs stand in Jiro’s way of buying up the land, making his fortune, and taking over the territory. One gang is ambitious but not entirely unlike Jiro. The other is a more modern, ruthless form of the yakuza, which uses violent extortion to get what they want. Jiro must contend with this new, brutish breed of the yakuza if he’s to win the turf war. But he also must be wary of the Hasama family. He’s here on their orders, but can he really trust them?
What’s interesting is that Retaliation begins in the more classic mold with a loyal, honor bound yakuza going off into the world to make his fortune and sort out his enemies, but it gradually becomes something much more cynical. Retaliation is an angry, pessimistic film. There are double-crosses, violent assassinations, torture, and all manner of immoral behavior. Jiro and his loyal men were made to seem like the standard yakuza at the beginning of the film, but by the end Jiro and the audience learn that decent, honorable yakuza are far outnumbered by murderous wolves.
Akira Kobayashi (Kanto Wanderer) is good in the lead role of Jiro. He has the acting abilities to be both the trustworthy friend and the dangerous criminal. Other notable members of the cast include Jo Shishido (Branded to Kill) as a vengeful thug, Hideaki Nitani (Tokyo Drifter) as a yakuza that doesn’t know what side he belongs on, Tatsuya Fuji (Massacre Gun) as a card shark, and a very young Meiko Kaji (Blind Woman’s Curse) in one of her first film appearances under her stage name (she began her acting career using her given name Masako Ota but quickly changed it to Meiko Kaji, supposedly because she was unhappy with the roles she was getting). All make worthwhile contributions, but Kobayashi’s clearly the star of the film.
While Kobayashi may be the star, Jo Shishido’s character is the more interesting part. At the start of the film Shishido tries to stab Jiro because the man Jiro had gone to prison for killing was Shishido’s sworn brother. It’s not long before Shishido is forced to play nice and join Jiro’s crew, but he’s always reminding Jiro that he plans to kill him when their business is done. These feel like increasingly empty threats, however, as the two become friends. The relationship between Kobayashi’s and Shishido’s characters calls to mind the sort of ‘bromances’ of certain John Woo films. This in turn made me look at the film a little differently and recognize that it would fit right in among the ‘heroic bloodshed’ action movies.
Retaliation was made right after Hasebe’s previous film, Massacre Gun. While Massacre Gun was shot in black and white, Retaliation is in color. I think Massacre Gun is the better looking film. Hasebe seemed more at ease with the stylistic flourishes of film noir in that earlier film than he does here. One thing I did find interesting was how he shot the interiors of Retaliation. More often than not there is something in the foreground denying us a complete, unobstructed look at the actors. I like this because it shows there was an idea behind every shot, but all the same it’s not very pretty to look at. The items in the foreground—an oscillating fan, a lantern, an aquarium—are out of focus, meaning that a good portion of the shot is blurry. I like it when a director and cinematographer try to do something with their visuals, and while I found their effort interesting, it’s only intermittently successful. The most visually impressive sequence comes halfway through the film in the form of a nighttime raid on a rival’s compound. The sequence is filmed almost entirely with the use of flashlights held by the yakuza, which lends the action a more frightening, almost horror movie quality as they’re slashing into each other.
Retaliation arrives on Blu-ray from Arrow Video. The release includes interviews with actor Jo Shishido, film historian Tony Rayns, an image gallery, and a booklet with writing by Jasper Sharp. Shishido is known for being brutally honest in his interviews and he doesn’t disappoint here. He shares his opinions on the actors and directors he worked with throughout his career. He remembers Akira Kobayashi as a hot-tempered man and someone he would not like to see again, but also recalls that Kobayashi was the only former colleague that called when Shishido’s house burned down. In the Tony Rayns interview the film historian describes Hasebe as a cultured gentleman, which seems at odds with the sort of movies he was making. Rayns also sheds some light on Shishido’s life and career, from the decision to get those cheek implants that granted him his signature appearance to Shishido’s acting idols which included James Cagney. It’s a great pair of interviews, both entertaining and informative. I enjoyed them so much I would’ve been just fine if they’d been twice as long.
Watching Retaliation I was often reminded of the films by Kinji Fukasaku, John Woo, Takashi Ishii, and Takashi Miike. Retaliation did feature some big stars, so I have no doubt that it was widely seen, but I have no idea what measurable influence the film had on the yakuza genre when it was released in 1968. Regardless of whether Retaliation was a direct influence on crime pictures in the years to come, it does feel a bit like one of the more notable first steps as the genre started down a darker path.
Kyle Warner’s Rating: 7/10