Clearly, the main draw here is Mishima Yukio. Famed author of books such as The Sailor Who Fell From Grace with the Sea and Spring Snow; Famed nationalist who saw himself as the last representative of the Samurai spirit, subject of Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters and his own film Patriotism; Living forever in legend for his failed attempt to bravely die by hara-kiri, only to have his skill-less second botch the job. And here he is in a yakuza flick.
We are all curious to see how well he can act, how well the violent and macho persona of Mishima translates to the screen under the direction of Masumura Yasuzo. Masumura himself, director of such great flicks as Giants & Toys, Blind Beast and Manji, was apprehensive about the author’s ability to pull it off. He was reportedly quite harsh on Mishima, giving him no star treatment and demanding that he put his all into the role. This thrilled Mishima, who loved both the challenge and the harsh treatment which played to his tough-guy sensibilities, and dove in enthusiastically.
As a movie, “Afraid to Die” (“Karakkaze yaro” or “The Cold-wind Punk”), isn’t exactly a treasure. Ostentatiously a satire of the yakuza genre, one wonder’s if the satire was intentional or if that was tagged on later by advertising people. The plot is your basic “Yakuza released from jail needs to take his turf back” -scenario played out so well in films like The Wolves. Mishima’s character, Takeo, is just a jerk who inherited his position as boss from his father. Takeo is one of the most unlikable protagonists ever to grace the screen, as he is at times a coward, a bully, a woman beater and a rapist. Takeo’s big plan involves kidnapping the young daughter of a rival and threatening to kill her if he doesn’t pay up, and then sneaking abortion pills into his girlfriend’s tea when he finds out she is pregnant. Not exactly a character you are rooting for.
But Masumura is a talented director, however, and manages to pull a good story out of the lackluster script and his non-professional lead actor. Mishima pulls off the role quite well, and it is interesting that his was willing to sink into such a low character. He is not exactly a fluid actor, but by no means embarrasses himself. Wakao Ayako, a regular Masumura actress in films such as Manji and Red Angel, is her usual beautiful and strong self, the very image of an idealized “Japanese beauty” who takes her suffering in silence and still keeps going. Apparently, she suffered more than her character during her scenes with Mishima, who actually struck her during several scenes and bruised her up fairly badly. She couldn’t have held too much of a grudge however, as she later appeared in an adaptation of Mishima’s “Spring Snow”. Shimura Takashi (Ikiru, Seven Samurai) lends the film some necessary credibility, and plays a rare tough-guy yakuza role.
Absolutely worth watching, “Afraid to Die” is an uneven film that overcomes most of its difficulties and has some real flashes of brilliance. Masumura’s European-influenced camera frames some really nice scenes, especially the climax which is worth the ticket price right there.