Doing Time

5.0 out of 5 stars In Jail in Japan

Doing Time

Life inside jail is one of those secret worlds that I have always been curious about, but not curious enough to want to experience first-hand. How much of what you hear and see on TV is real? Japanese jails, with their extra veil of secrecy, are even more mysterious.

“Doing Time” is author Kazuichi Hanawa’s biography on his two years in prison from 1995-1997, in Sapporo, Japan. Hanawa was a model gun enthusiast, but crossed the boundaries when he acquired a real gun. Practicing with the gun in the woods, he ran afoul of Japan’s strict gun-control law and the police arrested Hanawa for illegal position of a firearm.

Most jail-biographies focus on the oppressive and harsh nature of jail, or the injustice suffered by the inmates. Hanawa takes a much different tone in “Doing Time.” He doesn’t deny that he broke the law, and seems to be at peace with the fact that he broke society’s rules and now he has to pay. From the very start, with his short essay “How to Dress in Prisoner’s Clothes,” Hanawa is more concerned with the normal aspects of daily life in prison (like learning to use a prison toilet) than in attempting to illicit sympathy or outrage from his readers.

Not a complete biography, “Doing Time” is snatches of memorable events or reflections during Hanawa’s time in prison. There is no clear timeline, no passage of point A to point B. The comic does not begin with Hanawa’s trial and end with his leaving prison. There is some introductions to the other prisoners, and what people talk about in jail. But much of the book is just wandering and drifting in a place where days of the week and months have no more meaning, and your life is measured out in years to go.

Being Japanese, of course, much time is dedicated to the prison meals, and memorizing on what day of the week what food comes. Food is one of life’s great pleasures, even more so when you are in captivity and have nothing much to look forward to. Hanawa lays out big two-page spreads of the monthly prison menu, as well as little tricks he learns like adding soy sauce to the 3-parts wheat/ 7-parts rice mixture.

Hanawa uses a couple of different drawing styles, but stays mainly consistent with a clean line and detailed background. The prisoners are all drawn as short and squat, almost like little children, but with rough adult faces. As can be expected, the situations in prison can get earthy, but nothing of the horrors of rape and violence like American jails. Just a bunch of stinky guys piling into a communal bath together and talking about their athlete’s foot.

“Doing Time” has an interview with Hanawa and a separate commentary. Both give deeper insight into the nature of Hanawa’s crime and sentence, and subsequent freedom. Needless to say, his enthusiasm for model guns has since waned.

Posted in Manga, Yakuza. Tags: , . 3 Comments »

Outrage

4.0 out of 5 stars Business as usual

OUTRAGE – Japanese 2010 movie 1 disc DVD (Region 3) (NTSC) directed by Takeshi Kitano (English subtitled)

After the critical success but commercial failure of his surrealist autobiographical trio (Takeshis, Kantoku Banzai, Achilles and Tortoise), irector Kitano Takeshi said he wanted to make a flick that was just popular entertainment. Going back to his roots in the yakuza genre, the result of this commercial imperative is “Outrage.”

Like when Kurosawa Akira made his “popular entertainment” flick The Hidden Fortress, Kitano can’t really keep the art out of his filmmaking. He took an unusual approach when writing “Outrage.” After creating his list of characters, he decided how they all died then worked backwards creating a story that would accommodate their deaths. The result is a violent and merciless film, one where one small action tips the dominoes of death, which march on relentlessly until all fall down.

The story is set in Tokyo, where Boss Ikemoto (Kunimura Jun, My Darling is a Foreigner) is recently released from prison, and gathers at a meeting to pay tribute to the yakuza lord of Eastern Japan. It is known that in prison Ikemura swore an oath of brotherhood with gangster Murase (Ishibashi, Renji, 20th Century Boys), an independent gangster who controls some turf and a drug operation. The yakuza lord worries about Ikemura’s new loyalties; is he plotting with Murase for an over throw? Ikemura decides to allay these suspicious by picking a deliberate small-scale fight with Murase, opening an office on his territory and allowing one of his gangsters to fall for a Murase-scam so that he can demand reparations. The plan escalates, however, as there are those in both Ikemoto’s and Murase’s organizations who would take advantage of the strife to advance their own position by killing rivals.

One of the interesting things about “Outrage” is that Kitano gives us no great plot to hang on to. Each player in the deadly game is pursuing their own agendas; be it to create revenue, level-up in the yakuza hierarchy, or simply take out some petty revenge. There is no overriding plot, no clever plan. The gangsters are opportunists, nothing more, each trying to figure out how to advance with their fingers and lives intact. When a line is cut, that story ends completely.

“Outrage” seemed more authentic to the real, everyday operations of yakuza than most films in the genre. There are no super-killers or honorable outlaws. When I was watching the film, I found I didn’t root for any particular character. No matter who came out on top in the end, nothing changed. It would still be business as usual exploiting innocent people and taking without earning as much as you can.

In fact, this made me wonder at the title. There isn’t much “outrage” in the film itself, so maybe Kitano’s “outrage” is at the system that allows these bottom-feeders to exist. Or maybe it is Kitano’s “outrage” that he has to fall back on crowd-pleasing flicks when few people appreciated his Art. Or maybe he just thought “outrage” sounded cool.

The only issue I had with “Outrage” as a film was the pacing. The film got terribly slow in the middle, and a side-plot involving an illegal casino run out of an African embassy dragged on too long. I generally like Kintano’s pacing, with films like Fireworks and Sonatine balancing out the slow and bang-fast. Kitano’s trademark oddball humor was also entirely missing from “Outrage,” and while I didn’t want a lot of it a scene here and there would have been a welcome relief from the grim doings.

Shoujyo – An Adolescent

3.0 out of 5 stars So-so vanity film

Shoujyo – An Adolescent

Directing his first and only feature film, Japanese movie star Eiji Okuda made an unabashed vanity film. He cast himself as the ultimate man’s man, a former gangster, complete with full yakuza tattoo, who reformed and has become a small-town police officer. Of course, beneath his brusque exterior beats a heart of gold, shown by how he spends his free time taking care of a local teenage retarded boy. He is a man so completely dripping with sex-appeal that he can’t even return a missing dog without the happy owner insisting that he come in for a little afternoon delight. This poor guy is so tired out by refreshing the housewives that he tries to have a quiet rest and a beer in a local bar. Ah, but even it is too much for the ladies, as a cute 15-year-old jr. high school girl soon plops down at his table and introduces herself with the line “Hey Mister! You up for some sex?” Its a hard life indeed.

“Shoujyo – An Adolescent” is ostensibly based on a short story by Mikihiko Renjo, but it plays off as more of a soft-core “Lolita” clone. The story line is full of coincidences. Okuda soon begins a relationship with the 15-year old Yoko (played by 22-year old Mayu Ozawa), and finds that she is the brother of his little retarded pal. On top of that, Yoko’s grandfather is the one that gave him his tattoo many years ago. Yoko’s mother, of course, demands sex from Okuda when she uncovers the relationship with her daughter, and Okuda willingly sacrifices himself, soon bedding both mother and daughter. None of the characters are even slightly realistic, with Yoko being little more than a fanciful image of youthful beauty and a middle-aged man’s wish fulfillment.

The only redeeming feature of “Shoujyou” is that it is well-filmed. The story is shallow, but the pictures are pretty and so are the girls that Okuda trysts with. As a soft-core pink film with a lolita theme, there are certainly worse movies out there. Just don’t set your expectations too high.

Onimasa

4.0 out of 5 stars An truly epic Japanese gangster film

Onimasa is a man who believes in his own legend. An oyabun-boss of a local yakuza group, he likes to see himself as an honorable and “chivalrous man” instead of the brutal, egomaniacal thug that he really his. Onimasa believes in the code of “outlaw hero,” and manages to lie to himself about the nobility of his own actions even as he buys young daughters from poor local merchants and then sells them into prostitution, or works as the strong-arm for a boss even more powerful than himself.

An intricate and multi-layered film, “Onimasa” (“Kiryuin Hanako no shogai” or “The Life and Times of Kiryuin Hanako”) was the second yakuza collaboration between director Gosha Hideo (The Geisha) and that legend of Japanese cinema Nakadai Tatsuya (Harakiri). Their first collaboration, The Wolves, was an unqualified success and it seemed only natural to put the two powerhouses back together for a follow-up in the genre.

Whereas “The Wolves” was a personal, almost Shakespearian tale of revenge, “Onimasa” is an epic sprawl, spanning the years from 1918 and up to the 1940s. The influence of 70s-era mafia films (and cheesy music) is palatable, as Gosha attempted to emulate the generational aspect of those stories as well as the balance between admiration and repulsion one has for the characters.

The story begins when Onimasa, the preferred nickname of local gangster boss Kiryuin Masagoro, comes to a local merchant who desires his protection but has no money to offer. The merchant has a surplus of children, and offers one of his sons to the ganglord. Onimasa takes the son, but also decides to grab a daughter while he is there, and snatches the young Matsue from the family because he likes her looks. The decision proves to be a wise one, for as the son is a weak and fragile boy who does not long last in Onimasa’s household, Matsue proves to be strong-willed and able-bodied, and thrives in the dangerous environment.

The story follows both Onimasa and Matsue through the years, as Matsue struggles to come out of under the fist of Onimasa’s wife, (Iwashita Shima, Double Suicide) and the various concubines who see Matsue as a brat and a potential threat to their positions. Onimasa continues to work his will as he may, still seeing himself as something of a hero to the local populace who quake in fear at the sight of him, and trying to balance his worldview with the commands of the Big Boss Uichi Suda (another Japanese legendary actor, Tanba Tetsuro, Under the Flag of the Rising Sun) who cares nothing for honor or chivalry, only for profits.

Onimasa’s worldview comes to a crisis when he meets Tsujihara Tokubei, an idealistic student who supports the working man, and would rather die than betray his ethics. Tokubei forces Onimasa to come to terms with his own evil nature, and the fact that Onimasa is not the hero of the common people that he likes to believe. Of course, it is only a matter of time before Tokubei catches the eye of the now-grown Matsue (Natsume Masako, Antarctica), something that Onimasa likes not at all, no matter how fond he is of the brave young man.

And that is only brushing the surface, without getting into details of Onimasa’s beautiful, spoiled and stupid daughter Hanako who is actually the character the film is named after (“The Life and Times of Kiryuin Hanako”) yet who plays a relatively minor role. Along with that is Onimasu’s long-standing grudge with a rival oyabun, and far, far too many plot points to be jammed into a synopsis.

For all its grand intent, “Onimasa” is not as good a film as the more focused Gosha/ Nakadai film “The Wolves.” Gosha plays around with too many elements here, swinging somewhat wildly back and forth, almost unable to decide for himself if Onimasa is hero or villain. Nakadai plays it both ways, and thus Onimasa comes off as both a powerful and a weak character, difficult to get to know.

The sexuality of “Onimasa” is almost jarring as well, incorporating elements from the Pink Film genre that I was unaccustomed to seeing in a Gosha film. Onimasa is a unrepentant sexual being, taking who he wants when he wants, caring nothing for the opinion of the woman. His intentions towards his adopted daughter Matsue are unclear from the very beginning, until an explosive scene makes it all too clear.

The film carries Gosha’s signature style, of a long slow burn leading up to an explosive finish, but two and a half hours the burn is too long, twisting down too many roads and following too many characters that by the time of the final showdown it comes off as more of a whimper than a bang. The lengthy epic of a gangster’s life was done better later with Sai Yoichi’s Blood And Bones.

Which is not to say that “Onimasa” is bad. Even a weaker Gosha/Nakadai film is still worth watching, and there are elements here that are beautiful and brutal. Probably the best moment is when a grown-up Matsue shouts at an attacker, “I am the daughter of Onimasa! Don’t fuck with me!” This is a classic line of Japanese film, one repeated over and over by schoolgirls with a bad attitude.

Legends of the Poisonous Seductress #1: Female Demon Ohyaku

5.0 out of 5 stars Buckets of awesome

The first thing that surprised me about this flick is that it is in black and white. Obviously, I could have read that from the product description, but I just sort of passed over it and seeing that vivid color cover I was expecting something different. Not that this is anyway a bad thing. There is something unexpected about a sexual and violent black and white film that makes them all the more stunning, just because I am not used to seeing such extremes in the classic format.

“Female Demon Ohyaku” (“Yôen dokufuden hannya no ohyaku”) is just a fantastic flick. The first Pinky Violence film, and the one that would inspire many other rape/revenge flicks like Lady Snowblood and Kill Bill it has all the classic elements. Ohyaku Dayu (Miyazono Junko) is a beautiful acrobat/prostitute who is sold to the highest bidder following each show. Capturing the eye of a handsome thief, he rescues her from a bureaucratic rapist and claims her for his own. She is just the bad girl a guy like him needs as partner and wife. Ah, but a happy life was not meant for Ohyaku, and she soon finds her self without a lover, disgraced and exiled on a prison island. There is only one thing for a desperate gal in that situation….revenge.

Now, being an older flick “Female Demon Ohyaku” is not as extreme as some of the later Pinky Violence offerings. There is no real nudity to speak of, and the gore is limited. But they make do with what they have, as Ohyaku seduces and kills her way through a number of hapless men, and even one woman (very sexy scene!), working her way towards her target. Lead actress Miyazono Junko is quite the beauty, although believable tough and deadly as well. She doesn’t let anyone take the easy way out in her revenge, but gets creative with her cruelty. Wakayama Tomisaburo, of Lone Wolf and Cub fame, plays a supporting role but never really gets into the action.

The DVD has some great features as well, including an essay on the Sword and Girl genre, and a nice commentary. The cover is reversible so you can have the original Japanese artwork instead of the shown cover, which is really cool. This is followed by two other loosely-connected color films in the series Legends of the Poisonous Seductress #2: Quick Draw Okatsu. and Legends of the Poisonous Seductress #3: Okatsu the Fugitive. They don’t continue the story, but feature the same lead actress and themes. I am anxious to pick them up, and see if they are as magnificent as this gem.

No Borders, No Limits: Nikkatsu Action Cinema

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5.0 out of 5 stars Black Tight Killers and Yakuza Graveyards

At some time in the late 1950’s, Japanese film got cool. Really cool. The Western influences of cowboy flicks, bop jazz and big American cars imported during the Post-occupation era left a powerful mark, and movie makers discovered how to distill all of these foreign ingredients into their base elements, then mix them together with Japanese style to produce a unique genre known as the “borderless action” film. The term comes from the merging of East and West, creating a world with the best of both, filled with hardboiled hoodlums and beautiful but deadly dance hall girls.

Looking to re-jump their business, which had been put on hold during the War years, Nikkatsu studios was the cutting edge of this new style, pumping out hits and rising stars the likes of which had never been seen before. Starting with Sun Tribe flick Crazed Fruit, which introduced superstar Ishihara Yujio, Nikkatsu dug into the amoral world of Japan’s youth. Sex, drugs and jazz & roll. It wasn’t the lifestyle everyone was leading, but it was the one everyone wanted to be leading.

Mark Schilling’s “No Borders, No Limits” is a history lesson on the Nikkatsu action films. An often underappreciated genre, these films rarely held the West’s appreciation in the same way as the Samurai genre, probably due to their lack of “Japanese-ness” with nary a ninja nor geisha in sight. However, due largely to Tarantino bringing things full circle by producing Nikkatsu-influenced Kill Bill and the Grindhouse series, there has been a renewed and deserved interest in the Nikkatsu golden age.

Understanding the relative unfamiliarity, Schilling has put together a guided tour through these borderless territories, introducing you to the major players, the actors and directors whose energy and youth made these dynamic flicks popular. Essentially a series of articles rather than a continuous book, Schilling introduces such powerhouses as the Nikkatsu Diamond Line, the four young men who could bring a nation of women to their knees with a well-placed swagger or snarl of the lip, and Suzuki Seijun, whose sometimes bizarre style would cause him to be fired by his own study, but become legendary overseas.

On top of that, there are a few interviews, including the fabulous Shishido Joe (Youth of the Beast, Tokyo Drifter) and director Masuda Toshio (Girl Boss Revenge). It is great to read the personal stories and opinions of these film giants, and to get a glimpse backstage. Full color reproductions of the posters for the various films are and added treat as well, giving you a taste of the style and flair found in the Nikkatsu of this time.

If there is any problem with “No Borders, No Limits”, it is that DVD companies have not kept up. You are going to want to see pretty much every flick that gets showcased, but not all of them are readily available. Some of the famous ones, like Stray Cat Rock: Sex Hunter, will wet your appetite but leave you hungry for gems like “A Colt is my Passport” and “Slaughter Gun”. However with the current revival and recognition of Nikkatsu action flicks, these will be likely to be released soon.

The Wolves

wolves

5.0 out of 5 stars Two houses

This is an intensely cool movie. A dark and brutal power struggle between two rival gangsters, this is no slick action fest but more of a Shakespearean slow decimation of power. It is, quite simply, one of the best yakuza flicks I have every seen.

Directed by Gosha Hideo (Sword of the Beast, Three Outlaw Samurai), the movie trudges through the underworld of Japan’s gangster society, the yakuza. Unlike many Japanese genre films, this one starts with a quick bang and then switches gears to a more personal battle. Filmed two years before the seminal yakuza epic Battles Without Honor & Humanity, you can see some of the groundwork being laid here for the film that would transform the genre forever. Although “The Wolves” is not nearly as groundbreaking as some that would follow it, it is genre done to absolute perfection.

“The Wolves” (“Shussho Iwai” or “Prison Release Celebration”) is set at the dawn of the Showa Era, when the new Emperor granted amnesty to over 400 prisoners in celebration of his ascension. One of these men is Iwahashi Seji, played by master actor Nakadai Tatsuya (Harakiri, Ran, Yojimbo). Iwahashi must deal with the fact that his former master is now dead, and the power structure has swung in balance to a rival ganglord. Moreover, Iwahashi’s best friend, Tsutomu, has disappeared following the pardon and Tsutomu’s girl Aya is about to marry the rival ganglord. All his time in prison has been for nothing, and now he must determine his course as one of absorption or revenge, of accepting things the new status quo or striking out like a wolf.

Much of the power of this film is visual. Gosha has taken some interesting risks, going away from the splashy and fantastic and into the gritty and realistic. A fight scene is not one man leaping and slashing with a blazing sword against countless foes, but two guys struggling desperately for one knife, rolling in the dirt and putting everything they have into it knowing only one will walk away. The colors are muted, and there is something about the entire film that seems like it has been soaked in mud. But in a good way.

The use of music is also outstanding. Decades before the release of Hero, we have two men battling in intense action with no sound other than the mournful twang of a shamisen. “The Wolves” features a powerful score, with contrast of “speed of music” and “speed of scene” being a prominent theme.

The Animeigo DVD release did a fantastic job restoring this beautiful and important film. The picture and sound are great, and the subtitled track is done in the unique Animeigo style, where cultural “footnotes” and projected as well, providing a basis for some aspects that may be confusing to Western viewers. I have seen this format before in Wakeful Nights, and it really adds to the enjoyment of the film as well as being a study guide to the Japanese language and culture.

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