No matter how many of these chivalrous Yakuza
films (ninkyo eiga) from the 1960's that I watch, I get totally sucked into
them. They are very formulaic with the stoic honorable yakuza, the woman
who loves him, the villains who have no respect for the code and a theme
song that plays as he inevitably walks alone to the final showdown. They
all play out like High Noon and Gary Cooper. Except the body count tends
to be a lot higher. They lean considerably on ritual, on their traditional
Japanese roots and manners, on obligation and sacrifice. Even a film like
this which is much more a melodrama than a typical Yakuza film, hits all
these ninkyo eiga characteristics head on.
Toei in particular seemed to have the market cornered with either Takakura
Ken or the star of this one, Tsuruta Koji, playing the hero. In most ways
they are almost interchangeable - quietly charismatic, handsome, moody, graceful.
a touch of melancholy surrounding them and a serenely fatalistic air. Tsuruta
was born in 1924, in his youth he was a brawler and in WWII he joined a Kamikaze
squadron but was never called to action. After the war he joined the theater
and then film making his debut in 1948 in Herd of Gamblers. He appeared in
an Ozu film, Flavor of Green Tea Poured Over Rice. He signed up with Toei
in 1960 and his 1963 hit, Jinsei gekijô: Hishakaku (also has Takakura
in it), helped begin the ninkyo eiga genre. He became a huge star over the
next ten years.
This is a fairly slow patient mannered film. You keep expecting it to break
out into violence but it keeps being held back by constraint looking for
compromise from one side of the equation. Finally when this doesn't work,
that walk to destiny takes place sending a chill or two down your leg. Because
they know and you know that death often lays ahead but that isn't important.
Honor and obligation is.
It seems mundane to say that this is about two cement companies competing
against one another in Osaka 1907. But there is so much involved in that
- the clans are fiercely loyal to their head and willing to go to war for
them. The head of one of them is assassinated at a festival by the Hoshino
family using the gangster group headed by Karasawa. The other clan, Kiyatatsu,
now headed by Asajiro (Tsuruta) tries to keep the peace. Into this volatile
mix is a geisha who falls in love with Asajiro but is promised to Karasawa.
She is played by Junko Fuji (now known as Sumiko Fuji) who was paired up
with either Tsuruta or Takakura many times. For my taste she is a bit too
much of a victim here - I prefer her in her action roles.
The film is directed by one of Toei's master directors, Tai Kato, who I appreciate
more the more I come across his films. This is beautifully shot, ravishing
colors, lovely period sets and a wonderfully placed camera and framing -
either coming in for a close-up or these lovely wide-angle set ups. He was
to go on to direct three in the Red Peony Gambler films starring Junko -
one of my favorite series of films.