Japanese Outlaw Masters Film Festival
Underworld Beauty (Ankokugai no Bijo)
, (Nikkatsu/Vitagraph Films/American Cinematheque, 1958)
Tattooed Life (Irezumi Ichidai)
, (Nikkatsu/Toho/Vitagraph Films/American Cinematheque, 1965)

Both of these films were directed by that auteur of the yakuza mythos, Seijun Suzuki, perhaps best known for Tokyo Drifter and Branded to Kill. Suzuki also directed Young Breasts, The Naked Woman and the Gun, The Guys Who Put Money on Me, Aim at the Police Van, Teen Yakuza, Pure Emotions of the Sea, Inn of the Floating Weeds, The Fang in the Hole, Capone Cries a Lot, and Harbor Toast: Victory is in Our Grasp. I have no idea how good any of those last films are, but the titles are fabulous.

The yakuza exercises a similar grip upon the collective imagination of the Japanese as the Mafia does on Americans. We have (supposedly) dark-suited Italians who make heartfelt confession after a day of murder; they have (supposedly) punch-permed criminals who are so unconcerned with being inconspicuous that they cut off joints from their pinky fingers to prove their allegiance, and adorn themselves with gorgeous full-torso tattoos -- that in a culture in which bathhouses are for bathing!

There is a level of truth to both those cliches, but they conceal a darker reality. Like the Mafia, the yakuza were said to have a code of honor; like the Mafia, it was honored more in the breach than the observance. Organized criminals with a glamorous image and a brutal reality, in Japan as in the US, are catnip to directors.

Director Seijun Suzuki was eventually fired from the Nikkatsu movie studio because, in the words of Nikkatsu president Kyusaku Hori, "We don't need a director who makes movies nobody understands." The philistine. But these two movies are from early in Suziki's career, and are fairly conventional genre exercises. Well, I said fairly.

Underworld Beauty, shot in atmospheric Scope black and white, is very much like a good solid American film noir from the 1940s, except that it's a Japanese movie from the late 1950s. If John Huston had been Japanese, he would have made this instead of The Maltese Falcon. Which is not to say that Underworld Beauty is of the same level of quality -- it isn't -- but it's flying reconnaissance over very similar territory.

It opens in a shadowy tunnel beneath the Tokyo streets. Michitaro Mizushima, playing a yakuza who has just been released from prison for his role in a diamond heist, retrieves three diamonds and a gun from their hiding place.

He wants to give the diamonds to his yakuza friend who lost a leg during the heist and has been reduced to running an oden stand. (Oden is a hearty, warming soup of vegetables in miso broth, but one gathers from the characters' attitudes that running an oden stand is the equivalent of flipping burgers.)

But giving up the diamonds is not a simple task. This is, after all, a film noir. Their mutual yakuza boss wants the diamonds, the yakuza boss' Peter Lorre-like cackling assistant wants the diamonds, and the crippled friend has a sister (Mari Shiraki) who's running wild, picking up American sailors, and wandering bars in her bra. The sister doesn't want the diamonds, but her cowardly yet fiendish artist boyfriend, whom she poses for topless (with beams, paintings, mannequins, and other opaque items blocking the crucial parts) does. A lot.

Plotting, counterplotting, and mayhem ensues. The hero, the oden guy, the yakuza boss, and his minion attempt to sell the diamonds to a rich American, but they all get held up at gunpoint by masked men. The brother swallows the diamonds, then leaps to his death. (The hand-over occurred atop a tall building, presumably so that if anything went wrong, someone could leap to his death.)

The artist boyfriend, using his anatomical charts for reference, hacks the diamonds from the corpse's stomach while it's lying in state. The diamonds pass from hand to hand, and are hidden in different ingenious locations by just about every major character.

The sister is then kidnapped by villains who torture her by locking her in a sauna. Later she has to take off her shirt so she can shovel coal during the climactic shoot-out, in which she and the hero are trapped in the basement of a bathhouse. (There is a logical reason for this. Honest. It's so they can escape through the coal chute.) Happily, the hero takes off his shirt too. Both are given loving close-ups of their smooth flesh beaded with water and sweat.

This is not great art, but it's extremely enjoyable. In addition to being a fine gangster film, it's an intriguing portrait of post-war Tokyo. All sorts of things have changed since then, but apparently Shibuya has always been a good place to go dancing.

Tattooed Life has less inspired storytelling and is not set in half as interesting a milieu. It's still quite entertaining. A handsome young yakuza, played by Hideki Takahashi, is dismayed to see his younger brother, an artist, is beginning to get sucked into a life of crime. ("You're supposed to go to art school! Then you can get a good job," exclaims Takahashi. The audience, obviously an embittered bunch, howled.)

Takahashi and his brother try repeatedly to take a boat to China, but finally flee to a rural mining community. They gain the trust of the miners, the boss's young daughter becomes smitten with Takahashi, and the boss's middle-aged wife becomes smitten with Takahashi's brother. But the mining operation is sabotaged, Takahashi's old yakuza clan follows him, the local yakuza clan is watching him, and everyone at the mining camp wonders why Takahashi never takes off his shirt. Could he be… tattooed?

Meanwhile, we kept seeing ominous close-ups of a man's feet. Whoever he is, (we don't see anything but his feet), he's wearing bright red vinyl shoes and is spying on and closing in on the Takahashi throughout the film. This has a nonsensical but hilarious pay-off when the camera, before finally revealing the wearer, suddenly pans over to reveal another pair of feet wearing the same shoes! There were two of them! Whoa!

The film contains quite a bit of non-martial arts hand-to-hand rough housing, much of which is somewhat realistic. But the action payoff comes at the end, in an amazing final sequence in which the hero fights hordes of bad yakuza while carrying a parasol, then does the same in a house with thousands of shoji screens, giving a mirrored doors into infinity effect. At one point the fight is shot from below while the fighters are standing on glass -- a totally non-realistic effect, as they're on a wood floor at the time.

It's crazy and spectacular. Suzuki's no-taste studio bosses took one look at it, and gave him his first warning to stop doing weird experimental stuff instead of straightforward punch-kick-slash-shoot. As you will see if you ever watch Tokyo Drifter, he ignored them.

Sorry, you missed the festival at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood. Look for the films on video. These films may eventually be released on DVD via Vitagraph Films/American Cinematheque, but no date has been set. For more information, contact Vitagraph's president, David Shultz, at 323.461.2020, ext. 123.

 

[Rachel Manija Brown]