Category Archives: Genre: Yakuza/Gangster

Wandering Ginza Butterfly: She-Cat Gambler

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Wandering Ginza Butterfly: She-Cat Gambler (Japan, 1972)

The first Wandering Ginza Butterfly movie (which did not feature Chiba) was a bit of a mishmash that brought Meiko Kaji, who had just quit Nikkatsu, to Toei. Toei saw her as potential heir to Junko Fuji, their biggest female yakuza star whose retirement earlier in 1972 had ended the Red Peony Gambler series and put another nail in the soon-to-be-buried ninkyo yakuza genre which Toei was reluctant to let die. Director Kazuhiko Yamaguchi, who was fresh off from his trendy and contemporary Delinquent Girl Boss series, turned the film into a hybrid between modern and old school yakuza films. The movie had its share of exhilarating scenes, but was also too routinely written with silly comedic relief and standard yakuza trappings to be a classic.

This slightly superior sequel gets off to a very good start with boobs, sunset, a Meiko Kaji theme song, and an excellent gambling duel before the film has even hit the 12 minute mark. A moment later Sonny Chiba shows up as a goofy entrepreneur running a small prostitution business! Unfortunately the rest of the film is not as good, save for the finale. The film comes with the usual yakuza film clichés, including Chiba’s comedy sidekick (Toru Yuri), an evil gang harassing girls, and an old ex yakuza (Junzaburô Ban, who played identical role in Delinquent Girl Boss: Worthless to Confess) trying to do something good for once. However, the tale comes back to life big time at the end where Kaji and Chiba, armed with swords and pistols, finally decide they’ve had enough of it! This isn’t a movie that utilizes Kaji’s talent, but she’s gorgeous as usual. Chiba looks like he ran off from the set of a Yakuza Deka film and started dealing girls instead of catching bad guys. It’s nice to have him here, although the finale is his only real standout. Unlike in the 1st film, there’s not much of ninkyo influence left in this production, and perhaps that was for the best.

* Original title: Gincho nagaremono mesuneko bakuchi (銀蝶渡り鳥 牝猫博奕)
* Director: Kazuhiko Yamaguchi
* Chiba’s role: Major Supporting Role
* Film availability: Synapse DVD (USA), Toei DVD (Japan) (No subs)

Kaji playing againts Shingo Yamashi

Club scene reminiscent of the Delinquent Girl Boss and Stray Cat Rock films

Yukie Kagawa on the fight

Chiba and Toru Yuri

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King of Gangsters

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King of Gangsters (Japan, 1967)

The 11th and final film in the Gang series. Most of the films had different directors and cast, and were only connected by the title and Toei’s marketing department. Unlike the early entries, which were jazzy capers, this final entry is a prototype jitsuroku yakuza film. Just back from the war, Noboru Ando leads a gang of war vets turned gangster in the US occupied streets of Tokyo. They get into a conflict with a Chinese gang as well as the military police. Tetsuro Tamba appears as a police chief trying to bring peace to the streets; 1st wave pinky violence star Masumi Tachibana is a girl grieving his dead gangster father. Like many of director Yasuo Furuhata’s films, this is light on action and relatively realistic in characterization to the point becoming dull. It is more interesting as a somewhat nationalistic peek into the history of Japan and modern yakuza than as a gangster flick. Sonny Chiba plays one of Ando’s men, but like most supporting roles in the film, his part is ultimately minor despite getting a decent amount of screen time.

* Original title: Gyangu no teiô (ギャングの帝王)
* Director: Yasuo Furuhata
* Chiba’s role: Minor Supporting Role
* Film availability: None. Review format: TV

Ando in the middle. Hideo “I’m in every gangster flick” Murota in the backround

Sonny Chiba (right) and Shingo Yamashiro (in a relatively non-comedic role)

Okinawa 10 Year War

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Okinawa 10 Year War (Japan, 1978)

Sonny Chiba is at his most charismatic in this yakuza film based on the same conflict as Okinawa Yakuza War (1976). This one, however, covers a 10 year period. It was produced after the primary jitsuroku era and one can see the effect: the violence has been toned down a little bit, drama is emphasized with larger (not better) female roles, and there is a comedian included in the cast in a serious role. None of these changes were for the better. Chiba, however, is terrific as a gangster who has a wife and child to take care of. His acting is solid and charisma, partly thanks to the bearded look, is through the roof. Hiroki Matsukata co-stars. Opening credits and advertising materials bill him as the lead, but I would say Chiba is the actual main character with more screen time. The action packed ending is also very satisfying.

* Original title: Okinawa 10 nen senso (沖縄10年戦争)
* Director: Akinori Matsuo
* Chiba’s role: Starring role
* Film availability: VoD (Japan) (No subtitles)

Honor of Japan

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Honor of Japan (Japan, 1977)

This was a sort of companion piece to the Godfather of Japan trilogy (1977-1978), which director Sadao Nakajima put out around the same time, to the extent that it shared some of the same advertising taglines. All of the films were talkative, story-heavy films about organized criminality, featuring a dozen central characters in each film and mostly lacking the hectic energy of the mid-70s yakuza films. They are, despite their ambition, a sad example of where the genre was heading: towards pretentious “serious crime cinema” that emphasized pseudo-epic storylines over mayhem despite not having especially interesting storylines in the first place. Honor of Japan works best during its few violent shoot outs, and when it pits yakuza stars Bunta Sugawara and Sonny Chiba against each other, but like the Godfather of Japan films it suffers from a slow-moving and not all that engaging storyline.

* Original title: Nihon no jingi (日本の仁義)
* Director: Sadao Nakajima
* Chiba’s role: Major supporting role
* Film availability: Toei DVD (Japan) (No subtitles)

Yakuza War: The Japanese Godfather

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Yakuza War: The Japanese Godfather (Japan, 1977)

By 1977 the jitsuroku yakuza film genre was nearly dead. Kinji Fukasaku released his final yakuza films that year, while his colleague Sadao Nakajima still went on for a few more years, but the films weren’t getting any better. Ultra violence and documentary style gangster films just weren’t the big thing anymore, and the producers were telling filmmakers to try and appeal to female audiences. Violence was cut down, more drama was written into the storylines and running times were extended to make the films bigger. Novels were often used as source material. It was the beginning of the end.

The Japanese Godfather is a sort of transitional film. It runs way too long at 132 minutes, but at the same time it still retains some of the ruthless violence and graphic sex that characterized the mid-70s yakuza films, including director Nakajima’s own Okinawa Yakuza War (1976). Highlights include manly man Bunta Sugawara pulling bullets out of his vest with his bare hands, and short tempered bodyguard Sonny Chiba yelling at a man and pulling him from the clothes AFTER unloading six bullets into his chest times.

Toei gathered basically every big name actor they could get for this film, and called it “30 years of Toei men” on the poster. Of course, there had been similar star gatherings before, but this time it felt more like an attempt to lure the audiences to the theatre one last time. The cast includes Sugawara, Chiba, Koji Tsuruta, Tsunehiko Watase, Mikio Narita, Hiroki Matsukata, Asao Koike, Tatsuo Umemiya, and many others. The sequel would add Toshiro Mifune to the cast. There was, of course, a certain charm to having all these guys in the same movie.

* Original title: Yakuza senso: Nihon no don (やくざ戦争 日本の首領)
* Director: Sadao Nakajima
* Chiba’s role: Major supporting role
* Film availability: Toei DVD (Japan) (No subtitles)

Sonny China being a gentleman

Bunta Sugawara removing bullets from his west

Alan Delon, sorry, I mean Sonny Chiba, doing bodyguarding for Koji Tsuruta

Yakuza mobile

Hiroki Matsukata enjoying the view

Car on fire

Gangster meeting

Yakuza rests on the floor

Sonny Chiba grabbing a man by the chest AFTER shooting him six times!

Okinawa Yakuza War

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Okinawa Yakuza War (Japan, 1976)

This excellent jitsuroku yakuza film is based on the 4th Okinawa conflict which saw the local yakuza battle the mainland gangs after Okinawa was handed back to Japan in 1972. The conflict was still going on at the time the film was released, and fearing the film might add fuel to the fire, the Okinawan government banned it immediately. Sonny Chiba plays the most frightening character of his career as a psychotic mad dog yakuza with karate skills. The character is basically a combination of two earlier Chiba characters: Otomo from Hiroshima Death Match, and Tsurugi from The Street Fighter. The film’s real lead is Hiroki Matsukata, but Chiba steals every scene he’s in with his incredible over-the-top performance. The film does lose a bit of its energy when Chiba is not on screen, but it’s still a very solid and extremely violent genre film, just a notch behind Kinji Fukasaku’s films.

When the film played at the Sonny Chiba film festival in Tokyo in 2014, the print was in such poor shape that it could literally have fallen apart any moment. Bucket loads of frames were missing, including a long segment showing a central character’s death. Film preservers had, however, heroically managed to restore a 2 second bit of female star Maya Hiromi’s breasts to the middle of the missing segment.

* Original Title: Okinawa yakuza senso (沖縄やくざ戦争)
* Director: Sadao Nakajima
* Chiba’s role: Major supporting role
* Film availability: Toei DVD (JP) (No subs)

Machine Gun Dragon

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Machine Gun Dragon (Japan, 1976)

An underwhelming comedic yakuza film with Bunta Sugawara and his gangster mom robbing a bagful of mafia money. Of course they get in trouble when the mafia sends their finest hitmen, including Toei’s black actor Willy Dosey, after them. There are two great things about the film: Sonny Chiba as a high kicking passport forger and Bunta Sugawara’s theme song. Both last for about two minutes. Nothing else is great about the movie. The whole thing is utterly ridiculous but rarely in an amusing way. One of the weakest films Chiba appeared in in the 70s.

* Original Title: Yokohama ankokugai mashingan no ryu (横浜暗黒街 マシンガンの竜)
* Director: Akihisa Okamoto
* Chiba’s role: Small supporting role
* Film availability: Toei DVD (Japan) (No subs)

Stills, lobby cards, VHS, none featuring Chiba

Detonation: Violent Riders

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Detonation: Violent Riders (Japan, 1975)

Detonation: Violent Riders is the first instalment in Toei’s series of bosozoku biker gang films. Formed by youngsters grown tired of traditional Japanese school and societal systems, the bosozoku gangs received notable media attention in the 1970’s as newspapers and magazines cashed in with the phenomena and even took it out of its original frame. Toei was quick to smell easy box office revenue as the bosozoku hysteria provided an opportunity to combine their established cinematic formulas with a current and talked about real life phenomena. Much like with karate films (The Executioner), director Teruo Ishii got assigned to the job despite his lack of interest for the genre.

Bosozoku’s roots date back to the post WWII years when a new societal problem group arised. Having lived under the war time rule and even an assumption of never returning home alive, such as the kamikaze pilots assigned for a mission that never came to be, some of the war veterans could not return to peaceful life without difficulties. The most extreme of these individuals started looking for new excitement by tuning cars and conducting less than desired, gang type activities on city streets. Inspiration and idols were found from foreign movies such as Rebel Without a Cause (1955). This way of thinking later caught the motorcycle obsessed youth and bosozoku was born.

The first 20 minutes of Detonation: Violent Riders is exactly what one would expect from a Teruo Ishii bosozoku film. Black dressed biker men chase on the streets, perform stunts on bikes and bring public outrage. A leather dressed lady provides the men with physical pleasures out in the nature, and the night is spent partying with topless dancers. Disagreements between men are solved by speeding towards cliff blindfolded. Ishii knows how to make quality cinema.

No high art by any means, Ishii directed the Detonation films as a gun for hire. Easily bored with conventional filmmaking, Ishii spend a notable amount his career – and Toei’s money – for his personal cinematic refreshment. The infamous late 60s ero-guro epics (The Joy of Torture, Inferno of Torture etc.) are only the tip of iceberg in the director’s resume. In the Detonation movies Ishii threw in just about any elements he found potentially entertaining. Very describing of the director’s talent is, that even with this philosophy Ishii managed to deliver several technically competent cult classics. Violent Riders, however, is not among his best efforts.

After a strong start it soon becomes obvious that Violent Riders’ biggest problem is the screenplay which, rather than being full of holes, appears to one big hole in itself. Pieces of poorly attached storyline are hanging somewhere on the sides, ready to fall at any moment. If there is an actual plot to be found, it would probably be the romance between the wild hearted mechanic boy Iwaki (Kouichi Iwaki) and the innocent but gang tied Michiko (Tomoko Ai). The newcomer is quick to make enemies while at the same time his old pals are tempting him to re-join the gang and fight the competing group. The execution of this however, far from dynamic and engaging.

Motorcycle money shots are what Ishii handles without difficulties. Close ups, sunset backgrounds and fast scenes on streets are plenty, even if there isn’t much in terms of bike tuning. Worth a mention is also a jaw dropping truck crash escape stunt that does, however, turn out to be a trick shot with closer look. Far less convincing is the climatic gang war that is little more than a messy display of bikers riding in circle and kicking and punching each other on the way. Thankfully the film’s last few minutes mark an improvement and leave a good taste in the viewer’s mouth.

Next to the bikes Violent Rider’s best offering is the cast. Little known outside his native country, rocker / bike maniac (and soon to become television superstar) Koichi Iwaki handles the lead role well. His manners and looks are a perfect for for a character like this. Heavy weigh support is provided by Sonny Chiba whose beard-faced charisma is an instant hit. Regrettably, Chiba’s role is quite small and his action talent has been notably limited. Most other supporting actors are unknown stars and one-timers – real life gang members by a good guess. Toei was never shy of picking up natural talents from the streets… and most of the time the results were pretty good.

Three sequels followed, the first two of them helmed by Ishii. In Detonation! Violent Games (1976) Ishii drew inspiration from West Side Story and even introduced slight musical elements, resulting in the best film in the series. In Season of Violence (1976) Ishii tried to do a modern sun tribe film in the lines of Crazed Fruit and other 50s classics, but the film turned out quite boring and lacked in action. The relatively decent last film, Detonation! 750CC zoku (1976), directed by Yutaka Kohira (Dragon Princess), shifted some of the focus to cars but still managed the best bike chase in the series. All of the films starred Iwaki. Chiba only appeared in the first film.

* Original title: Bakuhatsu! Boso zoku (爆発!暴走族)
* Director: Teruo Ishii
* Chiba’s role: Small Supporting Role
* Film availability: Toei DVD (Japan) (No subs)

Iwaki

Chiba

Battles without Honour and Humanity: Hiroshima Death Match

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Battles without Honour and Humanity: Hiroshima Death Match (Japan, 1973)

The second film in the Battles without Honour and Humanity series strays from the main storyline to focus on a low rank henchman Yamanaka (the reason for this was that some of the source material – articles based on the life of gangster Kozo Mino – had not been published in its entirety by the time the production begun). The result was a narrower focus than most other instalments in the series, some of which were overloaded with complicated gangster politics. This allowed a greater focus on one of the series’ main themes: the disposable young men blindly taking orders by no-good superiors.

Hiroshima Death Match was a career changing moment for Sonny Chiba, who had originally been cast as Yamanaka. The role would’ve been a logical next step for Chiba, who was a popular actor know for playing handsome action heroes, but had also begun to appear in some darker themed crime films such as A Narcotics Agent’s Ballad (1972) in the early 70s. Kinya Kitaoji, another young actor with record of playing good guys in movies, was set to play the the maniac yakuza Otomo. However, realizing just how vile and rude the character was, Kitaoji found himself unable to play the character and asked if he could have a different role. Chiba and Kitaoji then switched roles at the last moment. The rest is history.

For Chiba, Otomo was a career changing role. Having never played a villain before (in fact, he was one of the top selling idols at the time), Chiba decided to give all he’s got to portray the ugliest human being imaginable. Director Fukasaku was taking turns encouraging (“scratch your balls!”) and restraining (“don’t smell your hand after scratching your balls! Overkill!) Chiba, whose performance was as memorable as over-the-top. Even more importantly, it was the role that directly contributed to Chiba’s later characters, such as the classic anti-hero in The Street Fighter (1974 (a slightly more heroic karate version of Otomo) and the even crazier villain in Okinawa Yakuza War (1976) (a psychopath version of The Street Fighter).

The role switch worked for Kitaoji as well, who did excellent job portraying a tormented man who had even been denied the right to die (when he was too young to join the kamikaze during WWII). The film’s setting, Hiroshima, played both a symbolic and concrete role in the film. In real life Hiroshima was the only place where the yakuza conflicts got so violent even innocent bystanders were caught in the line of fire. Symbolically speaking, director Fukasaku has always portrayed the modern yakuza as a side-product of the post war misery.

To counter-balance the character focus, Fukasaku inserts several montage-like sequences of violence erupting on the streets, gangsters killing each other off in realistic scenes that are a far cry from cinematic cool, and the police and the press getting involved, all enhancing the image of a city taken over by violence. Toshiaki Tsushima’s amazing score, which is at its most effective in this movie, adds the final touch. Probably the best film in the Battles without Honour and Humanity series.

From Chiba’s perspective it’s interesting to speculate what might have happened had Chiba and Kitaoji not switched the roles. It’s a fascinating thought that Chiba could’ve have played the starring role; on the other hand his later filmography might’ve become very different. Without Hiroshima Death Match would he ever have created the unforgettable character he played in The Street Fighter, which not only lead him to international fame but also influenced the kind of characters he played in various other mid-70s action films?

* Original title: Battles without Honour and Humanity: Hiroshima Death Match (仁義なき戦い 広島死闘篇)
* Director: Kinji Fukasaku
* Chiba’s role: Major supporting role
* Film availability: Arrow DVD / BD (UK/US)

Tokyo Seoul Bangkok Drug Triangle

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Tokyo Seoul Bangkok Drug Triangle (Japan/Korea/Thailand/Hong Kong, 1973)

Sonny Chiba stars in this major Asian co-production based on the thoughts and ideas of the anti drugs/prostitution/sexually transmitted diseases campaigning businessman / political figure Tsusai Sugawara, who had previously inspired the two Narcotics / Prostitution G-Men films (1972). Tokyo Seoul Bangkok was a loose follow-up, with Chiba playing an ordinary man instead of a narcotics detective, and the storyline taking place in four Asian countries: Korea, Thailand, Hong Kong, and Japan. Co-stars came from each country, and multiple edits of the film were produced for different markets.

The film opens in South-Korea, with truck driver Chiba arriving Seoul to receive his dead sister’s ashes. While there, he discovers the death may not have been an accident after all, and has something to do with international drug smuggling. Chiba receives help from a Korean detective (Choi Bong, delivering the film’s only martial arts moves) to track down his sister’s runaway gangster husband (Hiroki Matsukata) and his Korean lover (Kim Chang-Suk). The chase takes Chiba first to Hong Kong and eventually Thailand, where Chiba hooks up with a bilingual woman (Nora Miao) and a local tough guy (Chaiya Suliyun).

Tokyo Seoul Bangkok has long been a sought-after movie for its fantastic cast, but those few who have seen it have sometimes been left a bit underwhelmed. This is more due to false expectations than the film, although the latter is also at fault. Tokyo Seoul Bangkok is not a martial arts movie, and it’s not even very much an action movie as the filmmakers aim for more realistic crime drama/thriller. While that’s quite fine, it is also true that with the level of action talent involved, the viewer can’t help but to wish there were some more outrageous action sequences. This is especially true when some of the scenarios are, in fact, a little too wild to feel entirely realistic. Also, as a drug thriller, it is not as good as for example A Narcotics Agent’s Ballad (1972).

On the positive side, the storyline is very good and the film remains interesting from start to finish. Locations are well used, especially in the Thai sequences, which are both exotic and atmospheric. This is partly due to the beautiful score by Ichiro Araki, which is also used to create some powerful images when the camera lingers on Chiba’s desperate, badly bruised face. The supporting cast is interesting as well, the real stand outs being Nora Miao and Hiroki Matsukata. The latter’s portrayal of an ultra-stylish gangster may be at odds with the film’s intended realism, but he’s so cool the viewer won’t mind. The same can be said about one great action sequence in Thailand.

There’s a lot of history to the production. First of all, it was the first film Chiba made after finishing the Key Hunter TV series (1968-1973), marking the beginning of a new era on his career that allowed a stronger focus on films. Tokyo Seoul Bangkok was also one of the two major drug trafficking themed Asian co-productions that had been planned for 1973, the other having been The Shrine of the Ultimate Bliss. The latter was to star Bruce Lee, Sonny Chiba and George Lazenby, but by the time Chiba arrived Hong Kong, Lee had just passed away (the project was eventually completed in heavily modified form and with a new cast as “Stoner”). It is likely (but unconfirmed) that the planned meeting between Chiba and Lee was scheduled to take place while Tokyo Seoul Bangkok was filming in Hong Kong.

The Lee connection is probably the reason why the film co-stars Nora Miao, whose open cleavage may come as a delightful surprise to the fans of her Hong Kong films. It’s a lot of fun to see Chiba and Miao act together, although the kiss suggested by one of the promotional stills is not found in the film, at least not in the Japanese cut (which is the only cut is available at the moment). If it did take place, it would surely make Miao the only woman in the world who has kissed both Bruce Lee and Sonny Chiba!

Tokyo Seoul Bangkok Drug Triangle is a fascinating, even if slightly underwhelming piece of cinema that can be quite enjoyable when approached with realistic expectations. It’s not the lost action classic some wished it to be, but it’s an atmospheric and entertaining crime drama with a good storyline.

* Original title: Mayaku baishun G-Men: Kyofu no niku jigoku (Tokyo-Seoul-Bangkok: Jitsuroku Mayaku Chitai)
* Director: Sadao Nakajima
* Chiba’s role: Starring role
* Film availability: VoD (Japan) (No subtitles)

Choi Bong

Matsukata

Chaiya Suliyun and Nora Miao