Category Archives: Genre: Yakuza/Gangster

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

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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

Yakuza Wolf: Extend My Condolences

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Yakuza Wolf: Extend My Condolences (Japan, 1972)

A strange follow-up for having almost nothing to do with the original film. This one is more in line with the Yakuza Deka action comedies, albeit with a little less humour and action. Chiba is a clean shaven, suit wearing small time goon betrayed by a big shot yakuza. After his release from prison, he and pal Tatsuya Fuji start planning a heist/revenge plot against the yakuza. Former Nikkatsu director Buichi Saito (who also directed the 4th Lone Wolf & Cub film) keeps the film in constant move, but he doesn’t have a the kind of unique script the first film had to work with. Hence, no spaghetti western imagery or surreal visuals here. There is still plenty of fun to be had, though, including some nice stunt work and a catchy theme song by Chiba. Reiko Ike, finally 18 for real (she had been lying about her age when she appeared in her first movies), plays Chiba’s ex-girlfriend. She doesn’t have much else to do than sing and show her breasts, but it’s nice to have her in the film.

* Original title: Ookami yakuza: Tomurai wa ore ga dasu (狼やくざ 葬いは俺が出す)
* Director: Buichi Saito
* Chiba’s role: Starring role
* Film availability: None (review format: TV)

Narcotics/Prostitution G-Men: Terrifying Flesh Hell

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Narcotics/Prostitution G-Men: Terrifying Flesh Hell (Japan, 1972)

An entertaining, but a slightly underwhelming sequel to A Narcotics Agent’s Ballad dispatches undercover cop Chiba to Okinawa. The poster and title suggests of sexploitation, but that is in fact just advertising promises. In reality the film tones down the sex and nudity from the first film and focuses more on narcotics than prostitution. Unfortunately the film also lacks the tension and superb characterization of the first film. This one is more of a basic cops vs. thugs flick, with Chiba teaming up with local cop Tsunehiko Watase and befriending dark skinned, half-Japanese small time goon (Ken Sanders). The Okinawa location brings some colour to the production, including a lot of foreign faces (amusingly always presented as criminals!) but is not as well used as you’d wish. That’s not saying it’s a bad film, though, quite the contrary. While unable to live up to its predecessor, it’s a fast paced crime film with solid tech credits, occasional sex and violence, and Chiba smoking three lung cancers’ worth of tobacco.

This was the last of the two Narcotics/Prostitution G-Men films; however, next year there was a movie called Tokyo Seoul Bangkok Drug Triangle. Chiba played a different character, but the film was again based on Tsusai Sugawara’s anti narcotics/prostitution campagn, making it a loosely linked follow-up for the two Narcotics/Prostitution G-Men films.

* Original title: Mayaku baishun G-Men: Kyofu no niku jigoku (麻薬売春Gメン 恐怖の肉地獄)
* Director: Shin Takakuwa
* Chiba’s role: Starring role
* Film availability: None (review format: TV)

A Narcotics Agent’s Ballad

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A Narcotics Agent’s Ballad (Japan, 1972)

This terrific, atmospheric neo noir is one of Chiba’s finest films. The gritty crime movie kicks off from a gangster run sex club where one of the customers is murdered. It turns out the victim is a policeman. Older detective Yamamoto (Asao Sano) and his partner Tamura (Hiroshi Miyauchi) begin investigating, only to find out Yamamoto’s own daughter is involved in a prostitution ring. Yamamoto kills himself and his daughter, leaving Tamura alone with the case.

Tamura later crosses paths with Kikuchi (Chiba), a narcotics detective so deep undercover that it’s no longer clear on which side of the law he is operating. Kikuchi’s wife awaits at home while he’s working his way deeper into the underworld by hanging out with pimps and drug dealers, and having one night stands heroin addicts. His real identity kept secret even from the police.

Director Shin Takakuwa does excellent job helming the film. He goes for character driven crime drama supported by a terrific screenplay. There’s a lot of attention given not only to the main characters, but also their loved ones, and how their work affects everyone around them. Pitting Chiba and Miyauchi against each other works especially well. The bets keep getting bigger as the film goes on until the tension reaches a hair-rising level towards the end. Action scenes are few, but very well executed. An atmospheric score by Toshiaki Tsushima (Battles without Honor and Humanity; The Street Fighter) completes the package.

The film was based in an idea by senior businessman Tsusai Sugawara, who had been campaigning against drugs, prostitution and sex diseases in Japan. Sugawara himself plays Chiba’s superior in the film. Fear not the filmmakers going soft due to his involvement: A Narcotic’s Agent’s Ballad is gritty and borderline sleazy 70s crime cinema with no happy ending, very much comparable to Kinji Fukasaku’s films in content and quality.

* Original title: Mayaku baishun G-Men (麻薬売春Gメン)
* English aka: Narcotics/Prostitution G-Men.
* Director: Shin Takakuwa
* Chiba’s role: Starring role
* Film availability: None (review format: TV)

Yakuza Wolf: I Perform Murder

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Yakuza Wolf: I Perform Murder (Japan, 1972)

Sonny Chiba is a silent, unshaven avenger in Ryuichi Takamori’s violent yakuza western. Chiba plays a man who is after the yakuza who killed his father and sold his sister to prostitution. He’s now taking out bad guys one at a time and agitating gangs against each other while making his way towards the syndicate boss (Koji Nanbara).

There is an instantly obvious Django influence that goes all the way to the fantastic finale where Chiba, with both of his arms broken by the villains, uses a custom made shotgun attached to a severed steering wheel and a stand which he can he operate without hands. The film also sports a colourful, even surreal visual look that predates the Female Prisoner Scorpion films that unleashed similar images later the same year. The obvious connection is screenwriter Fumio Konami, who wrote this as well as the Female Prisoner Scorpion films. Furthermore, the scene where Chiba attempts to rescue his sister from an underground sex club is like straight outta the bizarre world of Teruo Ishii.

Director Takamori is the weakest link as usual, managing the highlights quite well but sometimes failing to pump the kind of energy into the film that it really deserves. It’s still a very cool film, though, with enough sex, violence and style to keep you thoroughly entertained. It also marked the beginning of a new, darker era for Chiba after a decade of clean hero roles.

* Original title: Ookami yakuza: Koroshi ha ore ga yaru (狼やくざ 殺しは俺がやる)
* Director: Ryuichi Takamori
* Chiba’s role: Starring role
* Film availability: None (review format: TV)

Yakuza Deka: No Epitaphs for Us

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Yakuza Deka: No Epitaphs for Us (Japan, 1971)

The 4th and final film in the Yakuza Deka series. It’s another programmer picture, but this one does its job admirably, packing action, fights and great stunt sequences every 15 minutes and filling the gaps with Chiba riding a horse topless, robbing a jewellery store while dressed as Buddhist monk, and walking around in white suit while waving a Tommy Gun. Some of the stunts include Chiba hanging from a cable car 50m above the sea/ground, and jumping out from a car while it’s flying through the air. There are many amusing comedy bits as well, especially with co-star Ryohei Uchida, and Chiba sings again. It was exactly this kind of movies that made Jackie Chan a fan of Chiba’s work; indeed, the mix of action, stunts and humour often resembles the films Jackie would do in the 1980s. Easily the best film in the Yakuza Deka series.

* Original title: Yakuza Deka: Oretachi ni haka ha wai (やくざ刑事 俺たちに墓はない)
* Director: Ryuichi Takamori
* Chiba’s role: Starring role
* Film availability: VoD (Japan) (No subtitles)

Yakuza Deka: Poison Gas Affair

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Yakuza Deka: Poison Gas Affair (Japan, 1971)

The 3rd Yakuza Deka film is yet another enjoyable time waster, as good as the previous film. This time much of the action is set in a snowy ski resort, allowing Chiba to orchestrate all kinds of action scenarios with skis, snowmobiles and other winter machinery. There’s also a relatively decent amount of martial arts included considering the early production year. Chiba first needs to prove his skills in a brief fight against a tonfu-fighter, stick-fighter, dagger-man and karate fighter, and later fight for his life against two ninjas. Unfortunately some of the action seems a little hastily put together and the official tagline of “grand action where Chiba risks his life every 5 minutes” oversells the film a bit. It’s still a good bit of fun and the storyline is probably the best so far, with some genuine dramatic tension and yet another fine supporting performance Ryuhei Uchida. Pinky violence star Yukie Kagawa appears as female ninja. Oh, and Chiba doesn’t show his ass this time.

* Original title: Yakuza deka: Kyofu no doku gasu (やくざ刑事 恐怖の毒ガス)
* Director: Ryuichi Takamori
* Chiba’s role: Starring role
* Film availability: None (review format: TV)

Yakuza Deka: The Assassin

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Yakuza Deka: The Assassin [DVD] – 3/5

The second film in the Yakuza Deka series. Sonny Chiba shows his ass again. This is an improvement over the sloppy original, even though the storyline is a direct copy of the previous movie and we once again have to suffer through a painful Toru Yuri comedy scene. Chiba is an undercover cop again, operating between two yakuza gangs trying to bring them both down. What is new is new is that the mayhem is much better executed this time. Action is wilder, stunts are bigger, comedy is funnier and Chiba sports one hell of a wardrobe in the film. It’s obvious more care was put into the production than last time. It’s still nothing more than a harmless time waster, but as such it delivers the goods. Ryuhei Uchida co-stars again as Chiba’s friend/nemesis. He basically plays the exact same character as last time, only his name is different, but no one would complain because he’s excellent as usual.

* Original title: Yakuza deka: Marifana mitsubai soshiki (やくざ刑事 マリファナ密売組織)
* Director: Yukio Noda
* Chiba’s role: Starring role
* Film availability: Optimum DVD (UK)