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Cinema

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ON DVD & BLU-RAY

Street Mobster (1972) starring Bunta Sugawara Blu Ray (Arrow)

A street punk gets back into action

Bunta Sugawara plays Isamu Okita, a vicious street punk who gets sent to prison for a number of years. When he is released, he finds that his old stomping grounds have become calm and prosperous thanks to an equilibrium achieved between two controlling gangs: the Takigawa and Yato clans.

He teams up with another low-level mobster named Kizaki (Asao Koike) and they set out to get a little piece of the action by raiding some Takigawa joints. When the latter gang retaliates, Okita’s guys get some unexpected protection under the wing of rival boss Shunsuke Yato (Noboru Andô). However, our violence-crazed protagonist soon becomes restless and ends up crossing a larger Yakuza clan named Saiei who want to make inroads in the area.

Watch a trailer:

Gangsterism with the glamour stripped away

Street Mobster is one of a number of Yakuza films to have been directed by Kinji Fukasaku. A veteran whose career spanned from 1961 to 2002, he was generally considered to be a safe pair of hands who could handle big-budget projects such as Tora! Tora! Tora! (a 1970 Japanese-US co-production about the Pearl Harbour bombing which he co-directed with Richard Fleischer), and the sci-fi films Message from Space (1978) and Virus (1980). His last completed film was Battle Royale (2000), a controversial sci-fi thriller about teenagers being forced to fight to the death as punishment (more recently, The Hunger Games has been accused of ripping off this premise). He succumbed to prostate cancer shortly after starting work on its sequel, Battle Royale II: Requiem (2003), leaving it to be completed by his son Kenta.

In terms of the content and his approach to his overall body of work, he was the very definition of a journeymen: competent without displaying much evidence of consistent themes or signature stylistic touches from film to film. However, a number of his Yakuza movies are different in this respect - albeit, if anything, they are more anti-style than stylish. Street Mobster is no exception. Visually, it is very rough-hewn, making heavy use of shaky cinéma vérité camerawork, faux-amateur Dutch angles, freeze frames, excitedly jumpy edits and minimal ambient lighting in the interior scenes. The violence is frantic, random and messy. Okita sleeps in an ugly, dark warehouse surrounded by rubbish. The superficial glamour of gangsterism is unceremoniously stripped away to reveal an unsightly, fucked-up mess underneath.

An unsympathetic protagonist

In 1970s terms, Okita as a character was something of a free-spirited sex-and-violence junkie who spoke more to the young and defiant in the audience rather than to the older and more traditional side of Japanese society. This aspect was part of a wider trend in the country’s cinema of this period. Throughout the film, he stirs up trouble and makes waves without thinking through the consequences or understanding the hot water that he will, sooner or later, inevitably land himself in. He’s the absolute antithesis of the noble Japanese Samurai ethic which had, to some extent, filtered through into the more contemporary Yakuza code of honour. Later on, when called upon by Yato to commit Yubitsume (the cutting off of his little finger in an act of penance), he tellingly refuses to do so.

Bunta Sugawara in Street Mobster

However, while we are matter-of-factly presented with his dysfunctional childhood under the parental non-guidance of an alcoholic whore of a mother (at least, until she drunkenly drowns in a nearby river), he’s a difficult figure to sympathise with. This is the major issue with Street Mobster: we’re spending most of the runtime watching him getting embroiled in a series of violent incidents and putting various senior Yakuza noses out of joint, and very little of him displaying any evidence of a method behind his madness. His relationship with a bar girl named Kimiyo (Mayumi Nagisa) is even more problematic. We learn that earlier in their lives, he raped her and sold her into prostitution. Fast-forward to the film’s present tense, however, and she has decided to fall inexorably in love with him. While there’s a visible underlying point that they have both spent their lives in a similar existential sewer, the way in which it has been made sinks to a primitive level of sexual politics which surely even Paul Verhoeven would balk at.

For sure, you can’t accuse Street Mobster of being dull. Fukasaku’s approach has a certain raw energy and vitality about it that sucks the viewer in. In the end, however, its hollow and unpleasant attitude spits them right back out again.

Runtime: 88 mins

Dir: Kinji Fukasaku

Script: Kinji Fukasaku, Yoshihiro Ishimatsu

Starring: Bunta Sugawara, Noboru Andô, Mayumi Nagisa, Asao Koike, Noboru Mitani, Nobuo Yana, Keijiro Morozumi

Blu Ray Audio-Visual

While there is the occasional vivid splash of colour, the images are a little too soft and dark. However, it should be borne in mind that it was intended to have an unpolished, documentary-like appearance. I remember watching this film many years ago on an old Eureka DVD and I can say that this version certainly looks significantly better overall. Sonically, it’s suitably sharp and impactful, adding a lot to the plentiful scenes of violence.

Extras

Audio Commentary

Tom Mes (a lecturer in contemporary Japanese film at Leiden University) gives a somewhat soft-spoken and rambling commentary which goes off into tangents about director Kinji Fukasaku’s other work and the wider sphere of Japanese filmmaking from this era. Nonetheless, when he does concentrate on the film in hand, he lends it some interesting historical context.

While it was the sixth film Toei studio’s Gendai Yakuza series of unconnected gangster films, it is widely regarded as being the first example of the Jitsuroku eiga (“true account”) style of filmmaking in this genre. Previously, Japanese Yakuza films adopted a more formalised style where the protagonists adhered to a definite code of honour and were de facto heroes. This paralleled the government’s own postwar relationship with the Yakuza, who were deemed useful in breaking strikes and suppressing other supposed signs of “Communist” activity. By the 1970s, however, the public had become disillusioned by governmental corruption scandals, and thus the more documentary-like depiction of underworld figures as brutal thugs struck a chord at the time. Street Mobster and other films of its ilk also depicted a side of Japanese society which was left behind by the postwar economic boom to fend for themselves in the rubble, where the men worked as gangsters and the women as prostitutes.

A trailer, stills gallery and collector’s booklet round out the extras.

Overall:

This violent and interestingly deglamourised gangster flick is marred - at least in my eyes - by its rather unlikeable and opaque central character, not to mention its ugly sexual politics. It is of interest mainly to fans of Japanese Yakuza movies rather than the casual viewer.

Movie: ☆☆1/2

Video: ☆☆☆

Audio: ☆☆☆☆

Extras: ☆☆1/2

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