Long live VHS! In May of last year, New York’s Book Off, a repository of used books, manga, CDs, and DVDs, offering items from both the U.S. and Japan, unveiled a new, revamped section of VHS tapes. I had previously purchased dozens of VHS tapes from this store over the past 20 or so years, at prices ranging from $1 to $3 to $5 to $15-20 each, depending on any number of factors. At some point in early 2011, they got rid of most of their tapes (or simply put them in storage), leaving only a single shelf of Japanese children’s shows and films on VHS, which sat there until last May. On a recent tour of the VHS section, I found four Yakuza movies from 1969-71, all in Japanese with no subtitles (as is the case with pretty much all Japanese films and TV shows on VHS) and picked them up at $3 apiece.
I’d been introduced to Japanese Yakuza movies through an article by Paul Schrader (“Yakuza-Eiga: A Primer”) in the January 1974 issue of Film Comment. Eventually, this article inspired a Schrader-curated series of Yakuza films screened at the Museum of Modern Art in, I believe, 1975, the same year that THE YAKUZA was released, a Hollywood film co-scripted by Schrader and starring Robert Mitchum and renowned Japanese Yakuza star Ken Takakura, whom I’d already seen in an earlier Hollywood film, TOO LATE THE HERO, directed by Robert Aldrich. The series of Yakuza films at MOMA was quite a revelation, although I no longer have any record of which films I saw there. The only Yakuza films that were screened in NYC in that era that have come out on DVD have been THE YAKUZA PAPERS, the five-film series directed by Kinji Fukasaku in 1973-74. I only remember one film in that series playing in New York (and I saw it twice) and I believe it was the first film, BATTLES WITHOUT HONOR AND HUMANITY, and was simply called THE YAKUZA PAPERS. Other Fukasaku-directed Yakuza films have been released on DVD and I’ve acquired them (e.g. GRAVEYARD OF HONOR, SYMPATHY FOR THE UNDERDOG, STREET MOBSTER), although I don’t believe I saw any of them screened in NYC back in the 1970s (although they may well have been). The problem with Fukasaku’s films is that they’re basically anti-Yakuza in that they dispense with all the rituals and formal structure of the traditional yakuza films of the 1960s and focus on characters who eschew all codes and work chiefly for themselves and their own self-interest. They’re excellent crime movies and a lot more realistic that way, but I’m hungry to see the more stylized Yakuza movies again, with all the requisite codes, rituals, signature characters and narrative formulas such as those described in such detail by Schrader. (Some of Seijun Suzuki’s films have been released here on DVD, but they’re even more anti-Yakuza than Fukasaku’s.)
[Schrader’s article: Yakuza-eiga: A Primer]
So I was very happy to pick up VHS copies of these four films, which, following some quick research on the web, turned out to be the first four films in the “Tales of Chivalrous Women” series (Nihon Jokyo-Den) starring preeminent female yakuza star Junko Fuji, star of the famous “Red Peony” series, some of which had screened at MOMA. The first film, KYOKAKU GEISHA, aka SAMURAI GEISHA, is listed as CHIVALROUS GEISHA (1969) on IMDB. I found a synopsis for it on the weirdwildrealm website (http://www.weirdwildrealm.com/f-samurai-geisha.html), where the preferred title is SAMURAI GEISHA, which is the title I’ll use for it. It’s the only one I found a synopsis for. As a result, SAMURAI GEISHA was the easiest to follow as I viewed it. I’m not sure about the exact order of the films, since it’s given differently on IMDB than it is on weirdwildrealm.com, so I’m going with the latter’s order:
SAMURAI GEISHA (1969, KYOKAKU GEISHA) Dir.: Kosaku Yamashita.
BRAVE RED FLOWER OF THE NORTH (1970, MAKKA NO DOKYO BANA) Dir.: Yasuo Furuhata.
IRON GEISHA (1970, TEKKA GEISHA, aka A LIVELY GEISHA, as it’s listed on IMDB, but with a 1968 release date) Dir.: Kosaku Yamashita.
DUEL OF SWIRLING FLOWERS (1971, KETTO MIDARE BANA) Dir.: Kosaku Yamashita.
Junko Fuji stars in all of them and her co-star in three of them is Ken Takakura (who had starred in some of the Red Peony films with her), with Bunta Sugawara, another stalwart Yakuza star, substituting for Ken in IRON GEISHA. In both SAMURAI GEISHA and IRON GEISHA, Ms. Fuji plays a geisha and does not have a fighting role (although she wields a pistol to good effect in one stand-off with thugs in SAMURAI GEISHA). She dances a lot in both films, sometimes in full kabuki makeup (which kind of confused me, because I thought only males danced kabuki). Those scenes are quite beautiful in both films and occur with some frequency. In fact, the geisha setting and theatrical activity distinguish both films and make them much more visually interesting than the other two films.
Both films also involve some form of labor dispute, with Fuji’s geisha character becoming involved with a leader of the working men depicted and her sympathies extending to these men. The big boss (“shacho”) at the head of whatever entity is opposing the workers is depicted as a straight-out bad guy in both films—including lecherous behavior toward the geisha women. In SAMURAI GEISHA, the dispute is between a small mine owner (played by Takakura) and a big mine owner trying to wipe out his competition. At some point the thugs working for the big owner blow up the small owner’s mine, provoking the final round of violence.
In IRON GEISHA, the middle management figure, played by Bunta Sugawara, is trying to mediate between the big boss and his gang and the workers who unload sacks of some commodity off boats at the dock and make some demands that are replied to with violence. There is one scene where the workers storm the boss’s office and overturn his fancy car and set it on fire. When the boss’s thugs later set fire to the storehouse where the sacks are kept after being off-loaded, Bunta heads into action.
In both films, Ms. Fuji’s character has to negotiate between her role as a high-priced geisha entertaining rich and powerful men and her attempts to aid the workers. Surprisingly, she comes out of both films relatively unscathed, with only a minor wound here and there from intervening to break up fights. Both films end with the male lead, Takakura in one and Sugawara in the other, stripping down to reveal their full-body yakuza tattoos (evidently left over from a previous career arc) and picking up a sword to go after the bosses and their thugs, both times to their death.
Without this ending, I’m not sure either film would be called a Yakuza film. Until the moment when they strip down to show their tattoos, I wasn’t sure either film could even be called an action film for that matter. In both, the final battle is intercut with a dance performance by Ms. Fuji, with cuts to a startled look on her face when the hero is mortally wounded, as if she knows what has happened even though she’s quite a distance away.
Her characters seem to be in love with both heroes, but it’s not clear to me what the nature of each relationship is. She apparently has some past history with Bunta in IRON GEISHA.
I love the color and widescreen compositions of both films and the use of beautifully designed studio sets, mixed with occasional location shots. There are lots of long takes. While most scenes take place indoors or are shot on soundstages duplicating outdoor scenes (usually long walks at night), there are some location scenes, usually by the water, and a few backlot street sets, although we get little sense of what the actual urban setting is (Tokyo? A smaller city?).
Most importantly, though, the two films rely on frequent closeups of Ms. Fuji, who is seen in different degrees of makeup and hair styling, depending on the requirements of the scene, and displays a wide range of facial expressions and emotional states throughout, even in full Kabuki makeup. Do I really need subtitles to appreciate these performances?
There’s one key scene in SAMURAI GEISHA where, at a party for the visiting war minister (played by Tomisaburo Wakayama, of Lone Wolf and Cub fame, pictured in the bottom photo, the seventh in the sequence below), Fuji offers to drink in place of Takakura, who has sworn off drinking. The vicious mine owner, eager to humiliate Ms. Fuji to get back at Takakura, picks up a decorative bowl placed nearby for purposes of décor and fills it up with six bottles of sake, insisting she drink it all. She does so, to everyone’s amazement, and then gets up to do her scheduled dance, with only a few missteps. Wow!
In IRON GEISHA, Fuji’s character was evidently reared to be a geisha and we see a flashback showing her as a child doing menial tasks at the geisha house.
Both films offer Ms. Fuji dancing under the opening credits:
The remaining two films were not as visually interesting to me as the two GEISHA films, so I didn’t try to get screen pics from them, not an easy thing with VHS tapes in the first place (as evidenced by the lesser quality of the pics above). So I’ve just got the VHS covers as illustrations. They also suffered the most from lack of subtitles.
BRAVE RED FLOWER OF THE NORTH has a completely different setting—the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido. Here the characters dress warmly and ride horses past picturesque seascapes. They also fight with guns as their weapon of choice. It’s the only film of the four in which Ms. Fuji fights—a mix of martial arts and gunplay. I found a brief synopsis of this on the web—after I watched it—and it didn’t quite match the plot I formed in my head as I was watching it. To me, it seemed like Ms. Fuji’s hometown, populated by a mix of Japanese migrants and Ainu descendants of the original native population of Hokkaido, had been taken over by gangsters who’ve got the well-appointed local police force in their pocket and have pushed the local citizens around to the breaking point. Ken Takakura plays a lone gunslinging rider who sides with Fuji and the townsfolk against the different factions in the town. As such, it reminded me a great deal of Sergio Leone’s Italian western, A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS (1964), which had been, in fact, based on Akira Kurosawa’s YOJIMBO (1961), which had been inspired by Dashiell Hammett’s 1929 novel, “Red Harvest.” However, the plot description I found read like this:
An exciting tale of action on the distant northern island of Hokkaido around the
beginning of the 20th Century starring two of the biggest names in Yakuza film
history, Fuji Junko and Takakura Ken. Since the death of Matsuo Yuki’s father, the
Union Representative position has been vacant. Now that the central government
has delegated the decision on his replacement to the ‘Horse Traders’ Association in
Hokkaido, she becomes the top candidate to fill the post. Corrupt local officials seek
to block her from assuming the position upon her arrival from the southern island of
Kyushu. It will be a radical change for Yuki, coming from the warm climate in the
South to the bitter cold of Hokkaido. Violence soon erupts as Ainu and Japanese
clash, while Yuki’s protector, a mysterious rifleman played by Takakura Ken,
watches from the shadows. Can she finish the work started by her late father in an
If these people were horse traders, they don’t spend much time actually, y’know, grooming, inspecting and, trading horses. As far as I could tell, they only ride horses. In any event, while the action scenes are frequent, they’re very poorly staged, with characters shooting wildly (sometimes standing and firing right behind their own comrades) and standing away from any cover when they shoot at each other on the streets of the town. It definitely plays like a western in these scenes, just not a very good one. This is also the only one of the four not directed by Kosaku Yamashita. But there are a lot of street scenes in this, although I couldn’t tell whether they were on location or, as I’m assuming, in a backlot. And there are way more outdoor scenes in this one and the next one than in the two GEISHA movies.
One good thing about BRAVE RED FLOWER is that the hero doesn’t die at the end. The climactic shootout involves a whole group of townsfolk (including Fuji) confronting the bad guys after they’ve entered the town and taken it over by force, neutralizing the local police in the process, so it wasn’t just one martyred hero going up against great odds. As Takakura rides off alone at the end, Fuji gets on her horse and rides after him, giving us hope that, for once, the two leads will actually get together and have a successful relationship.
DUEL OF SWIRLING FLOWERS also takes place in a rural setting, this time a small mining town. Takakura is, again, a small mine owner or manager up against a corrupt boss or gang leader, but this time Fuji seems to be playing the widow of a miner who was killed in an accident and petitions the mine owner for better conditions or something. There are some key scenes in the mine, including a flood and mine collapse. I’m not sure whether these scenes were done in the studio or on location, although my notes say, “It looks real.” Overall, though, the film was very talky and quite difficult to follow and lacked the beautiful settings of the two Geisha films. The few street scenes we see give no sense of what the larger town looks like. While Fuji doesn’t play a geisha, she does a traditional dance with a fan in one scene, to entertain the workers, and employs no special makeup or costume, while someone else sings and plays an instrument. There are scenes at a pleasure house in town where a big party is staged at one point involving all the participants in the story. Fuji sits with Takakura in this scene and drinks with him, although it seems like a new experience for her.
There is a big action climax, but no Yakuza tattoos this time. The big boss has sabotaged Takakura’s mine and caused some deaths. He also shoots an irate worker after having him beaten up. All this provokes the final confrontation between Takakura, armed with sword, and the boss. There are as many thugs as in the earlier films, but they don’t seem to interfere in the final fight between Takakura and the boss, so it’s less bloody and has less of a body count than the other films. There are earlier fight scenes but they’re both staged in the dark and were way too dark on the tape to tell what was going on in them. (The big problem with the fight scenes in these movies in general is the failure of the gang members to simply rush the attacking hero and cut him down all at once. The whole one-at-a-time procedure makes absolutely no sense. Fukasaku addressed this in his films and gave us much messier, but more realistic fight scenes.)
Interestingly, all the indoor scenes in each of these films were shot sync-sound (dialogue recorded on the spot), while the outdoor scenes tend to be post-dubbed.
I have watched hundreds of Japanese films and TV shows without subtitles. I took about ten months of Japanese-language classes approximately 20 years ago, not nearly enough to develop anything close to a working command of the language. Much of what I’ve watched (sci-fi, monster and Power Rangers-style superhero shows) plays fine without subs, but films like these four, with intricate plots and nuanced relationships and lots of talk, definitely need subtitles to fully appreciate them. Still, I’d rather watch them without subtitles than not at all. I don’t recommend this approach to everyone, but I have to say I’ve gotten way more out of Japanese pop culture this way.
And I certainly hope that those distributors who’ve been releasing Japanese samurai and yakuza films from the 1960s and ’70s (I’m looking at you, Tokyo Shock, AnimEigo, and Home Vision) will license the more traditional yakuza films that Toei turned out in record numbers in that period.