Based on the novel by ex-gangster Goro Fujita, the five films encompassing the Outlaw Gangster VIP series were released in Japan by the Nikkatsu studio, between 1968 and 1969 (a quite breathtaking run) and both prefigured and influenced the more widely known later series of yakuza films, Kinji Fukasaku’s Battles Without Honour and Humanity (also released as a sumptuous box set by Arrow).
What sets these films apart from the Battles Without Honour series is the sharp focus on Goro (here renamed Fujikawa) as a central character, and the women and men who orbit his story, friends, lovers and enemies, which gives this series a stronger emotional core. In fact, the series is definitely elevated by the way it looks at the roles of the women, and gives them frequent and effective voices, as they are caught up in the dramas instigated by the men around them.
Simple and direct storytelling holds sway throughout the films, but that isn’t to say there isn’t cinematic beauty to be found here – a knife fight taking place on scaffolding, another beneath the pillars of a bridge, a back alley fight as dust billows the wind up around the protagonists, a knife duel through a city river as teenage girls unknowingly play a game of netball close by, an assassination in a rain drenched children’s playground, Goro taking on an entire gambler’s den under the ballad accompanied open titles or a climactic fight in a paint factory, this series is consistently visually inventive.
A sequence in Outlaw Gangster No 2 highlights both this inventiveness and deeper heart, cutting back and forth between Goro in Yokahama and his friend Yumeko back in Hirosaki City on her death bed – a cigarette snuffed out, the lights of a train station switched off – is heart rending in its simplicity, as Goro’s boss has previously destroyed the telegram informing Guro of her illness and the assassin carries out his business unaware of her passing.
Towering above all this is Tetsuya Watari as Goro. The actor strides through this saga like an acting behemoth, moving effortlessly between gangster cool and gangster cold, all the while battling the raging conflicts within him caused by the demands of honour and duty, compromise and betrayal and those of a man in love. It’s a constant throughout the series, a fearless, heartfelt performance that deserves attention and respect.
The series is also filled with great performances from the likes of Chieko Matsubara (as Goro’s love, Yukiko) and fans of the Female Prisoner Scorpion and series can catch Meiko Kaji in the second film, as an appetiser for Arrow’s box set release of those films later in 2016. Of course, Kaji also stars in Arrow’s excellent release of the two Lady Snowblood films.
Colour looks great throughout the films, mostly drenched in the greys and browns of yakuza offices and backrooms, but vibrant when splashed with the hot neons of nightclubs and bars, the dazzling snow of the countryside or the lush green of a mountainside cemetery.
Extras include commentaries, visual essays and trailers and it’s worth noting that this set is the first legal release of the films in the west, and so features the first official, English subtitled editions.
Arrow’s box set is a treat from beginning to end, a saga of love and honour, brutal violence and sweeping romance, that becomes almost soap opera like in its twists and turns. Sit down with the first film and you’ll find yourself emerging a day later, like the yakuza version of a Netflix show. And while certain tropes do reappear from film to film, the sheer power of Watari’s broiling intensity and the elegantly direct but layered storytelling will carry you through the few low points.
Limited to only 3000 copies, you should pick this up as soon as possible, this is a VIP presentation of a VIP series of films that will stay with you long after your first viewing.