Massacre Gun & Retaliation Blu-ray Reviews (originally published 2015)
Massacre Gun (Japanese: Minagoroshi no Kenju; aka: Slaughter Gun, 1967)
Kuroda (Jô Shishido) is a mob hitman who turns on his employers after being forced to execute his lover. Joining forces with his similarly wronged brothers, hotheaded Eiji (Tatsuya Fuji) and aspiring boxer Saburô (Jirô Okazaki), the trio escalate their mob retaliation to an all-out turf war where no one will stop until one faction emerges victorious. (From Arrow’s official synopsis)
Massacre Gun was Nikkastu favorite Yasuharu Hasebe’s third film as director, an important early entry in the studio’s late ‘60s yakuza canon, and a decent entry point for viewers looking to gain a greater knowledge of the genre, beyond its most popular films. The screenplay, penned by Hasebe himself and Ryûzô Nakanishi, is bestrewn with comfortable gangster most clichés that are familiar throughout the world, not just the Japanese-born subset. These include a down-on-his-luck-boxer, a hitman with an inflexible code of ethics, a jazz bar setting, men and women slapping each other before kissing, and a cadre of guys in black suits that drive cool cars, chain smoke, and beat the stuffing out of their enemies. Like its contemporaries, Massacre Gun mixes visual cues from Hollywood noir of the ‘40s and ‘50s with the more immediate, vérité-infused style that coincided with French New Wave crime movies. It’s the patterned use of the 2.35:1 scope frame, coupled with an almost vulgar quantity of vicious whip-pans and crash zooms, which ultimately set Hasebe’s film apart from the more run of the mill yakuza pulp (if there is such a thing). There’s also a top quality shoot-out that closes the film. I had assumed that some of it was in reference to Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967), but there was less than a month between the original release dates, so that seems unlikely.
Nikkatsu Studios advertising attempted to imply that Massacre Gun was directly linked to lead actor Joe Shishido’s other ’67 yakuza movies, Takashi Nomura’s A Colt is My Passport and Seijun Suzuki’s beloved Branded to Kill. The three movies aren’t technically connected, but, without having seen Nomura’s film, I can verify that Massacre Gun sometimes feels like Branded to Kill’s less abstract, more bloodthirsty little brother. Hasebe didn’t quite push the boundaries of the Nikkatsu yakuza template or engage in the same type of visual experimentation, but both films are incredibly dynamic and ahead of their time – especially in terms of metaphorical imagery and beautiful black & white photography.
Massacre Gun has been remastered in 2.35:1, 1080p high definition for this Blu-ray release – the first HD home video version ever, as far as I know. In fact, I don’t think it has been available on digital home media outside of Japan until now. The black and white image looks very good, overall. Details are sometimes hampered by age and, more commonly, by the run-and-gun nature of the production. Hasebe and cinematographer Kazue Nagatsuka are constantly experimenting with dynamic camera movement, extreme close-ups, and sudden focal shifts, likely without the benefit of additional takes. So, some stuff is expectedly blurry or soft. Important details are plenty sharp, without any notable haloes. Gamma/contrast can be uneven, including some grayed blacks and overblown whites in the lightest shots. Again, this could very easily be inherent in the original material. Grain levels occasionally appear a smidge mushy, but not enough to assume any major DNR was employed. Artifacts include some pulsing, minor white flecks, and what appear to be jagged splices that cause the frame to jump and a white streak to appear at the top of the frame (perhaps a CRT machine error?).
The original mono sound is presented in uncompressed PCM audio. Dialogue is clean and consistent with only slight dips in consistency, including a bit of crackle at the highest volumes. Sound effects are expectedly thin and alternate between naturalistic, but the softer, on-set noise and unnatural, but tight foley effects. The sound floor is practically buzz-free, even with the volume cranked to unhealthy volume levels. This is important, considering how often Hasebe uses silence to make a tonal point. Naozumi Yamamoto’s sultry jazz score is occasionally flattened by the mono treatment, creating slight distortion/buzz during the busier and bassier songs.
Interview with star Jô Shishido (17:40, HD) – An exclusive interview conducted in Nikkatsu’s headquarters this year. The 82-year-old actor, who has scars where his famous cheek implants were apparently removed, recalls his career leading up to and following Massacre Gun.
Interview with critic/historian Tony Rayns (36:30, HD) – This extensive look at the early history of Nikkatsu covers its emergence as the first major Japanese film studio, its struggles during WWII, a return to production after a post-war hiatus, and its short-lived success during the ‘60s with action/noir/crime movies like Massacre Gun and Roman Porno/Pink movies. The second half of the discussion sticks more to the careers of specific filmmakers. It is presumably the first part of two.
Retaliation (Japanese: Shima wa Moratta; aka: I Own Your Turf, 1969)
An ex-convict, Jiro (Akira Kobayashi), emerges from prison after an eight-year stint to find his gang disbanded and his aging boss on his sick bed. When Jiro approaches the powerful Hasama family to ask for assistance, he is tasked with settling a gangland dispute in a manufacturing district. If he succeeds, he and his old family will gain control over the area. Meanwhile, a rival named Hino (Jô Shishido) haunts Jiro’s every move. (From Arrow’s official synopsis)
Massacre Gun’s direct follow up, Retaliation, is another violent, gangland melodrama featuring Jô (sometimes Joe) Shishido. Here, Shishido plays second fiddle to Akira Kobayashi, who is probably best known for his headline appearances in Seijun Suzuki’s Kanto Wanderer (1963) and Kinji Fukasaku’s Battles without Honor and Humanity series (1973-74). Hasebe also trades up evocative, smoky black & white photography for gloriously bloody Fujicolor. Yoshihiro Ishimatsu and Keiji Kubota’s screenplay is not particularly inspiring, but it is a fun enough revisitation of double-crossing tough-guy tropes to stand up against some of the better Yakuza movies of the late ‘60s/early ‘70s. The violence, both implied and explicit, is sometimes unnecessarily offensive (most of the women are either beaten, sexually assaulted, murdered, or tied up in BDSM-style stress positions), but more often entertaining, especially the spontaneous fist and sword fights and brutal torture scenes.
Hasebe and cinematographer Muneo Ueda’s insistence on shooting so much of the film through and around foreground objects (windows, plants, chairs, beaded curtains, et cetera). These eccentric visual choices, which frame scenes like giant dioramas, stretch beyond the widescreen vérité of many Nikkatsu and Toei thrillers to imply that the entire film is being culled from law enforcement surveillance, or perhaps the cameras of rival yakuza spies (on at least two occasions, surveillance cameras are identified). Similarly, the particularly aggressive brawl that sets off the events of the third act is lit almost exclusively by a single flashlight. The effect can be maddening, crowding the frame beyond its capacity, but it’s always interesting and even compels the viewer to crane their neck in an effort to glimpse of the obscured action.
Retaliation is a pretty obscure title and doesn’t appear to have been released on DVD or Blu-ray in any region (I can’t even find any evidence of grey market or bootleg versions), so I can’t compare Arrow’s remastered, limited edition (3000 copies), 2.35:1, 1080p release against anything. I assume that the most obvious shortcomings are inherent in the source material. Retaliation is a challenge, because, as mentioned above, Hasebe and Ueda make a lot of extreme choices with their photography, including soft focus and diffused lighting. They also fix the sharpest details around the middle-ground, which often leaves foregrounds and backgrounds vaguely defined. All of this leads to a very grainy image that is distorted by in-camera artifacts, like general blurriness and chromatic aberrations. Still, details and structure is sharp, without any major signs of compression. The grain structure can appear uneven at times, but there aren’t issues with clumping or blocking. Also, like many films from the period, the colors and black levels can be inconsistent, though the overall gamma is more regulated than Arrow’s older Lady Snowblood release.
Arrow has preserved the original mono sound and presents it in uncompressed PCM 2.0. It seems likely that a lot of the dialogue and incidental were added in post, which is pretty common for movies from the era, but this mix is relatively aggressive. The hum and buzz of the outdoor environments (cars, trains, pedestrians, and omnipresent cicadas) and use of radios during some interior scenes sets a more immersive aural stage than I’m used to from other ‘60s/’70s Yakuza movies. The dialogue track features minor aspirated hiss, but are otherwise clear and consistent. Hajime Kaburagi’s rock/surf inspire score is fantastic, if not underused. I assume that the live band playing in the club is playing his original tunes as well. The music is crisp, including warm bass and tight instrumentations.
Interview with critic and historian Tony Rayns (31:30, HD) – A continuation of a supplemental discussion that appeared on Arrow’s Massacre Gun Blu-ray. This picks up where that featurette left off and covers Nikkasu Films’ most prolific actors and directors. Fantastically informative.
Interview with star Jô Shishido (13:30, HD) – This interview is also a follow-up to an extra that appears on the Massacre Gun release and continues the extended discussion with the outspoken and sweet-natured actor.
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