Outlaw Gangster VIP: Complete Collection Blu-ray Review (originally published 2016)
Before Kinji Fukasaku’s seminal Battles Without Honor and Humanity series, director Toshio Masuda kickstarted a similarly gritty gangster saga with Outlaw: Gangster VIP. Star Tetsuya Watari, hot off an appearance in Seijun Suzuki’s Tokyo Drifter (1966), portrayed Goro Fujikawa, a yakuza foot soldier named for author Goro Fujita. Fujita was a real life criminal enforcer that penned the ‘tell-all’ novel the Outlaw series is based on. All six films in the franchise are presented by Arrow Video on Blu-ray and DVD for the first time in North America.
Outlaw: Gangster VIP (1968)
Goro (Tetsuya Watari) had grown up in the yakuza world. As an active member of the Mizuhara family crime syndicate, he expressed his loyalty by always putting himself in the forefront of every battle. Violence never bothered him. However, after being sentenced to three years in prison for stabbing a rival gang’s hitman, he becomes disenchanted with the Yakuza lifestyle. Goro is determined to start anew, but karma catches up. His two closest friends are murdered by his ex-boss. He is left with two options: to kill or be killed. (From Nikkatsu’s official synopsis)
The first film in the series, Outlaw: Gangster VIP (Japanese: Burai yori daikanbu), sets the tone with a stylishly rough tumble through Goro’s tragic childhood and incarceration for attempted murder. Following the extended credit sequence, the screenplay – adapted by Kaneo Ikegami, Keiji Kubota, and Reiji Kubota – takes little time to acclimate viewers to the ins and outs of the gangland underworld. I imagine that the target audience didn’t need primers on the subject in 1968, but the breakneck pace can be a bit overwhelming, especially considering the number of characters that are introduced during the first act. As the narrative settles into a more episodic mode, Watari’s cool, hyper-macho performance carries the film through some of its more generic moments, even though his character is relegated to the background for the middle act. Masuda, who had cut his teeth on other Nikkatsu B-yakuza projects, like Rusty Knife (Japanese: Sabita naifu, 1958) and Red Pier (Japanese: Akai hatoba, 1958), infuses the slice-of-life tale with saturated colour and severe camera angles, and stages most of the fights in a purposefully clumsy manner that de-romanticises the violence (at one point, the characters literally wrestle in mud). In the decades that followed, the director applied this style to his ultra-violent disaster flick, Catastrophe 1999: Prophecies of Nostradamus (Japanese: Nosutoradamusu no daiyogen, 1974), and two live-action movies based on the Space Battleship Yamato anime series (Farewell to Space Battleship Yamato, 1978; Be Forever Yamato, 1980).
Specs tell us that all six movies in the collection were sourced and remastered by the Nikkatsu Corporation from their original film elements. The results are similar to Arrow’s other Nikkatsu releases – a little rough around the edges (almost literally, considering that the ends of reels are the roughest moments), but very naturalistic and sharp. Despite the relatively consistent appearance of small scratches, white spots, and occasional splicing artifacts, details are tight, gradations are smooth, and the Fujicolor hues pop beautifully. Gamma levels are also set higher than some of the other Nikkatsu discs and image stabilization is more successful. The original mono sound is presented in LPCM 1.0 mono. The results are somewhat fuzzy, specifically the louder vocal performances and aspirated consonants. Environmental cues are thin, but balanced. Workhorse composer Naozumi Yamamoto’s score is fantastic, especially the Spanish horn and guitar theme. The music features little distortion and is not overly compressed by the single channel treatment.
Outlaw: Gangster VIP 2 (1968)
Goro (Tetsuya Watari) wants to put his dark past behind. He heads to Hirosaki City to offer his condolences to Yumeko and to reunite with Yukiko (Chieko Matsubara), but finds that Yumeko is fatally ill. Although Yukiko was taking care of her, she is pressed for money. Goro wants to help and knows that there is only one way to come up with fast money. (From Nikkatsu’s official synopsis)
Masuda is credited with starting the Outlaw franchise, but director Keiichi Ozawa was in charge of the most movies in the series, beginning with the first sequel, Gangster VIP 2 (Japanese: Daikanbu - burai), which was also his feature directing debut. Ozawa’s takes Masuda’s basic visual themes into account, especially in his expansive use of the widescreen frame, but he’s less interested in heightened reality. The sequel is more romantically-shot, including more naturalistic lighting (aside from one wonderfully histrionic death scene), flashier costumes, and more dramatic camera moves. The fight sequences are still deliberately awkward, but they’re captured in a slightly more cinematic manner. Following a quick wrap-up of the events of the first film, the sequel kicks into the next chapter of Fujita’s story, which, it turns out, is a lot like the previous chapter. The major difference is that the Goro character is taken out of his ‘hood’ for much of the film. It almost appears that the filmmakers are turning him into more of a modern wandering samurai than a struggling yakuza enforcer. Soon enough, however, he is seeking retribution as the sins of his past come back to haunt him as he attempts a more peaceful life. This time, the real-life gangster is not given a screenwriter credit and I suspect that the smaller influence helped Ikegami and Kubota (only Keiji) to streamline the formula a bit. The Supporting characters (including Lady Snowblood herself, Meiko Kaji, in a mostly bit part as a Spanish dancer/witness to a crime) and basic plot have more room to develop, despite continuing issues with episodic plotting.
Since the films were seemingly scanned at the same time from similar original material, I’m going to keep the subsequent A/V reviews brief to avoid repetition. Gangster VIP 2 is a bit cleaner and smoother than its predecessor. This is, in part, due to the use of brighter, daylight sequences, especially those countryside snowscapes, in place of dark and seedy nightclubs – though there are still a few of those. The brightness covers quite a bit of the gritty grain and minor print damage artefacts. Colors are more natural, especially when they’re compared to the saturated neons of the first Gangster VIP. However, this 2.35:1, 1080p transfer does feature more pulsing effects, slightly weaker black levels, and light leaks around the edges of the frame. The LPCM mono soundtrack is a significant improvement. This more dialogue-driven track is flatter in terms of the overall mix, I suppose (there just isn’t a lot of environmental noise, even outdoors), but doesn’t feature nearly as much high end distortion or hiss. Despite a few rousing cues, Harumi Ibe’s underused soundtrack is a slight downgrade from the pulpy thrill of Yamamoto’s original themes.
Disc one extras include:
Outlaw Gangster VIP commentary with critic/Japanese film historian Jasper Sharp – Sharp, the co-editor of Midnight Eye Magazine (with Tom Mes) and author of Behind the Pink Curtain (2008) and The Historical Dictionary of Japanese Cinema (2011), fills the first commentary to the brim with behind-the-scenes factoids and context for the larger Nikkatsu catalogue. There’s a lot of information to parse, but Sharp’s personable tone and extensive preparation help to clarify the details.
An Outlaw Odyssey (38:00, HD) – This visual essay, written and narrated by The Digital Fix critic/editor Kevin Gilvear, covers the entire series – its themes, its context within the larger Nikkatsu and yakuza movie landscape, and the careers of its cast & crew. There’s a lot of info here, but it is easy to track, thanks to the tight editing of footage from each movie.
Outlaw: Heartless (1968)
Goro Fujikawa (Tetsuya Watari) was indebted to Mitsugimoto. Sawada, a low-rank yakuza with a gambling problem, owed Mitsugimoto three million yen. This equation can only lead to one answer. Mitsugimoto needs to pay and Goro's coming to collect. (From Nikkatsu’s official synopsis)
Return of the Filthy Seven (Japanese: Shichinin no yajû: chi no sengen, 1967) filmmaker Mio Ezaki took the directing and co-writing reins (along with Gan Yamazaki) for a single film in the series, Heartless (Japanese: Burai hijô). The third movie completes Goro’s turn from out-of-his-depth assassin with a heart of gold to full-on avenger of the downtrodden. The writers recycle so many elements from the previous movies without really acknowledging previous events (including Goro’s implied death) that I initially assumed it was a sort of prequel. Interchangeable qualities (and actors…) aside, the developing formula is again whittled down to its essential elements, making Heartless possibly the most straight-forward and neatly plotted of the Outlaws. Goro is put at the center of just about every scene and subplots are minimized. Ezaki’s directing style alternates between theatrical staging and documentary-like hand-held work, which sort of sets the stage for the rawer yakuza exploitation films of the 1970s. The series’ clumsy fighting aesthetic culminates here, as well, when Goro sloppily knife battles while sliding around in gallons of spilled paint. Heartless has no qualms about pandering to its young audience’s needs with more graphic violence and more sweet-natured romance. This duality is embodied in Goro himself, who becomes a brutal, nigh-invincible fighting machine and a genuinely adorable, hopeless romantic. It might not be as ‘truthful’ as some of the other entries in the series, but it certainly is entertaining.
Heartless’ return to more urban and gritty environments means that this 2.35:1, 1080p transfer follows along the lines of the first film in the set. The darker imagery leads to some slight posterization and noise in softer gradations, but the overall appearance is still quite clean, even where grain and soft focus are concerned (I believe that the chromatic aberration effects are simple in-camera artefacts). There’s also relative consistency between the sharpness of dark and light sequences. Color quality is relatively natural and the brighter hues (especially reds) still pop, but the more neutral environments don’t have the same dynamic impact as the first two movies. Pulsing and weak blacks are a problem, but only during select moments, and print damage remains minimal. The mono LPCM soundtrack has some decent ambience and relatively clean dialogue tracks, though some of the outdoor scenes do feature slight vocal buzz. Along with some rousingly militant themes, Ibe’s music seems to predict the poppy melodrama of Masaaki Hirao’s Lady Snowblood, specifically the opening credits tune.
Outlaw: Goro the Assassin (1968)
On a cold winter day, Goro Fujikawa (Tetsuya Watari) and Masahiko murder the mob boss of Meishin-Kai. The deed costs them time in prison, but Goro had no shred of regret. When Goro is released 2 years later, Masahiko is dying in a prison hospital and entrusts his last wish; "Find my sister and take care of her." Goro leaves as a free man with a mission, but soon finds that he might have been better off in jail. (From Nikkatsu’s official synopsis)
Ozawa returned for Goro the Assassin (Japanese: Burai Hitokiri Goro), a film that continued the standalone, wandering avenger motif, while also returning the film to its roots. Once again, Goro finds himself leaving prison (following another pre-credit melee) and swearing to ‘go legit.’ Of course, fate has something else in mind and his best-laid plans waylaid by more thugs with knives. The narrative (the script is again written by Ikegami from Fujita’s original story) is tidy and easy to track, despite the quality of characters, because it doesn’t float off on too many tangents. Goro the Assassin delves further into the seedy underbelly of the criminal world than the largely rural-set Gangster VIP 2. While Ozawa’s more refined visuals don’t have quite the same gritty appeal of Ezaki’s, he brings real beauty to the occasional vulgarity. He shoots yakuza-run strip clubs with the same reverence as high class hotels. He doesn’t sugarcoat the brutality; rather, he magnifies it with further dramatic imagery (which is pretty disturbing when it comes to a rape scene). All in all, this may be the best movie in the series, though it underlines Goro’s need for a stronger female co-star. Recurring actress Chieko Matsubara’s gentle grace is a nice contrast to the main character’s gruff romanticism (make no mistake – Fuji is the series’ main sex symbol), but her role is still too incidental, which is especially bothersome in this film, where sexual slavery is a central theme.
If we’re really splitting hairs, Goro the Assassin is another of the set’s better looking 2.35:1, 1080p transfers. There’s some uneven grain and pulsing from scene to scene, but very little print damage and plenty of neatly separated details. The punchy palette alternates between neutral corporate environments, lush natural environments, and gaudy underworld environments. Despite the eclectic nature, colors remain relatively consistent and shadows only absorb a bit of the cooler hues. A few posterizing effects and hazy backgrounds crop up during some outdoor shots, but these are probably in-camera issues, rather than digital compression. The LPCM 1.0 mono sound is par for the course. Environmental effects are minimal and dialogue is clear with a slight uptick in fuzzy consonants. Neither imdb.com or Nikkatsu’s English language site list a composer credit (and the on-screen credits are in Japanese with no subtitles), but it sounds like recycled Ibe cues to me. The soft harmonica underscore is very nice.
Disc two extras include:
Heartless and Goro the Assassin trailers
Heartless and Goro the Assassin image galleries
Outlaw: Black Dagger (1968)
A street war breaks loose between two rival gangs in the Kansai region of Japan. Goro (Tetsuya Watari) is in the middle of action. Through a knife fight against Sueo, a high-profile gangster from Busou-kai, Goro notices a familiar face approaching him from amidst the chaos – his girlfriend, Yuri (Chieko Matsubara). Goro had sent her to safety, but she had returned, aching to see him. Caught between Goro and his enemy’s knife, she reunites with her love – the price was her life. (From Nikkatsu’s official synopsis)
Ozawa’s third Outlaw outing as director, Black Dagger (Japanese: Burai kurodosu), is one of the more popular entries in the series, as I understand. It starts as a unique episode, because it picks up directly after the previous film. All of the films in the franchise technically follow a single continuity, but they tend to feel more like standalone reiterations of the first movie. Ozawa and screenwriter Ikegami open the story with Matsubara’s character (with a different name) returning to Goro’s side and a reminder that he had put her on a boat to keep her away from danger during Goro the Assassin. She is murdered directly after, leading Goro to run away and into another political/moral struggle in a different region of Japan. Funnily enough, the plot thread isn’t entirely severed, because Matsubara appears as yet another new character, keeping the actress in the series. It’s still basically the same story – one that sadly doubles-down on the mistreatment of women in an attempt to make the villains seem more vile than those in the last movie – but there are a few twists on the formula. Ozawa’s direction remains tight and lurid, putting an emphasis on suspense and brutality, while also bulking up the action.
Again, if we’re really splitting hairs, Black Dagger is probably one of the weakest transfers in the set. On average, it is every bit as clean and balanced as the better-looking movies, including some really vibrant natural colors and subtle gradations. However, there are more offset frames sprinkled throughout, which leads to jagged flashes of white at the top and bottom of the screen. Pulse effects are minimal, but there are occasions of chemical stains and blown-out highlights, usually during wide-angle establishing shots of the city and surrounding area. The LPCM 1.0 sound is more of the same – clear dialogue with slight hiss, limited environmental ambience, and clean music, including another sung title theme and a brief singing moment in the middle of the movie.
Outlaw: Kill! (1969)
Goro (Tetsuya Watari) has always been a lone wolf. When he arrives at an industrial city in Keihin, there is certain restlessness in the air. The Iriezaki family and the Kanto Touyu-kai were in the midst of a territorial dispute. Goro was quick to notice, but had no intent to take sides. At a department store nearby, he sees an elevator lady being harassed by a couple of hoodlums. Goro decides to intervene. Unbeknownst to him, the hoodlums are Touyu-kai members – and the girl has strong ties with the opposing family. (From Nikkatsu’s official synopsis)
The series drew to a close with Ozawa’s Kill! (Japanese: Burai barase!), not to be confused with Kihachi Okamoto brutal samurai parody, Kill! (Japanese: Kiru), which had been released only months prior. The finale is perhaps the weakest and most formulaic entry. Ikegami’s gangland politics are listless and Goro has morphed into an invincible, morally infallible character by this point (comically so: at one point, he wins a jackpot on a slot machine on his first try, so that he can give the money to a young hoodlum that needs to get out of town), so the drama is particularly stifled. It works best as a straight romance, since Watari and Matsubara (who plays her fifth or sixth different love interest in six movies – Yumiko) had developed such strong chemistry over the Outlaw movies, as well as Isamu Kosugi’s Abare kishidô (1965), Suzuki’s Tokyo Drifter (1966), Motomu Ida’s Hoshi to ore tode kimetanda (1966), and Kenjirô Morinaga’s Zoku Tokyo nagaremono - Umi wa makka na koi no iro (1966). Ozawa pulls off some impressive cinematic tricks, especially in the way he shoots many of the film’s outdoor sequences from afar. The scale of the stark concrete cityscape looms heavily over the characters and, by employing reverse crash-zooms, the director creates a sense of agoraphobic dread. In addition, the patently awkward knife fights are magnified (Kill! has the largest body count by a wide measure) and staged in fun new arenas, including a sauna, where Goro uses jacuzzi pools to his advantage, and a noisy rock club, where the music drowns out the screams and the stage lights offer a surreal ambience.
The last of the 1080p, 2.35:1 transfers has the same occasional splice-mark/white bit issues on the tops and bottoms of the frame, but is otherwise another even-handed showing. Details are sharp and elements are neatly separated without any notable compression effects. Grain cakes up a bit during wide-angle establishing shots and there is some shutter pulse, but the gradations are quite clean. Colors are vibrant without sacrificing the purity of neutral hues and skin tones. Blacks are consistent, but on the softer side. The LPCM 1.0 mono soundtrack has better than average (for the collection) tone and clarity. The sparse music (including the super loud rock club sequence) and comparatively complex environmental sound is relatively dynamic.
Disc three extras include:
Black Dagger and Kill! trailers
Black Dagger and Kill! image galleries