Street Mobster Blu-ray Review (originally published 2018)
When Okita Isamu (Bunta Sugawara) re-emerges onto the mean streets of Kawazaki after five years in prison for a string of brutal crimes, he comes face to face with prostitute Kinuyo (Mayumi Nagisa), who immediately pinpoints him as one of the participants in her brutal sexual assault years earlier that left her shell-shocked and consigned to the life of a sex worker. While the two outcasts form an unlikely bond, Okita returns to his criminal ways. (From Arrow’s official synopsis)
Note: This review was initially published alongside a review of Seijun Suzuki’s Detective Bureau 2-3: Go to Hell Bastards (Japanese: Tantei Jimusho 23: Kutabare Akutōdomo; aka Detective Bureau 23: Down with the Wicked), which is why there are so many references to Suzuki’s work.
Around the same time director Seijun Suzuki was redefining himself at Nikkatsu, his slightly less internationally renowned cohort, Kinji Fukasaku, began working his way up the ladder at rival studio, Toei, creating his own version of post-war crime movies. As each filmmaker settled into their prospective grooves (Fukasaku almost a decade after Suzuki), both dabbled in cartoonish, over-the-top imagery that helped inform future generations of yakuza specialists, like Takashi Miike, Sion Sono, and Takeshi Kitano. The key difference between the two was that, while Suzuki fashioned himself as a bit of a political satirist and absurdist, Fukasaku preferred to explore brutal violence and fervent hyperrealism (even by today’s standards, his most famous work is relatively shocking). Made a year before his career-defining work in the Battles Without Honor and Humanity series (1973-74), 1972’s Street Mobster (Japanese: Gendai Yakuza: Hitokiri Yota; the sixth in Toei's loosely connected Gendai Yakuza series) further established Fukasaku as the studio’s go-to guy for jitsuroku eiga (literally “true account” crime movies – fictional, but based on gangland stories and legends) without reinventing the narrative standards of a “rise to fall” gangster epic.
Like Suzuki, Fukasaku (who co-wrote the film’s story with Yoshihiro Ishimatsu) sets the stage early. Street Mobster dives headlong into all of the director’s recently established trademarks, whetting our bloodlust early with a matter of fact, pre-credit montage of the main character’s early criminal exploits, hosted by Okita himself (who continues to narrate key sections of the story afterwards). There’s little time between chaotically edited battles for an audience to gather their bearings as the director indulges in increasingly experimental handheld camerawork (crash-zooms, tilted angles, spinning overhead shots, et cetera). Even expositional breaks feel like mere sips of air before Fukasaku shoves our heads back underwater. As such, [i]Street Mobster[/i] can be exhausting in a way that makes the likes of Miike and Sono seem downright patient in comparison. Fukasaku’s unrelenting pace and artistic flourishes are often all that keeps the archetypal story from turning completely mundane (this was the sixth in a series, after all), but the narrative does spring to life wherever the romantic subplot between Okita and Kimiyo is concerned. Their relationship initially hinges on a graphic gang rape, which is a predictable vulgar plot device for the jitsuroku eiga (even Suzuki’s comparatively ‘tame’ crime movies are casually abusive towards women) that hampers enjoyment of the more complicated drama that follows. Still, Kimiyo is uncharacteristically well-written and actress Mayumi Nagisa’s strong performance brings out the best in the otherwise stoic Bunta Sugawara.
Arrow’s Toei releases tend to start the same way as their Nikkatsu counterparts with a mostly complete HD transfer being supplied directly by the parent company. There’s little else we know about the production of this 1080p, 2.35:1 transfer, but that’s okay, because it’s about as good as we can expect from this type of film. Fukasaku and cinematographer Hanjiro Nakazawa opt for a much more muted palette than Suzuki did, which, when coupled with the purposefully rough, naturally-lit imagery, leads to a comparatively flatter look. Fortunately, the limited color range is mitigated by the consistency of the neutral hues. Black levels have similar issues with graying, also due to the raw photographic qualities, but the details are sharp enough to differentiate important shadows and keep the darker scenes from getting too muddy. While the grain rarely clumps, there are minor issues with slight edge enhancement that pops up when grain is heavy. These also appear to be inherent in the material, rather than a compression issue.
The film is presented in its original Japanese mono and uncompressed LPCM sound and, again, most issues with the sound quality can be attributed to shortcomings in the source material. The sound design is pretty ambitious for type, as it attempts to cram a lot of environmental effects and other ambience into a single channel alongside shouting [i]yakuza[/i] and punchy foley work. Sometimes, this leads to distortion at high volume levels and a bit of dialogue hiss, but nothing beyond the expectations of similar releases. Toshiaki Tsushima’s score features the same kinds of mixed rock/jazz motifs heard in many other Toei gangster pictures. The music drives roughshod through fistfights and footchases with pounding drums and bebop flutes, then establishes melodrama with blaring horns and Morricone-esque harmonica. Overall, the score has a rich tone, but would sound better with a touch of modern bass.
Commentary with Tom Mes – A typically strong track from the author of Agitator: The Cinema of Takashi Miike (FAB Press, 2003), co-author of The Midnight Eye Guide to New Japanese Film (with Jasper Sharp; Stone Bridge Press, 2004), and all-around Japanese cinema expert. Mes delivers a nearly complete historical account of the yakuza cinema of the ‘60s/’70s, sets Fukasaku’s films in their proper context, discusses the larger careers of the major cast members, and offers up a number of behind-the-scene anecdotes for this and other Japanese films of the era.
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