Street Mobster (Cert 15)
1 Disc Blu-ray (Distributor: Arrow Academy) Running Time: 88 minutes approx.
For some of us, Kinji Fukasawa was the man who gave us the modern classic Battle Royale, the film that kicked off the new millennium of Japanese cinema in a violent frenzy. For longer serving cineastes, Fukasawa was a prominent exponent of the yakuza flick in the 1970’s, with a number of seminal works from this genre in his prolific CV.
Street Mobster from 1972 is a blisteringly relentless and nihilistic tale of street punk Isamu Okita (Bunta Sugawara) and the consequences of letting his ego dictate where common sense should prevail. The product of a dysfunctional childhood, Okita was born on the day Japan surrendered to end the war, said to be an omen for his bad luck. He never knew his father and his mother was an alcoholic whore who died while Okita was young.
After reform school, Okita joined a gang of thugs, terrorising the streets, raping women and selling them into brothels but when he refuses to pay a cut to the ruling Takigawa family, Okita is jailed for attacking them. Upon his release a few years later, Okita returns to where he started, discovering how much it had changed, so he and lowly yakuza Kizaki (Asao Koike) decide to start their own gang and their own territory.
Reading this plot sounds like a typical yakuza turf war yarn is the direction we are heading towards, but Fukasawa and co-writer Yoshihiro Ishimatsu throw a lot more spice into the pot to make this is tragic and morally questionably as possibly. Nobody comes out looking even remotely good or deserving of our sympathy – with one possible exception – in what is essentially an indictment of the senselessness of the vicious circle of gang violence.
This possible exception is Kimiyo (Mayumi Nagisa) the hooker Okita is set up with on his first night of freedom. She attacks Okita almost immediately from recognising him as the one who raped her and forced her into prostitution year before. An innocent young girl arriving in the city from the country, Kimiyo’s abiding memory of the attack was Okita eating the lunch her mother had packed for her.
Now resigned to her fate as a whore, Kimiyo has toughened up a lot but is damaged goods emotionally and physically yet, for reasons not entirely certain she throws herself at Okita, beginning a volatile relationship. Logic would dictate Kimiyo would hate Okita for all eternity but as taking a woman’s virginity is a big deal in Japan, we can surmise from the scene where Kimiyo demands that Okita “gives her cherry back” that she has decided this is the bond to seal their fate together.
So, Okita has the gang, the girl and the arrogance to take over the territory until he runs into Takigawa family again, reigniting their feud. This time however, after being shot, Okita is offered protection by Shunsuke Yato (Noboru Ando) head of the Yato family who control the area. Not wanting to bother the Takigawa our have to deal with Okita’s pretty crimes, Yato gives Okita an entertainment district to keep him busy and out of trouble.
But, as Okita and trouble are natural bedfellows, it isn’t long after a truce between the Yato and Takigawa is agreed that Okita is riling up the Takigawa again. This time it is in front of Eisaku Owada (Asao Uchida), head of the powerful Saiei family of Osaka, looking to get a foothold in Tokyo and eventually take over by working with the Takigawa family. Okita refuses to apologise leaving Yato no choice but deal with these mounting problems in the only way yakuza know how.
Without anybody for the audience to root for, we are left in the position of observer to this messy and violent state of affairs, but without any investment of who wins or loses (for wanting a better term) all we can do is wonder what kind of life is this to lead for anyone? Okita is a product of unfortunate beginnings and as an orphaned child in post-war Japan maybe there was little hope for him, especially as he admits to hitting his own mother.
Yet, whilst the lawlessness and camaraderie of criminal gangs may sound ideal for a lost child like Okita, the yakuza do have their own code of honour which he fails to adhere to. This allows Fukasawa to frame Okita as a perpetual outlier and victim, doomed by his own arrogance even within the milieu of criminal organisations, and whilst this doesn’t glamorise the yakuza lifestyle, Yato’s phlegmatic demeanour and reverential gravitas is in sharp conflict to Okita’s unruly attitude.
Audiences who have only seen modern yakuza films will be surprised to see that little has changed in 45 years in terms of the pageantry that accompanies their official actions. The cars might be sleeker and the suits sharper, but when Owada arrives in Tokyo he is greeted by an army of men in black suits and escorted to his destination by a fleet of black cars, taking up the highway like a sinister funeral procession.
Fukasawa was also keen on the kinetic, handheld camera mise-en-scene prominent in modern cinema, used effectively here to convey the pandemonium and frenetic violence of the many fight scenes, taking us into heart of the action with unflinching abandon. It might be tame compared to the graphic nature of today’s content but is nonetheless shocking and in the conclusion, needlessly tragic.
With no moral compass in the hands of the characters of Street Mobster, the palpable grittiness of the world Fukasawa presents to us is horrifying in that it exists, and not just in Japan but in different guises around the world. If there is a message here, which I doubt, I can only guess it is to show some respect as a shot at redemption is preferable to a shot in the head.
Grisly, uncompromising and scarily amoral but still a vibrant work after 45 years.
Japanese Uncompressed Mono Audio
Audio commentary by Tom Mes
First Pressing only: Illustrated Collector’s Booklet
Rating – ***
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