Wednesday, April 13, 2016

At last on Blu-ray and DVD -- Masuda/Ozawa's OUTLAW GANGSTER VIP: Complete Collection

TrustMovies had never heard of OUTLAW GANGSTER VIP -- a very popular series of late-1960 era Japanese Yakuza movies directed by Toshio Masuda (who evidently did only the first in this series) and then by Keiichi Ozawa and starring Tetsuya Watari, all three of whom now hold a firm place in TM's personal film canon -- until he read one of those lengthy articles in one of our better film magazines about the directors and the actor they helped make famous. (I've just spent more than an hour online, trying to look up which magazine this was -- either Cineaste, Film Comment or CinemaScope -- with no luck. So I can't give proper credit here, but I'd like to thank the unfortunately anonymous author of the article, anyway.)

The complete collection of OutLaw Gangster movies -- there are six of these -- feature the leading character, Goro, a guy who would dearly like to leave the world of the criminal Yakuza gangs, but is consistently drawn back in order to either seek revenge or help a desperately needy woman, relative or friend. This is not, shall we say, all that original a situation, but in the more-than-capable hands of the directors (Mr. Masuda is shown at left) and actor Watari (shown below and further below), the result is something quite beautiful and often moving -- due to its understanding of place, time and the social/economic concerns of the day that bring this particular genre very close to its zenith.

One could compare Tetsuya Watari to a kind of Japanese version of Clint Eastwood -- ultra-low-key, handsome, strong, and bent on doing the right thing. But so much better, acting-wise, is Watari than Eastwood that comparisons soon wobble and topple. This guy is the real thing, and directors Masuda and Ozawa, via their (and their several screenwriters') understanding of both film technique and the most important social concerns of the day (they're still the most important) turn their star into the kind of icon whose light shines and lasts. Watari does not simply embody cliches, as Eastwood has long done, he brings them to alternately roaring and moving life.

The films are so filled with iconic situations and visual compositions that, were it not for the social context that's always front and center here, the films might border on camp. We're in the period during which Yakuza clans began their move toward becoming large corporations, so loyalty, trust and anything else resembling fair play more easily goes by the wayside. Along with the chase scenes and hand-to-hand battles (mostly fabulously handled), there are some charming and quite moving scenes, as well. When characters die, you feel it down to your bones, and the scene in the first of the films in which the gangsters clean up their apartment to welcome the hero's new girl is simply dear. (The scene below of Goro making a particular bodily sacrifice is a humdinger, surely the first of its kind to have been shown in movies.)

Post-war Japan is brought to quite believable life, and the film's sub-plots are often as special as the main Goro story. In the first film, centering finally around vengeance, there's a  moving subplot involving two brothers in warring gangs. The second film in the series begins almost exactly where the former film left off, but this time Goro joins his girl and a dear friend in the hinterlands (below), and of course gets immediately involved in gang life due to his insistence on serving justice at any cost

Time constraints have meant that I've been able to view only two of the six films in the series. But these have been enough to ensure my return to Outlaw Gangster VIP until I make my way through them all. Released here in the USA via the fast-becoming-indispensable British distributor Arrow Video, this six-disc set -- in Blu-ray (as usual with Arrow, this is a stunningly produced transfer) and DVD -- hits the street this coming Tuesday, April 19,  for purchase and (one hopes) rental, from both the MVD Entertainment Group and Amazon. Click any/all of the above links for further information.

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