Eight. Nine. Three. In the Japanese card game known as hana-fuda, it’s the worst hand you can get. Eight, nine, and three — ya, ku, and sa. Japanese organized crime families adopted the name “yakuza” because of this hand. Because you need to be lucky to be a yakuza. Because you’ve drawn the worst hand if you cross them. Because winning with a ya-ku-sa hand requires the utmost skill at reading an opponent. Others may claim it’s because it’s bad luck that leads to a life of crime, or because yakuza are born losers. Or because in the Edo period, when the yakuza first emerged on the scene, they might have evolved at least in part out of the tekiya and bakuto social groups.
Tekiya were peddlers, but peddlers of the cheapest and shoddiest goods, like Sham-Wow and the medieval Japanese Snuggies. Often the goods were not only of poor quality, but were also stolen or illegal. They were one of the lowest social groups in Medieval Japan. But lower still were bakuto, the gamblers. Gambling was illegal, and those who engaged in it in as professional a nature as one can with something illegal invited the scorn of mainstream society. That many members of mainstream society didn’t mind the occasional trip to a seedy gambling parlor (often set up in abandoned warehouses and temples on the outskirts of cities and towns) didn’t stop them from looking down on everyone else who engaged in or made possible the vice, just as being gay doesn’t stop a politician from spewing venomous anti-homosexuality propaganda. After all, we humans despise nothing so much as a practice we enjoy that is being enjoyed by someone other than us.
As groups were and still are wont to do, both tekiya and bakuto began to organize themselves. Tekiya organizations soon found themselves engaged in a number of administrative duties during markets and festivals, such as assigning space for peddlers and collecting administrative fees. Once administration and money came into play, so did the need for private security — you couldn’t trust the government to run your security, after all, considering how much of what was being bought and sold was illicit in nature. And once you’re collecting money and manning your own security details, you have further need administrative structures — who charges what, who gets paid what, who answers to who. And hell, while you have your security patrolling the local market during a festival, you might as well also use them to encourage merchants — both legitimate and shady — to pay a little extra for the protection services.
Similarly, bakuto operated in a shadow world where a lot of money was involved, and where the potential for violent confrontation — with cheaters, with drunks, with overly pious locals — meant that recruiting your own private security details was essential. And with so much money changing hands, there is, once again, the need for administrators. And hey, gamblers lose money, so why not set up some way for a down on his luck card player to borrow a little should he find himself short one night? And then, naturally, you need the proper type of guy to go and collect on that loan should the hapless gambler prove unable or unwilling to pay back it back.
Did the Japanese organized crime underworld known as the yakuza come from one of these two groups? Sure, why not? But why stop at just two potential origins? Why not add in the kabuki-mono? “Crazy ones” — samurai who reveled in dressing in outlandish style, adopting crazy hairstyles, and speaking in an elaborate slang that practically became its own language. During the Tokugawa era, when Japan was in a state of relative peace and stability, the services of samurai, including the flamboyant kabuki-mono, were no longer in great demand. With no wars to fight, no shoguns to defend, many samurai became masterless mercenaries, or ronin, picking up work wherever they could find it. Less scrupulous ronin didn’t mind if that work involved something rough and not the least bit legal. Could it be that this is where the yakuza come from? Or from some combination of the above three? After all, if you’re looking to hire someone to protect your gambling hall or shake down local merchants, who better than a masterless samurai who needs the cash, understands loyalty, and already has his own sword?
But wait! There’s more. Perhaps chafing at the unsavory characteristic of any of these potential origin stories, many yakuza claim their organizations descend from machi-yokko — servants of the town, who protected their villages from seedy ronin and other thugs who might aspire to create mayhem. These were the heroes who stand up for the poor and defenseless. The kind of misunderstood community heroes who would do something like, I don’t know, organize massive and efficient relief efforts in the wake of a devastating earthquake while the government was still floundering about trying to figure out what to do and how to do it. That’s exactly what happened in January of 1995, when the Great Hanshin earthquake ravaged the city of Kobe. The extensiveness of the damage wreaked havoc with official relief and emergency plans, but the Yamaguchi-gumi — a yakuza clan that has long called Kobe home — were more nimble in their ability to react, mobilizing to distribute food and medical supplies to people in desperate need. Hey, surely they’re entitled to ask for the occasional “contribution” from businesses in exchange for that kind of service. Beats what you get for paying your taxes, right?
Sorting it all out is about like sorting out the true origins of the Freemasons, which is a bit funny, because unlike the masons (who, I know, are not a criminal organization) or Chinese triads, yakuza are not members of a secret society. Their identities are not guarded secrets. They usually have publicly known headquarters and go out of their way to stick out in a society that values not sticking out. And yet the story of their origin is absurdly convoluted, contradictory, and shrouded in uncertainty that it must make even the most deceptive of secret societies envious. Even ninjas have a clearer origin. As is always the case when history gets mixed up with folklore and outright bullshit, there’s probably a piece of the true story in each individual tale. Certainly, the fact that yakuza ranks are still often referred to as tekiya or bakuto lends credence to the assertion that the organization evolved at least in some large part from those old social orders, as does the fact that protection rackets and illicit gambling have are and have always been two of the biggest businesses for the yakuza.
And yes, some of the men who became yakuza were probably ronin, and others were probably ronin hired to protect people from other ronin, giving some credence to the popular (with yakuza) idea that their organization has been a noble pursuit meant to shelter the weak from the brutal. But the magnanimous spirit of the yakuza is somewhat difficult to reconcile with some of the other common business pursuits of yakuza — including shopping for girls in China, where the one child per family and preference for boys has resulted in a lot of unwanted baby girls for yakuza to buy on the cheap, bring to Japan, and raise to be sex slaves. They also like to troll for gullible women in The Philippines as well, promising impoverished young women a better life in Japan, only to force them into prostitution.
And yeah, there’s also the extortion and blackmail, and the unique yakuza style of shaking down major companies by buying up a small amount of stock, sending rowdies to the shareholders’ meetings, then accepting payoffs to keep the yakuza troublemakers out of future board room meetings. But most people can roll with sticking it to big businesses; it’s the human trafficking that seems particularly at odds with the yakuza image of themselves as crusading community heroes. I don’t even think prostitution is particularly vile, nor do I think it should be illegal. But sex slavery is something entirely different, and forcing naive women or children into the sex trade is hardly becoming of a self-styled Robin Hood.
So there’s what they say. There’s what historians say There’s what the police say. At this point, it’s safe for me to say that sorting out a definitive origin story for the yakuza isn’t going to happen in this article. Wherever they might have come from, the yakuza evolved a very structured society, with well-defined chains of command, initiation rituals, and behaviors. So let’s fast forward to a more modern era, where our ability to sift out truth from hearsay and self-aggrandizing bullshit is a little easier. Post-war Japan was left in a disorganized quandary, with many battle-hardened young war veterans suddenly out of a job, just like the samurai of the Tokugawa era. Drifting, directionless, enraged, impotent, frustrated — these were the confused and angry young men who, with few other options, drifted toward the yakuza and established the third type of gang member: gurentai. Hoodlums.
Unlike bakuto and tekiya, both of which trace their origins back to feudal Japan, gurentai were a particularly post-war phenomenon, and like much in pot-war Japan, they were keenly influenced by Western pop culture. Gurentai owe more to Al Capone as they did to Chuji Kunisada, the John Dillinger of Japan’s Tokugawa era. Chuji Kunisada, who may or may not have been an actual person, gained fame when he led his gang in revolt against a lord who was ruthlessly taxing and abusing the peasants and served as the oft cited example of the mythical noble yakuza of old. Even more than Al Capone, though, the new generation gurentai probably owed a lot to the popular American cinematic image of the gangster. In the years immediately after VJ Day, Japan was restricted from creating its own entertainment. Even as those restrictions were eased over time, Allied (well, American) overseers acted as censors over Japanese entertainment, making sure to disallow anything that was seen as too nationalistic, proud, or likely to get the Japanese all puffed up with ride and self-respect. If you ever wondered why the hell Japan did that silly mosaic censoring of their porn, that’s a direct descendant of the MacArthur era oversight committees (why the hell they kept it in place, so long after the fact, though…). Since pop culture, like nature, abhors a vacuum, and since the Americans were de facto rulers of Japan during reconstruction, it was American pop culture that flooded in to fill the void. And thus was born the curious Japanese duality that has both affection for and resentment of Americanization.
Westerns. Gangster films. With nothing else to do, Japan suddenly found itself full of discharged Japanese soldiers who fancied themselves as cool, clever, and hardboiled as Jimmy Cagney. Sharp suits, dark sunglasses. As these men gravitated toward yakuza organizations, they felt ever more emboldened to flaunt their pop culture influences. And as they rose in number and stature, the traditional codes of honor and behavior that older yakuza liked to at least pretend guided their hand began to fall away, replaced by chaos instead of order and guns instead of swords. The era of the yakuza hoodlum had begun, and once established, there really wasn’t any going back. This transition is the core story underlying the Battles Without Honor and Humanity film series.
Like a snake eating its own tail, just as real life strove to mimic pop culture, so too was pop culture becoming a reflection of real life. When Japan began to reassert its right to self-determination, and as the film industry began to rebuild, genres previously deemed taboo under the Americans (such as samurai films) began to re-emerge, and new genres were born. Among these new genres was the yakuza film. The early yakuza films were very similar to samurai films, often dealing with “honorable criminals” living by the strict yakuza code of chivalry (jingi). Many of these films were set in pre-war Japan and thus, even as the real post-war yakuza were increasing the ranks of the gurentai, the movies could look back through rose-colored lenses to a bell epoque era of noble outcasts and underdog heroes that probably never really existed. Among the earliest yakuza films was 1927’s Chuji Tabi Nikki, based on the legends of Chuji Kunisada.
As the 1950s gave way to the 1960s, the man who emerged as the face of the virtuous-but-flawed yakuza was a young actor named Oda Goichi, later rechristened Takakura Ken. Working primarily at Toei studios in a style of film that became known as ninkyo (“chivalry”), Takakura made some 180 movies, many of them clinging to a familiar theme and structure. Takakura Ken was the noble, old-school yakuza struggling to survive in a landscape that was fast changing. The movies not only reflected the situation faced by the real yakuza (Takakura himself grew up in Fukuoka, a hotbed of post-war gangland clashes), but was a mirror of the larger global social upheaval as the traditionalists of the previous generation clashed with the wild young upstarts of the 1960s. Around the same time, Nikkatsu was inventing something that would become known as the “borderless” action film.
Nikkatsu was Japan’s oldest major production house. It was formed in 1912, when four smaller studios and some theater chains joined forces to found Nippon Katsudo Shashin, literally “Japan Cinematograph Company,” abbreviated more simply as Nikkatsu. In the early days of Japanese cinema, they were one of the heavy hitters. During the war, a proposal was floated to merge Japan’s ten motion picture studios into two. A counter proposal was made for three studios. Despite its venerable state, political fighting and shenanigans saw Nikkatsu get the shaft. They were undervalued and merged with two lesser studios, Daito and Shinko, to form Daiei Studio. However, Nikkatsu itself retained a separate identity purely as a film exhibitor. It turned out that, while Nikkatsu the studio may have been screwed, Nikkatsu the theater management company was in for a treat.
After the war, the state of Japanese cinema was poor. The few domestic films that did come out didn’t really attract much of an audience. The Japanese movie going public was more interested in the polished, big budget product coming out of Hollywood. Nikkatsu happened to be the company distributing many of those films. The filmmaking industry started to recover in the 1950s, and Nikkatsu the theater chain decided it was time for Nikkatsu the film studio to be reborn. They began building new facilities, and the existing major studios of the time — Toho, Shochiku, Daiei, Toei, and Shin Toho — did their best to block the resurgence. But Nikkatsu simply had too much money. With new facilities, a thriving theater network, and studio execs willing to take a risk on the rising youth market, Nikkatsu began to lure both new and established talent into the fold. They concentrated primarily on romances, comedies, and period dramas. In 1956, the studio released Season of the Sun, the first of what would become known as the Sun Tribe movies. Bringing a modern attitude to controversial topics, as well as modern Hollywood techniques and production values, the Sun Tribe movies were the first huge hits for the new Nikkatsu, and young star Yujiro Ishihara became the face of Nikkatsu.
Unfortunately, the guardians of public morality came down hard on the decadence and youthful lustiness of the Sun Tribe films, and they soon passed out of favor. Nikkatsu struggled for a bit to find something new. They hit upon it in 1958, when Ishihara starred in two of director Toshio Masuda’s new action films, Rusty Knife and Red Quay. The latter was a loose adaptation of the French film noir classic Pepe Le Moko (remade, almost scene for scene, as Algiers in the United States shortly after its release). Such action films proved quite popular, especially with young men off to college and looking for vicarious thrills. Nikkatsu didn’t miss the hints. They kicked off an action-heavy production schedule that signaled the birth of borderless action.
Nikkatsu’s new style of action film were dubbed borderless because they strove to adopt a truly international feel. Although American film noir is pegged as the obvious influence, in many ways it was the later distillation of that genre via the French New Wave that really proves to be the model for Nikkatsu borderless action. The French New Wave, best embodied by the films of director Jean-Luc Godard, took the tropes of American film noir and added a peculiar French quirkiness to them. Noir is traditionally a grim, depressing style of film full of doomed, depressed characters. When the New Wave adopted the cast-off American genre (and yes — I’m well aware of all the arguments about how film noir isn’t a genre, but can we just roll with it for now?), they infused it with a world-weary sort of sarcastic smirking — not spoofing, exactly, but certainly doing something quirky with it. The fatalistic nihilism of noir was still present, but there was something more… well, more French about it. It was this incarnation of noir that really seemed to click with the Nikkatsu screenwriters and directors. In 1959, when Godard’s Breathless was released, not only did borderless action writers and directors have a model for their films; so did actors, and that model, the man that so many Nikkatsu matinee idols seemed to imitate, was Jean-Paul Belmondo.
Borderless action cruised along for several years. Not all the films were big hits, but enough were (and many of those that weren’t are still critical darlings these days) to keep Nikkatsu plugging away at the genre and creating a group of male stars who became known as the Diamond Line. However, in the middle of the 1960s, rival Toei began making their ninkyo movies, a style anchored by the incredibly popular Abashiri Prison movies, starring Takakura Ken and directed by Teruo Ishii. These new yakuza films still called back to American film noir and their French New Wave interpretation, but they were somewhat less arty. Maybe even less challenging, in a way. And also more popular as the decade progressed. Maybe the younger audiences could relate more to Takakura Ken’s flawed man of honor struggling to survive in a modern world more than they could the samurai-yakuza of older movies, or even the doomed anti-heroes of borderless action’s first wave. The Abashiri Prison movies were updates of the old style movies, concerned with codes of honor and yakuza esoterica more than surrealism or existentialism. Takakura Ken may go to prison, and he may end up back in prison, but there’s something slightly more hopeful in the movies than in, say, the ” no one gets out of here alive” bleakness of Nikkatsu’s Cruel Gun Story. It was easier to identify with Takakura Ken’s character, especially if you were young and Japanese. After leading the way for so many years, Nikkatsu found themselves scrambling to keep up with the new pace set by Toei.
The hook Nikkatsu had to use to lure audiences back was hipness. Although they appealed to a large audience at first, the Toei movies relied heavily on a nostalgia for the past — a nostalgia that was becoming somewhat unpopular with younger, hipper, more worldy youth. In essence, the same crowd that made the Sun Tribe movies so popular. Like AIP a few years earlier, Nikkatsu starting looking to make movies that were even more stylish, more modern, and hipper. An attempt to win audiences away from Toei movies by making those movies seem old-fashioned and overly sentimental. At the forefront of revamping Nikkatsu action films was the man who basically created the borderless action style in the first place: Toshio Masuda. He did it by tweaking what he already knew how to do. Quite literally. The films at the forefront of Nikkatsu’s head-to-head with Toei were all remakes of Toshio Masuda’s previous films, directed again by Toshio Masuda. Among these was a remake of his groundbreaking Red Quay, this time titled Velvet Hustler. Ha! And you thought we were never going to get to the actual review of Velvet Hustler.
Velvet Hustler is the story of a cocky, carefree Tokyo hitman named Goro (Nikkatsu action star Tetsuya Watari). When we first meet him, he casually steals a smart red convertible sportscar from an airport, pulls up next to a limo, and blows away the occupants before casually returning the car to the exact same parking spot at the airport and leaving town to lie low in Kobe. Goro expects to be back in Tokyo in six months, but a year later, he’s still stuck cooling his heels in Kobe, waiting for the heat to die down. He spends most of the day sitting in a rocking chair on the docks, waiting for the foreign ships to dock so his crew of touts can pick up the gaijin men and spirit them away to associated nightclubs. Goro himself seems neither disappointed or enthused by his small-time pursuits. His only regret is that he can’t yet go back to his beloved Tokyo. It’s a sentiment he shares with Pepe Le Moko, stuck in The Casbah and forever dreaming of returning to Paris, the title character from the movie that originally served as the inspiration for this film’s inspiration, Red Quay.
When he’s not hustling tourists and enlisted men into hostess clubs, Goro fools around with a local girl (Kayo Matsuo, already a veteran of several Seijun Suzuki films and eventually violent samurai films like Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart at the River Styx, Hideo Gosha’s Hunter in the Dark, and Castle Menagerie, one of the most bizarre entries in the long-running Kyoshiro Nemuri series starring Raizo Ichikawa), verbally spars with a detective (Tatsuya Fuji, Monster from a Prehistoric Planet, Bloody Territories, and a bunch of the Stray Cat Rock movies) determined to arrest him for something, and hangs out in the coolest clubs in Kobe. And the Kobe underworld seems to have embraced the big city boy. He’s aloof but not rude, cool but not condescending, and he treats his crew well.
In a way, he reminds me of a guy we met on the train from Osaka to Nara one day. He was a rocker, heading to the smaller city to sit at the train station and play his guitar. Why leave Osaka — arguably the epicenter for Japan’s underground music scene — to play guitar in lazy little Nara? Well, in Osaka, he’s just another Osaka guy, and the Osaka girls are so worldly and jaded. But in Nara, he’s this weird big city guy. A little different, a little dangerous, and a whole lot cooler by comparison. We wished him luck as we went our separate ways. Later that night, as we were wandering about the town and getting the lay of the land, we happened by the steps outside the train station. And there he was, playing his guitar, sporting his pompadour and Creepers, surrounded by a group of fawning Nara girls. He waved us over — the ability to randomly hail Americans he just happened to know only increasing his cool quotient with the ladies. We did our best to help him keep up the game. He was, in hindsight, very much like Goro, a perfect blend of remote cool and approachable amiability. It’s part natural, part an act — but the part that’s an act is a very good act.
For Goro, though, despite the candy colors and cute girls, there’s something shabby about it all. It’s not bad, but it’s not Tokyo. Things start to change for the happy-go-lucky hitman when a woman (Ruriko Asaoka from Asia-Pol) from Tokyo shows up in search of her missing fiance, a jeweler who happened to be dealing with Goro’s Kobe bosses before he disappeared. Goro immediately sets his sights on bedding her, and she seems less than distraught about her missing fiance — though he also doesn’t seem like she’s going to be an easy target for Goro, no matter how much boyish charm he pours her way. Also in town is a smartly dressed man with a pencil thin mustache (Joe Shishido, who you probably know by now) and a keen, possibly deadly, interest in Goro. Pretty soon, our laid-back anti-hero has more people to peek at from under the brim of his rakishly tilted hat than he can keep track of, and at least a few of them are armed.
As with Red Quay, much of the plot — Goro’s displacement, his longing for his old big city home, the determined cop shadowing his moves, the woman who shows up from that big city home to remind him of what he’s missing — is adapted from Pepe Le Moko. But where Velvet Hustler differs dramatically from Pepe Le Moko is in its tone. In fact, it differs dramatically from Red Quay in that respect as well. Underpinning everything is a sense of melancholy, as you would expect to find in a film noir. But the look of the film is more French New Wave mixed with a swinging sixties spy movie. And Goro, with his hat forever tilted down over his eyes and a half-smoked cigarette permanently attached to his lower lip, is obviously being modeled after Jean-Paul Belmondo’s character in Breathless. He’s not as bizarrely twisted or confoundingly weird as characters you would find in Nikkatsu action movies from the same year directed by Seijun Suzuki (Branded to Kill, we’ll get to you some day). He’s definitely something snappier than the haunted, morose gangster one found in actual film noir, or even in the first wave of borderless action movies. If anything, he’s like one of the leisure-loving Sun Tribe kids who suddenly finds himself adept at killing people but is never in any hurry to do anything other than take it easy. One gets the impression that despite being in stuck in Kobe, and unlike Pepe Le Moko, Goro actually enjoys himself from time to time.
One of his best scenes comes in a swinging nightclub. In the 1950s, Nikkatsu upped the sophistication ante by infusing their crime movies with a jazz club cool. Velvet Hustler maintains that but also works in more current influences: go-go dancers, mini-skirts, mods, mop topped pop bands playing in front of psychedelic backgrounds. Amid it all, as the youngsters are thrashing about like extras in a beach party movie, Goro begins to “dance.” Every dancer comes to an abrupt halt as he does something that is basically slowly walking back and forth, slouch-shouldered, head hanging back like he’s asleep, an expression on his face that might pass for a slight smile. His only concession to the traditional concept of dancing is a slight movement of his arms. Before too long, though, the entire club has fallen in line behind him. It’s a simple but great little scene that reminded me of the Madison scene from Godard’s Band of Outsiders. It also reminded me of something a friend once told me one night when we were young and trying to pick up girls at some Gainesville, Florida dance club: the coolest looking dancers are the ones who are completely un-self-conscious about how ridiculous they look.
Scenes like that will determine if you like this movie or not. To be honest, not a lot happens in this movie. If you are going in looking for smash-em-up fight scenes and big gangland shootouts, you’re going to be lost. Velvet Hustler is largely about the mood, and enjoying the movie involves cozying up to the amiable, leisurely pace. This movie is absolutely a reflection of its main character: cool, laid back, not in a hurry to get to anywhere or do much of anything. But also, under it all, a bit lonely and lost. Goro is an easy character to like, even when he’s being something of a bastard. Even though the movie begins with him assassinating the head of a rival crime syndicate, one quickly forgets why he’s hiding out in Kobe. The fact that he steals a car and guns down two men on the highway shows that he’s obviously a killer, but the almost flippant way he handles the rest of his life makes it hard to recall what he does for a living (we’re never sure if he has a hand in the disappearance of the jeweler).
The protagonists from the first wave of Nikkatsu borderless action were doomed and depressed existentialists, and the protagonists from Toei’s Kinji Fukasaku era were murderous scumbags. Smack dab in the middle of those two eras is Velvet Hustler, and Goro is a man who seems to have one foot in hardboiled pulp fiction and the other in a playful childlike innocence. And as I said, the tone fo the movie reflects Goro’s personality. Where as later yakuza films would drag the sordid nature of yakuza business into the light, Velvet Hustler seems to occupy a world that is slightly seedy but also oddly innocent. Yes, Goro hangs out in a brothel and a hostess club, but we never see him or his gang engaged in abducting, abusing, or attacking any of the women, as would become common in later yakuza films (and as was common in actual yakuza behavior).
If the film succeeds because of Goro, then Goro succeeds because of Tetsuya Watari. Although he hoped to become an airline pilot, young Tetsuya couldn’t pass the entrance exams for training. So he decided why the hell not try his luck at acting. He showed up for a “new faces” call at Nikkatsu and was actually discovered while he was lounging around in the studio cafeteria — I assume with the same nonchalant lack of urgency and aura of cool that he showed as Goro. Studio execs recognized his sly charm and boyish good looks, and before too long they were touting him as the next Yojiro Ishihara. Nikkatsu couldn’t modeled their new find after their first huge young star any better if they’d set out to engineer the whole thing. Like Ishihara, Watari’s first role was as the younger brother of a more established star. In the case of Ishihara, it was his real-life older brother; for Watari, it was Joe Shishido, in a movie where the duo play race car driving brothers out for some manner of revenge.
There’s something immediately disarming about Watari. He slides into the role with such ease, and brings such easy charm to it, that you forget he’s an actor. Movies are full of good actors who you can always tell are acting (Sean Penn, for example). You can tell they’re putting on a show. Watari, here, turns in a performance in which he’s a good actor you can’t tell is acting. Perhaps it’s because Goro himself is putting on a bit of an act. It could also be because Watari’s interest in being a movie star was decidedly lacking when he became a movie star. Inexperienced at the craft when he was recruited out of the cafeteria, he was told to simply act naturally. Whatever the case, the success of the entire movies is on his slumped shoulders, and he never lets it slide. Rarely is there such perfect synergy between a lead actor, a script, and a film’s art direction.
Yes, art direction. People love to criticize certain movies as being an exercise in style over substance. I prefer to think of certain films as presenting style as substance. I just don’t see style and substance somehow being different or mutually exclusive things. Is a film more honest when it has a good script and a half-assed style? Film brings multiple forms of expression to the table, and I’m just not comfortable assigning rank or a hierarchy of importance to those elements. Like Mario Bava, director Toshio Masuda and art director Takeo Kimura painstakingly craft every angle, every background, every color to communicate a certain ambiance that is every bit as vital to the story as the script and the actors. Masuda worked as a screenwriter and assistant under Inoue Umetsugu, who I know more for his work after he moved to Hong Kong’s Shaw Bros. studio than i do for his Japanese films. But it seems like a common chord in most of his films is a fondness for big set pieces. The man could stage a nightclub scene like no one’s business (except maybe Jess Franco), and his taste in such things defined the official nightclub that would show up, with only minor tweaks, in tons of films from both Japan and Hong Kong during the 1960s.
While Umetsugu lost himself in swirling lights and exquisite cocktail fashion, it was Masuda’s job to connect the dots in the screenplay, to make sure that there were relatable, human elements in between the jet setting clubs and colorful production numbers. Although they were very different (probably because they were very different), Masuda and Umetsugu complemented each other well. When Masuda was promoted to director, he brought with him a style that was very much a melding of his and his mentor’s. Velvet Hustler is a great example. It revels is flashy club scenes full of multi-colored lights and mod gals in go-go boots dancing wildly, and there are visits to sophisticated and stylized restaurants. Joe Shishido’s hotel room is a blindingly garish hurricane of lavender and purple. But amid the colors, the sets, and the clever use of shadows and lighting, Masuda embeds quiet, occasionally quirky human moments that give the film an inviting sincerity and warmth. You really feel like you are hanging out with these people. A lot of that comes from the script, but it’s just as important that the style of the movie communicate itself to you, because it’s an important part of understanding the world of Velvet Hustler.
Just as Masuda pays attention to every detail of the film’s style, so too does he pay attention to the other characters. No one gets to coast or turn in a bad performance. Watari we already know carries the film, but he’s not left out in the cold all alone. Joining him is an able and accomplished group of Nikkatsu supporting players. Tatsuya Fuji is low-key but effective as the cop determined to put Goro in prison. We’re never entirely certain why he’s chosen to become so obsessed with Goro. The Tokyo gangster lives a pretty simple, harmless life in Kobe. A little mischief, sure, but nothing to really rile up such single-minded determination in the inspector. In Pepe Le Moko, the local inspector was obsessed with catching Pepe because he wanted to both show up the sneering big city cops from France and because Pepe himself was one of the most notorious criminals in the world. But not Goro. It seems like Goro was pretty small-time, if capable, when he was in Tokyo.
It could be that the motivation for Tatsuya Fuji’s obsession with the suave young killer is rooted in jealousy. The two men seem to be roughly the same age, but where Goro leads a carefree life of whiskey, women, and goofing off, Fuji’s Detective Uzu carries himself with an air of conservative tedium more befitting for an older man. It seems like it might be less Goro’s crimes that infuriate Uzu than it is the freewheeling lifestyle and easy cool the hip young gangster flaunts. Director Masuda maintains that these weren’t really crime or yakuza films as much as they were “youth” films or “youth in rebellion” films, and Goro is definitely at least as much decadent Sun Tribe as he is yakuza killer. He is the post-war embracing of Western swingin’ sixties culture. Uzu is the more traditional, more repressed young man. It’s clear in a few subtle scenes that he envies Goro — most notably in the way the two men interact with Ruriko Asaoko’s Keiko. Uzu is awkward and official around her, even as he tries to be more casual and seem cool. And then up will ooze Goro, making quips and come-ons with no self-consciousness at all. You can almost imagine Uzu going home to a sterile apartment to reheat food on a hotplate while he curses the fact that Goro will be going home to everything Uzu can’t have. And in that frustration we might be able to find the reason he places so much importance on arresting Goro.
Or it could be that I’m just full of crap, and Uzu just really takes his job as defender of the law seriously and doesn’t like these flashy Tokyo punks coming to his town to hide out. Whatever the unspoken back story may be, Fuji gives an able performance. The fact that he is somewhat aloof even when it seems like he’s trying not to be makes him much more interesting to ponder than if there was some clumsy spelling out of why he is the way he is. Fuji himself would go on to become a much bigger star during the era of Nikkatsu New Action in the 1970s, becoming a fixture in the Stray Cat Rock films, among other work. There’s some irony in the fact that a man who plays such a stiff and cautious character here would grow to notoriety playing punks, bikers, and gangsters. There’s perhaps even more irony in the fact that the actor is best known internationally for playing one-half of the sex-crazed doomed couple in In the Realm of the Senses.
Ruriko Asaoko and Kayo Matsuo also fulfill roles ported over from Pepe Le Moko — the anti-hero’s local love interest, and the sophisticated woman who represents everything the anti-hero lost when he had to flee his home. As was the case in the French original, both women are more symbols than they are actual characters, but that’s because we see them through Goro’s eyes, and he can’t help but think about what each one represents. He enjoys Yukari’s company, maybe even loves her, but his dissatisfaction with Kobe can’t help but manifest itself for him as an associated sense of dissatisfaction with the woman from Kobe. The two share a great scene where he tries to explain to her the difference between him not liking her versus just being tired of her. Kayo Matsuo could have played the character with petulant childishness, as is all too often the go-to style, but while she has her pouty moments, we also see her act very much the woman. Matsuo the actress isn’t going to let you forget that Yukari the character is someone worth falling in love with.
Keiko, on the other hand, represents everything Goro lost when he left Tokyo — or everything he thinks he lost. It’s obvious that Goro, like many people, views his previous life through a somewhat rosy filter. Just as he can’t see Yukari as anything other than Kobe, Keiko is Tokyo for him, and it’s more what she represents to him that he falls in love with than it is the woman. Despite hardly knowing each other, Goro becomes obsessed with romancing her simply because she is his one link to the past, and her presence is both a salve upon and a painful prodding of his ultimate loneliness. Asaoko turns in a more subtle performance than Kayo Matsuo, but only because her character is somewhat more complex. Just as Goro is torn between his affection for Yukari and his obsession with Keiko, Keiko herself is torn between Goro and… well, it’s hard to say. Certainly not her missing fiance, who was never the result of a relationship forged by love. Maybe Uzu, or what Uzu represents. She has no romantic interest in the cop, but it seems like she lives a life with one foot in Uzu’s world of tradition, responsibility, and aloofness and one foot in Goro’s world of nightclubs, hijinks, and casualness.
Oh yeah, Joe Shishido is in there, too. You’d think that given the fact that the man is known for playing one of the weirdest characters in one of the weirdest yakuza films of all time, we’d have something to say about him other than, “he fulfills his responsibilities well.” But really, that’s all he does. His character is rarely on-screen,a nd when he is, his job is mostly to smirk and lurk in the background. This is Watari’s show, after all, and Shishido is just along for the ride.
Velvet Hustler defined the direction of Nikkatsu action films for the next few years. Masuda himself named it as one of his favorite of his films, as did Tetsuya Watari. It has held up remarkably well, being just kitschy enough to be memorable but not so kitschy that it actually becomes kitsch, if that makes any sense. And I think that’s because it doesn’t forget to give us human characters and situations instead of relying purely on candy-colored cabarets and posh sixties style. There’s something timeless and appealing about Watari’s happy-go-luckly but subtly melancholy character, and the fact that the movie doesn’t heap on the pathos and overwrought emotion in huge dollops makes it more believable, more relatable, and far more effective.
Watari himself would find himself slotted in as one of the new members of the rotating Diamond Line. But as the studio entered the 1970s, things were starting to get difficult again. Once again, Nikkatsu was vying with Toei for the youth market. At the same time, the real world of the yakuza was undergoing a dramatic shift as more and more “thugs” entered the ranks. What’s more, many of those yakuza were involving themselves in the film industry — not just in the predictable role of shady producers and embezzlers, but as actual screenwriters and inspirations. In 1968, Toshio Masuda and Tetsuya Watari teamed up again for Gangster VIP, the first in a long series of movies based on the memoirs (however full of bullshit they may have been) of real-life yakuza Goro Fujita. Around the same time, a gangster named Noboru Ando took it a step further by not only having his memoirs turned into a series of movies, but by also starring as himself in those movies.
These movies brought a harder edge to things, and more streetwise authenticity. This also meant that it was getting harder to champion the noble yakuza, the sentimental yakuza, even the suave and stylish yakuza. Real-life yakuza were too in the face of modern society, and modern society was all too aware of how there seemed to be a lot more stupid scumbag yakuza than there were whistling, poetic yakuza. In an effort to keep pace with an increasingly disillusioned society, Nikkatsu launched its New Action style. Now, the characters were angrier, more violent, more directionless, more hedonistic. This was the era of Stray Cat Rock and Sonny Chiba’s Street Fighter (quite possibly the most powerful representation fo the complete and total dissolution of morality, honor, and sympathy).
Then Kinji Fukasaku started cranking out yakuza movies over at Toei, and that was the nail in the coffin for the storied Nikkatsu action film. Fukasaku’s films, usually starring lean and mean-looking Bunta Sugawara, were as much a game-changer as the borderless action films had been when they made their debut. Gone was the Nikkatsu sense of style and artiness, replaced by a documentary-like cinema verite style that was perfectly suited for the type of story Fukasaku was telling. Hectic, desperate, uncomfortable. Where as the Nikkatsu films had looked to film noir and the La Nouvelle Vague for inspiration, the new style Toei films were looking to police dossiers and newspaper reports. As such, they have a much more clinical, less feeling approach. And the men in them — gone are the wistful Goros, the quirky Joe Shishidos. The yakuza of Battles Without Honor and Humanity were vicious, backstabbing thugs, flailing cowards, rapists, and rabid animals. We were a long, long way from Velvet Hustler‘s Kobe.
The Toei movies were a reflection of public disgust and fascination with the ever-seedier truth. Nikkatsu just couldn’t compete, not even with their New Action line, though they had a fair number of hits and made a star out of tough female action star Meiko Kaji. Nikkatsu phased out action films as the 70s progressed. Their stars sought work elsewhere as the studio concentrated almost exclusively on what became known as “romantic pornography,” or simple “roman porn.” Many of these sex films still bear the unmistakable Nikkatsu stamp, a certain artistic ambition and talent far beyond what the smutty subject matter demanded. But that had been the case with Nikkatsu action, as well.
Velvet Hustler isn’t the most famous of Nikkatsu’s gangster films. That honor definitely goes to Branded to Kill, which was a huge flop and an embarrassment for the studio. Although Velvet Hustler was released on VHS in the United States, it remains MIA as of this writing on DVD, even as other Nikkatsu action films find their way into the limelight and the period of rediscovery (or first discovery, for many) blossoms. I guess it’s understandable that such an amiable, happy-go-lucky film would get lost in the shuffle between earlier, more serious action films like A Colt is My Passport and later, more outrageous action films like Branded to Kill. Well, here’s hoping it gets its day in the sun (for that matter, where’s Red Quay?) once again, because it’s really a great film. It’s a wonderful example of just how good, how forward thinking, exploitation and b-movies can be. Plus, it’s just really fucking cool.
Release Year: 1967 | Country: Japan | Starring: Tetsuya Watari, Ruriko Asaoka, Kayo Matsuo, Tatsuya Fuji, Ryotaro Sugi, Joe Shishido | Writers: Kaneo Ikegami, Toshio Masuda | Director: Toshio Masuda | Cinematographer: Kurataro Takamura | Music: Hajime Kaburagi | Original Title: Kurenai no nagareboshi | Alternate Titles: Crimson Comet, Like a Shooting Star