I’ve been sitting here trying to think of an adequate way to describe exactly what it is that Sonny Chiba does and wears in this second film in Kinji Fukasaku’s highly enjoyable, highly influential Battles without Honor and Humanity series of films that delve into the world of organized crime and the role it played in rebuilding post-war Japan. The closest I can come up with to summarize the acting display by Chiba is to say that you should try to imagine William Shatner and Jimmy Walker being merged into one creature, which the director then instructs to “stop being so subtle.”
The small town of Wasseypur is located in northeastern India, absorbed in many ways by the larger city of Dhanbad. Wasseypur is sort of the Newburgh, New York or Camden, New Jersey to Dhanbad’s New York City or Philadelphia — a small, incredibly dangerous, largely lawless enclave attached to the outskirts of a much larger town. Or maybe like one of the many towns controlled by narco-syndicates south of the border. It was a coal company town. In the case of Wasseypur, it’s lawlessness was derived from when the British packed up and called it a day, and India was once again a sovereign nation. The coal mines, which had been entirely British-owned, were turned over to India, but they were basically dumped into the laps of a lot of people who may have been skilled laborers and assistant managers but had no experience whatsoever with how to run a single mine, let alone an entire network and industry. Sort of like the United States freeing its slaves with no real interest in actually equipping them for life, Great Britain folded its flag and wished the Indians good luck.
At first — and even second — glance, Last Tycoon is a movie that seems custom-made for me and based entirely on some of my favorite obsessions: Shanghai during the 20s and 30s, old-time fashion, Jazz Age decadence, shidaiqu (that unique Shanghai brand of jazz that combined American swing with traditional Chinese music), a title stolen from an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel, and Chow Yun-fat in a cool suit blowing suckers away. Pretty perfect set of ingredients, right? Unfortunately, the chef is the frequent butt of jokes here at Teleport City, Wong Jing. Under his stewardship as director, all these wonderful elements almost come together into something great. There are moments of brilliance in this film, and moments of stunning beauty and excitement. But there are also some moments that are just terrible, and many that are just sort of stumbling. The whole thing is a bit awkward. In other words, it’s a pretty typical Wong Jing directorial effort, with more good than bad but not as much great as I was hoping for.
During the 1970s, Japan’s Nikkatsu Studio became famous, and yes most likely infamous, as the number one home for sleazy sexploitation, violent pink films, and just softcore porn in general. Although hardly the stuff of highbrow cocktail party conversations, the thoroughly exploitive nature of the Nikkatsu films doesn’t mean there wasn’t a lot of boldness and innovation thrown into the mix, resulting in more than a few highly enjoyable and daring films. Yeah, there was a lot of crap, but there’s always a lot of crap, and usually even the crap had something about it that was so bonkers and just not right that you couldn’t help but nod your head in its direction. In other words, where as Europe during the 1970s was constantly making ponderous, over-inflated films that begged the question, “Is it art or is it porn?” Nikkatsu was more concerned with generating the answer, “I don’t know if it’s art, but it sure is cool.”
It’s popular in modern film criticism, both professional and amateur, to look back with a knowing snicker at what we perceive to be the profoundly obvious homoeroticism present in many — if not most — of the beefy, oiled up action films of the 1980s. It’s also popular to wonder whether all this musclebound gay subtext is actually there, or whether we, from our perch in the 21st century, simply inject it in ourselves. The answer of course, is probably yes, we do, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t there. And thank goodness, because if it wasn’t there, queer cinema would be stuck with a really boring filmography.
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.
Ever since his rediscovery, it seems like Seijun Suzuki has had the term “Maverick Director” permanently affixed to his name like some kind of mandatory honorific. However, given the rigidity of the Japanese studio system within which he spent his peak years, Suzuki never would have had the opportunity to achieve that maverick status had he not at some point been able to tow the line and deliver the straightforward genre pictures that he had been hired to create. That he was capable of doing that and then some is more than amply demonstrated by Underworld Beauty, an outstanding little noir programmer that he directed during his early years at Nikkatsu.
While they were certainly responsible for their share of cinematic flotsam, American International Pictures can also be credited with creating a good few films that are today considered genre classics, as well as some films that are extraordinary solely for the fact that, given the circumstances of their production, they were even made at all. As far as AIP’s ventures into the Blaxploitation arena go, 1973’s Black Caesar definitely falls within the former category, while its sequel, that same year’s Hell Up In Harlem, serves as a perfect example of that last mentioned type of film.
Shunya Ito’s first entry in the Female Prisoner Scorpion series, Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion, was essentially a women-in-prison picture that combined the action, violence and titillation typical of that subgenre with a striking number of audacious artistic touches. Ito’s second entry, Female Prisoner Scorpion: Jailhouse 41, was a whole other animal entirely. Emboldened, perhaps, by the success of the first film and the amount of creative leeway given him by Toei, Ito this time largely dispensed with genre trappings and delivered a film that was even more obviously the product of a singular directorial vision. Relentlessly bleak and harrowing, yet suffused with a desolate, breathtaking beauty and daring sense of visual invention, Jailhouse 41 is like a nightmare you don’t want to wake up from.
You might think that the women-in-prison genre is so rigid in its conventions that it wouldn’t allow room for much experimentation, but leave it to the Japanese to prove that assumption wrong. The first three films in the Female Prisoner Scorpion series, all of which were directed by Shunya Ito, stand out for me as the pinnacle of artistically-rendered 1970s Japanese exploitation. Each film is stuffed full of surrealist imagery, imaginative compositions and breathtaking visual lyricism. Of course, being that they are women-in-prison films, they are also stuffed full of shower scenes, lesbianism and graphic violence. But, unlike the previously discussed Norifumi Suzuki, who was content to just let the sleazier elements of his movies sit uneasily alongside his occasional moments of cinematic inspiration, Ito somehow managed to make all of those elements blend together into a more or less cohesive whole.