For a long time, yakuza films were the big missing piece of puzzle that is Japanese film in America. In the years before DVD, you could find any number of groovy Japanese monster movies. Sure, they were pan and scan and dubbed, but few people thought to be offended by such things at the time because we were simply happy to be watching Godzilla or Yog or any other creature smashing up the place. Samurai movies were a bit scarcer, but at least they were represented by a smattering of titles. Yakuza films were a vast and largely untapped reservoir just waiting to be unleashed on American fans who had perhaps read about the films, or knew people in Japan who had seen them, but had otherwise been limited to little more than tantalizing photos in magazines and stories about movies in which guys screamed a lot and cut off their pinky fingers.
In the past few years, all that has changed. Well, I reckon it started a little bit before that when someone decided to release a fistful of Seijun Suzuki films on VHS. Then in the past year, HVe and American Cinemathique really opened the floodgates and started pushing yakuza films into the forefront. And while certain notable titles remain MIA (the Abashiri Prison series, and frankly, most of the great old Takakura Ken films that started the craze back in the 50s and 60s), we’re certainly a hell of a lot better off now that we can walk into any old video store and pick up a copy of Blackmail is My Life, Underworld Beauty, or the movie on the chopping block right now, Yasuharu Hasebe’s 1969 yakuza thriller, Bloody Territories.
I first discovered Hasebe when I picked up the film Black Tight Killers, a movie in which sexy female assassins in a vast array of showy mod outfits do things like fling deadly razor-sharp 7-inch records. It was really my kind of movie. Hasebe, I’m told, learned his craft from the master of pop-art yakuza madness, Seijun Suzuki, and the influence of Japan’s number one maverick certainly showed in Black Tight Killers. By 1969, however, much of the eye-catching weirdness seems to have left the work of Hasebe, and while Bloody Territories is not a bad film, it’s also nothing special, certainly not as special, quirky, or weird as you would hope from the man that gave us Black Tight Killers. It is just a yakuza film. Well, no. Maybe it’s not just a yakuza film, but with Kinji Fukasaku just over the horizon, Bloody Territories is simply the kind of movie that gets lost in the shuffle even if it has a few interesting thematic twists.
The deconstruction of the yakuza genre that had been built up in the films of Takakura Ken began with Seijun Suzuki’s gleefully cracked subversion of the genre, but he was just so out there that a lot of people didn’t even realize exactly what was happening. In 1967, Junya Sato made what many consider to be the first “modern” yakuza film, that is to say, a film in which the noble notions of honor and righteousness that characterized the Takakura Ken films were completely trashed, and the yakuza were depicted mainly as a bunch of ruthless, opportunistic thugs with no sense of honor and no flare for the romantic. Hasebe’s Bloody Territories falls somewhere short of Sato’s Organized Violence when it comes to its depiction of the yakuza. The core characters still cling to the old values and traditions of loyalty and honor, but it’s obvious they live in a world that has abandoned such ideals. The twist Bloody Territories brings to the table isn’t that the other yakuza have become dishonorable and sleazy; it’s that the yakuza are bested at their own game by businessmen, who are every bit as ruthless and far more effective, it turns out, at running things.
The action revolves around the number two and number three man in the Onogi Clan, a renegade yakuza gang that refuses to dissolve their organization during a big pow wow where everyone else agrees to disband. The Onogi Clan, it seems, spends as much time cleaning up the streets and serving as a sort of neighborhood watch as they spend engaging in the usual activities that occupy the average yakuza’s day. In fact, as the credits roll we are treated to a montage of Onogi gangsters prowling the streets, protecting young ladies who are getting harassed, taking care of drunks who mess stuff up, and other small-time disturbances they don’t want going on in their turf. The Onogis are never the less disturbed by the fact that these random acts are even occurring. It never used to be like that. Turns out another big gang from out of town is attempting to muscle in on Onogi turf now that they know the Onogis have no larger organization supporting them.
Proud though they may be, the Onogis know their small neighborhood group can’t take on the entire Kansai region syndicate. They seek the help of old friends who have now entered into legitimate business to mediate a truce, though the price of mediation bankrupts the clan since they’d never measured their success in terms of money, but rather through their acquisition of turf, order, and respect. This newfangled obsession with money instead of “face” is simply outside the realm in which the Onogi operate. Before too long, they realize that they’ve been had, and while they were worrying about rival yakuza, what they should have been watching out for was the big corporation – a gang in its own right, but one with loyalties not to any single boss but instead simply to the practice of making a profit.
The central characters are Onogi’s number two (Seichi) and number three (Yuji, played by Akira Kobayashi, who starred in Suzuki’s Kanto Wanderer, Hasebe’s Black Tight Killers, and later a couple of Kinji Fukasaku’s Battles Without Honor and Humanity films). Seichi is the cool one, collected and smart and basically the man who will take control of the gang when the current boss retires. Yuiji is smart as well, but a bit more of a hothead who is quicker to call for retribution even when he knows it’ll be certain death. Seichi is confident that they can figure a way out of the predicament without all having to die in a valiant last stand in the name of old school honor. Yuiji figures they’re stuck in a no-win situation and might as well go out in defense of their out-of-date principles and notions of honor. Their opposite, at least for a while, is the underboss of the Kansai gang, a man who first sets out to destroy the Onogis and take over their territory until he himself finds out that even his larger gang is simply a pawn of big business. Although at war with the Onogis, he finds himself standing alongside Yuiji and Seichi in defense of the old ways.
The conflict’s shift from rival yakuza gangs to the entire concept of what it was to be a yakuza versus the amoral profit-motivated aggressiveness of big business provides Bloody Territories with the twist that keeps it from being dismissible as “just another yakuza film” and situates it as a nice bridge between the Takakura Ken films, which celebrate the morals and ideals upheld by Onogi gangsters, and the Kinji Fukasaku films in which we see the erosion and breakdown of the yakuza code. But remember, these are still knife wielding killer businessmen, not just guys who throw around a lot of business buzzwords. However, I doubt the yakuza would fare any better if pitted against an adversary who, instead of simply meeting them in the back alley for a fight, insisted instead on setting up a meeting to discuss enterprise-wide paradigm shifts in how the yakuza implement robust solutions for end user clients. And oh yeah, they intend to tear down your quaint neighborhood tea house and gang headquarters and replace it with a TGI Friday’s. Try being a tough yakuza hitman when you’re forced to have meetings in the rumpus room of a TGI Fridays while a peppy suspenders-wearing guy named Stevie brings you jalapeno poppers. You can’t kill people while eating jalapeno poppers!
Although the film takes a while to get going, once it does the twists are entertaining and the action is appropriately bloody. As if to underscore the position of the Onogi boys as die-hard old schoolers, they eschew the use of guns and favor the good ol’ tanto knives – probably more realistic than showing a bunch of gangsters sporting heavy duty firepower since firearms are harder to come by (not to mention get away with using) than blades.
Hasebe’s direction lacks the flare one would expect from him. This must have been his “normal” movie on the road from Black Tight Killers to Spectreman. Bloody Territories is still vividly colorful, especially when yakuza thugs get to have knife fights amid flowing white sheets of laundry, but there’s a certain something missing that keeps the film from being as visually innovative as it should be. I am thankful for the fact that they’re still using tripods and dollies for the shots. The 1970s would usher in the era of wildly shaking “heat of the action” shots that can really make an old man’s head hurt. And oh yeah — this being a Nikkatsu production (the studio who would later become to pinky violent and softcore porn films what Britain’s Hammer was to horror), there are a couple gratuitous boob shots and weirdly out-of-place and completely frivolous “sweat-dripping lesbians” scene. As always, we welcome such utterly throw-away and inexcusable forays into cheap and tawdry titillation. If only every movie ever made would cut away to a minute or two of wet, dripping, naked lesbians naking out for no reason!
The script also lacks flare as it dutifully covers all the yakuza film points from the loving wife whose man is killed, to the guy who has to chop off a pinky as atonement for some offense. And of course there is gambling and lots of sitting around in a teahouse engaging in boisterous talk. Aside from our three central yakuza, there are very few characters worth remembering. A former yakuza torn between his respect for the old ways and his position as a top employee at the corporation and the mistress of the head of the Kansai gang show promise as two more interesting characters, but their stories are either too spottily covered or simply seem to get lost and remain undeveloped amid the sundry plot threads that have to be tied up by the film’s rain-and-blood soaked finale. No one is as cool as Takakura Ken from the old films or Bunta Sugawara from the Fukasaku films that would follow. Akira Kobayashi is a good central character, but even the central characters lack anything that really makes them stand out. Although the movie’s plot pitting old-fashioned yakuza against corporate greed and corruption is a unique take on the genre, none of the characters are anything out of the ordinary for such a film. There’s cool and reserved guy, medium hothead, guy in floppy hat, so on and so forth. It simply doesn’t give us enough that’s new and different from what we’d seen beforehand, resulting in a film that isn’t a must-see but is instead one of those, “See it if you get the chance” films that don’t really demand any sense or urgency.
Even with so-so characters and a script that could use some tightening in places, Bloody Territories remains a good film. Just not a great one. It’s an interesting transition piece, but with Hasebe directing, one tends to expect more. Still, I’m just thankful to have so many yakuza films from which to chose now, and even a rather average one like this is still a treat.
Release Year: 1969 | Country: Japan | Starring: Akira Kobayashi, Ryoji Hayama, Tadao Nakamaru, Hiroshi Nawa, Tatsuya Fuji, Yuriko Hime, Jiro Okazaki, Yoshi Kato, Fujio Suga, Bontaro Miyak, Kichijiro Ueda, Takamaru Sasaki, Kyoko Mine | Writer: Kazuo Aoki, Yasuharu Hasebe | Director: Yasuharu Hasebe | Music: Hajime Kaburagi | Cinematographer: Muneo Ueda | Producer: Tetsuro Nakagawa