AKA SHIMA WA MORATTA
ON DUAL FORMAT: Now, from ARROW VIDEO
RUNNING TIME: 94 min
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
After spending eight years in prison for the death of a man in a gang fight, ex-convict named Jiro Samukara is finally released and is immediately attacked by Hino, whose brother was the man he killed. It gets worse for Jiro when he finds that his once prominent gang has virtually disbanded and that his elderly former boss is ill and being looked after by the Hasama family, who have virtually taken over the area. He agrees to work with the Hasamas and is asked to take over and bring peace to Takagawa, a small town where two rival gangs are trying to gain control of farm land that is about to be turned into factories. But nothing is ever easy in the world of the Yakuza where seemingly nobody can be really trusted….
I always fully admit when I have little or no experience of seeing a type of film, and I think it can actually sometimes help a review rather than hinder it because I am able to go into some films totally fresh. Outside of the superb 1976 film The Yakuza which was a co-production between Japan and the USA, and which is reviewed elsewhere on this website, my only experience of the Yakuza movie genre is from the fine films of Takeshi Kitano and a few of the more erratic but usually entertaining efforts from the incredibly prolific Takeshi Miike. This much earlier effort isn’t really a classic but is still worth your time even if you’re even less experienced than me in these films, because most of its plot elements, notably the always compelling one of a criminal who tries to go straight and finds himself drawn back into his old life, are ones that are prevalent in Western gangster pictures. It also moves at a decent pace remembering to throw in a fair amount of action, and overall it’s very approachable and even quite modern in its aesthetic, if occasionally a little sloppy. I don’t really know if the Yakuza tend to be glorified in these older films, but Retaliation certainly doesn’t seem to harbour any love for its gangsters and even has a strong moral element.
The film was produced by Nikkatsu Studios, who throughout the 1960’s seemed to constantly churn out films at an incredible rate, some actors appearing in as many as twelve pictures a year! It’s almost a miracle that Retaliation, while obviously showing signs of its low budget and rushed production at times, is as good as it is. Arrow Video recently released another Yakuza film called Massacre Gun which was director Yasuharu Hasebe’s proceeding movie to this one. On the evidence of Retaliation, Hasebe was good at working well within extremely tight constraints but never really gained international fame and possibly wasted his talents on many of the projects he was given, like some porno movies including two called Rape and Rape:13th Hour, films which I don’t think I’ll be seeking out and watching some time soon. Nikkatsu had something called the Diamond Line which was a revolving group consisting of bright young actors who were deemed to actually be stars and therefore had any films starring them made in colour as opposed to black and white, Retaliation being an example as it starred the popular Akira Kobayashi. The guy who took second billing Shisido Jo was, or rather is, an interesting character who once puffed out his cheeks with plastic surgery so he could look like his icon Orson Welles. Retaliation was a solid hit for the studio though it soon had to temporarily shut down due to financial problems.
Retaliation is at first a little disorientating as images of things happening which we don’t understand occur behind the titles [a good dramatic and doom-laden yet catchy main theme by composer Hajime Kaburagi here], but the story is then very easy to pick up as Jiro is attacked by the vengeful Hiro. Their fight is shown mostly through gaps in a fence as the camera tracks down it, a quick and simple device which actually works quite well. The main thread of the plot involves Jiro trying to bring peace to the town of Takagawa, and in the process becoming legitimate, but of course he has to resort to underhand tactics to achieve his goal and, as one can predict, ends up having to commit acts of violence himself when betrayal and double-crossing rear their expected heads. The basic story is fairly generic but contains a few surprises, like when one prominent male character declares his love for another, something portrayed surprisingly positively for the time, and is set rather effectively against the industrialisation of the Japanese countryside, leading to a very sad moment when farmers sadly witness the bulldozing of their green and pleasant land and can do nothing.
The speed with which Retaliation was shot means that the often bloody fights, and there’s quite a few of them, are shot as economically as possible, often with the camera tracking past the action from a distance with objects tending to block the mayhem at times. This method negated the need for elaborate choreography, though sometimes it’s hard to tell what is happening and the often handheld camerawork is a little shaky, though not to the degree of many modern films! Many scenes throughout are done with as few set-ups as possible, sometimes even one, and often from a distance with things in the foreground out of focus at the bottom of the screen, like a walk in the countryside with blurry grass in front of it. There’s also a rather frightening killing scene shown from a first person perspective with a flashlight illuminating the victim to be, though Hasebe’s best moment is when a torture scene is intercut with one of the gangsters who was initially present at the violence wondering through the dance floor of a nightclub, shaken and still seeming able to hear the sounds of the brutality over the loud music playing. Throughout Retaliation, you can almost sense its director trying his best to bring some artistry to an assembly-line product despite having hardly any time and money to do so, and he does bring a rather effective feeling of eavesdropping to many scenes.
There are a few moments of nastiness like the afore-mentioned torture scene which includes a cigarette in the face, plus there’s quite a bit of sexual violence against women, which isn’t really explicit and does ram home how horrible these people are, but eventually feels exploitative in the wrong way and leaves a bad taste in the mouth even though it’s hardly eroticised. Few of the film’s characters, at least the men, are very nice though that’s quite appropriate. Take the polite, sharply suited Tono clan and the low-life, brutal thugs of the Aoba gang – initially the latter seem far worse but in actual fact prove to be no better. However, Jiro is a very sympathetic lead character who you genuinely want to make it to the end, even though Kobayashi, who would improve tremendously as an actor in successive films, is rather bland here. The true emotional centre of the story concerns a man who utterly hates another but ends up falling in love with him, and I feel this could have been explored a little more, though I doubt that Jo Sishido minded too much at losing the top billing he got in Massacre Gun as he had the more interesting of the two lead characters in Retaliation. Likewise, I would have liked to have seen more of Jiro’s ‘romance’ with the daughter of one of the farmers [albeit a daughter who seems to get over her rape pretty quickly!]. The script for Retaliation was also written quickly, and I almost think that two hours would have been better for its story, which could have done with expansion.
Most of the supporting cast play their roles strongly and you get to see Lady Snowblood [if you haven’t seen it, check out the film that inspired Kill Bill more than any others] herself, the gorgeous Meiko Kaji, in a memorable if rather unconvincing role. Retaliation is quite rough and ready but I think that, even if you haven’t seen any Yakuza pictures at all, it’s a decent place to begin, even if it won’t take you long to see where it’s all headed. Its highly ritualistic, deeply contradictory [the Yakuza are largely descendants of the Samurai] is a highly fascinating one and I think you’ll want to explore it more.
Arrow Video’s Blu-ray isn’t quite of the amazingly high standards of the last few of their discs I’ve viewed, but they’ve been using prints created by Nikkatsu for their films from the studio rather than going to all the trouble of starting from scratch. The colours seem a little faded and some background detail is hard to make out, but it’s still perfectly fine when taken on its own and considerably better than a DVD. I’m impressed that the company is willing to put special features on as obscure a film as this, even if they’re not extensive. The interview with Shisido Joe Shisido is most entertaining – see the actor slag other people off and say that he wants to be a killer when he’s 90!
* Limited Edition Blu-ray [3000 copies only]
* Restored High Definition Blu-ray [1080p] and Standard Definition DVD presentation, on Blu-ray for the first time in the world!
* Original uncompressed mono PCM audio
* Newly translated English subtitles
* Brand new interview with star Jô Shishido
* Interview with renowned critic and historian Tony Rayns
* Original theatrical trailer
* Gallery featuring rare promotional images
* Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Ian MacEwan
* Booklet featuring new writing on the film by Japanese cinema expert Jasper Sharp, newly illustrated by Ian MacEwan and featuring original archive stills