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Tuesday, Nov. 21, 2000


Can't keep a good hood down

Gangster movies are hardly unique to Japan. Most national cinemas have their share of snarling wise guys in flashy suits and dark shades. In the 1960s, though, Japanese studios, particularly Toei and Nikkatsu, turned over such a large proportion of their production to yakuza films that studio visitors might have wondered whether they had wandered into a Yamaguchi-gumi convention by mistake.

(They wouldn't have been far wrong -- real gangsters liked to rub shoulders with the movie world, with some even appearing in front of cameras as actors or behind them as "technical advisers.")

The premier yakuza movie factory was Toei, which had the biggest hits and created the biggest stars, including Ken Takakura, Koji Tsuruta and the inimitable Junko Fuji, a tall, willowy beauty who looked dazzling in kimono but could cow a roomful of gangsters with her steady gaze or wield her short sword with a lethal authority.

Of all the yakuza movie series Toei produced in its heyday, few had the impact of Kinji Fukasaku's "Jingi Naki Tatakai (Battles Without Honor or Humanity)." Based on true accounts of gang wars in early postwar Hiroshima, the first film of the series, released in 1973, realistically depicted the Darwinian power struggles of the era, while freely violating genre conventions.

Instead of a noble hero embodying the code of traditional yakuza jingi (chivalry), the series lead, Bunta Sugawara, played a wild-at-heart hood whose only law was survival. Instead of the stately pace of earlier yakuza movies, "Jingi" was nearly nonstop action, filmed in a style reminiscent of live TV news, with a handheld camera breathlessly recording the chases and punch-ups.

The film was a hit and Fukasaku made eight more entries before finally calling it quits in 1979. Now, after a gap of 21 years, Toei has revived this venerable franchise with "Shin Jingi Naki Tatakai (Another Battle)." Though it may be the most conservative of Japan's major studios, Toei realized that turning the clock back to 1973 was not an option; thus the decision was to hire Osaka-born Junji Sakamoto to direct the new installment.

Sakamoto is best known for his boxing films ("Dotsuitarunen," "Tekken," "Ote," "Boxer Joe"), and his indie sensibility is far removed from that of Toei's older generation of gang action filmmakers. Whether quirkily brilliant ("Dotsuitarunen") or ham-handedly eccentric ("Tekken"), his films rarely follow genre rules. Also, in even his lamer efforts, Sakamoto evinces an intimate understanding of his characters and their Kansai milieu.

That understanding is much in evidence in the latest series installment, which is set in present-day Osaka. It is not, however, the kind of small, personal film Sakamoto has been making through much of his career, but a sprawling, ambitious epic, "The Godfather" with a Kansai accent. While faithfully reflecting the labyrinthine power politics of the bigger real-life gangs, with the never-ending maneuverings for advantage that rival anything in the LDP, it manages to recapture some of the dynamism of Fukasaku's classic.

Still, after the lights go up few of its many faces remain in focus. The two at the center of the film belong to Kadoya Kaneo (Etsushi Toyokawa) and Tochino Masatatsu (Tomoyasu Hotei), childhood friends who, growing up, go their separate ways: Kadoya becomes a sub-boss in a powerful Osaka gang; Tochino, a prosperous club owner with an abiding hatred of the gangs and all their works. He has good reason -- when he was a boy he watched two loan collectors from a local gang dunk his father, a poor Korean worker, in a filthy ditch. He got his revenge, plunging a knife into the back of one of the hoods, but his rage still burns.

The paths of these old friends intersect following the start of a gang succession struggle. When the big boss dies, his longtime right-hand man and anointed heir is too old and ill to take over, leaving the job open to the gang's Number Three, the foxy, saturnine Awano (Ittoku Kishibe).

First, though, Awano has to obtain the support of his colleagues, which means distributing wads of cash with the abandon of a Diet candidate. He also has to contend with Nakahira (Koichi Sato), a younger rival who may rank below him in the gang hierarchy, but more than matches him in ruthlessness.

To raise cash for their boss's cause, Nakahira's henchmen put the muscle on Tochino, who refuses to be cowed. Meanwhile, Kadoya is monitoring Nakahira's machinations for Awano, his own oyabun (boss).

Then Kadoya's own crew is attacked by a Kyoto gang that proves to have a connection with Nakahira's. The gloves come off and the bodies start to fall. Despite his incurable yakuza allergy, Tochino finds himself in the center of this battleground and forced to take sides.

The story of childhood friends who become gang rivals is a genre cliche, one that Sakamoto has tried to avoid by making Tochino a gang-hating citizen. Rock musician Hotei may have the requisite permanently pissed-off air, but his Tochino is an outsider whose connection with the main events of the film remains mostly peripheral. Also, the fierce devotion of Toyokawa's Kadoya to the cause of his Oscar Wilde-ish boss lacks strong motivation -- a Michael Corleone he isn't.

Still, there's a lot to admire in the film. Sakamoto keeps the energy level high and the performances from falling into standard attitudes. I particularly liked Taiichiro Toyama as the languid, druggy Nakahira henchman who makes the memorable comment, "For 100 million yen I'd kill Nakahira myself, even if I had to use a rusty sword." Such honesty is refreshing, and an indication that, nearly three decades after "Jingi Naki Tatakai" first exploded on the screen, Fukasaku has found a worthy successor.

"Shin Jingi Naki Tatakai" opens Nov. 25 at Marunouchi Toei and other theaters.

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