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Wednesday, April 17, 2002

We got a real wiseguy here

Jitsuroku Ando-Gumi Gaiden: Garou no Okite

Rating: * * *
Director: Shunichi Kajima
Running time: 90 minutes
Language: Japanese
Now showing

How many movie gangsters have walked the walk? Not many. Thirties stars George Raft, James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson saw a gangster or two while growing up in rough New York neighborhoods, and Raft was notorious for his underworld connections, but none were hoods before playing them in the movies. (Raft made his pre-Hollywood rep as the world's fastest Charleston dancer.) In more recent times, gangsta rappers such as Ice Cube and Ice-T have appeared in films in tough-guy roles, but like their predecessors, most knew the gangs less from participation than association. In Japan, the story was little different; the gang genre's stars have been mostly law-abiding types off-camera.

News photo
Noboru Ando (right) in "Jitsuroku Ando-Gumi Gaiden: Garou no Okite"

Then there is Noboru Ando, a real gangster who not only had a real gang-movie career, appearing in 51 films in the 1960s and '70s, but acted out versions of his own story in such films as "Jitsuroku Ando-gumi Shugekihen (The True Story of the Ando Gang -- Attack)" (1973) and "Ando-gumi Gaiden -- Hitogiri Shatei (The Untold Story of the Ando Gang -- The Killer Brother" (1974). His acting debut, the 1965 film "Chi to Okite (Blood and Rules)," recounted the rise and fall of his gang, the Ando-gumi, with Ando starring as himself -- and became a big hit for the Shochiku studio.

As an actor, Ando may have had the deadest of deadpans, but his quiet air of menace made the more extrovert types around him look like poseurs. It helped that he had a scar running from the corner of his mouth to his left ear, acquired in a brawl with a Korean gangster during his youth. Ando knew he was the real deal and saw no need to method act a la Al Pacino to prove it. Instead, he just did what came naturally -- and the fans kept coming back for more. "In Japanese, the only difference between yakuza and yakusha (actor) is one hiragana character," Ando once told me. "All yakuza have to be actors to survive."

Ando, who was born in 1925, is still making yakuza movies, but for the video shelves, not the theater screens. Also, he is now playing, not the tough-guy hero, but the gangland elder. His latest film, "Jitsuroku Ando-gumi Gaiden: Garou no Okite (The True History of the Ando Gang: Rules of the Starving Wolf)," is yet another recounting of his underworld adventures, with Ando doing the narrating. Dressed in an elegant gray kimono, surrounded by attentive listeners in a beautiful Japanese-style house, he looks less like a former wiseguy, more like a retired statesman revisiting the scenes of his youth.

The main subject of his reminiscences, however, is Kei Hanagata, a top lieutenant of the Ando-gumi who lived fast, died young and left a beautiful corpse. With his trademark dark shades and white clothes (including a snazzy white felt hat), and his legendary refusal to fight with anything more than his fists of steel, Hanagata was yakuza cool personified. Following his death at the age of 32 in 1963 (he was knifed by a member of a rival gang), he became the subject of several films.

The director of the latest, Shunichi Kajima, also featured Hanagata in his 1993 gang comedy "Shuraba no Ningengaku (The Anthropology of a Fight Scene)." Played with swaggering panache by Shinji Yamashita, this Hanagata, Ando later claimed, was the closest of all the movie versions to the real thing. "Garou no Okite's" Hanagata is Show Aikawa, an action icon in the OV ("original video" or straight-to-video movie) industry, who can walk his character's strutting walk with perfect presence and authority. When he strides to another showdown, coattails billowing behind, he's so flagrantly kakko ii (stylish) that even fashionphobes in the audience will mutter an involuntary "wow."

The story starts in 1945, with Japan in ruins and the survivors scrambling to making a living by any means necessary, legal or not. Among them are university students who prefer busting heads to cracking books. One is Hanagata (Aikawa), a boxer and rugby player, another is Izawa (Masayuki Imai), who runs with the Ando-gumi, a gurentai (delinquent gang) that rules Shibuya. After an all-out brawl, in which they end up battling the police instead of each other, Hanagata and Izawa become fast friends. Ando (Hiroyuki Watanabe) also takes a liking to Hanagata, despite his loose-cannon rep, and asks him to join the gang.

Though Hanagata rises quickly in the gang hierarchy and even acquires a wife (Nanako Okochi) and an infant son, he remains the romantic who loves a good rumble and refuses to set up a legitimate front, despite the advice of the more level-headed Izawa. After killing a fat chimpira (punk) in a street fight, Hanagata is sentenced to three years in prison.

When he gets out, in 1961, his wife is gone, but his gang welcomes him back -- and he soon picks up where he violently left off, with his motto being "yareretara yarikaesu" (do unto others what others have done unto you). His wild ways, however, incur the displeasure of Izawa's shrewish wife (Noriko Aota), who wants him not only out of her life, but out of the world. He doesn't know it, but she is his most dangerous opponent.

Hanagata finally goes over the line when, in a drunken rage, he breaks up a cabaret run by a colleague from the Ando-gumi and adds insult to injury by slapping the staff around. When Izawa's wife hears about this, she gives one of the slapped victims a gun and dares him to do his worst. Pissing his pants with fear, the chimpira shoots Hanagata outside a club and runs for his life. Yareretara yarikaesu. But the Hanagata saga does not end here -- rising like a phoenix in soiled whites, he transforms from man into legend.

This is surefire stuff, but it is also an often-told story, and Kajima does nothing particularly new with it. One problem is the bare-bones budget, which necessitated the use of present-day cars and backdrops for their period equivalents, undercutting authenticity. (There's something distracting about 1950s gangsters piling into a Benz that looks as though it just rolled off the Yanase lot.)

Another is a script that does little more than string incidents together, like an Ando-gumi Greatest Hits CD. Among the saving graces is Aikawa, who may be too puffy for a young man's role, but still delivers good action, including one memorable scene in which he defiantly guzzles sake at a yatai (outdoor stall) while blood pours out his punctured stomach. Hanagata, wherever he is, would probably be proud.

An interview with Ando will appear in the April 28 edition of Sunday Timeout.

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