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Wednesday, March 12, 2003

Veteran gangsters sit it out

Don e no Michi

Rating: * * 1/2 (out of 5)
Director: Shigeru Ishihara
Running time: 115 minutes
Language: Japanese
Currently showing

Yakuza movies used to be simple affairs that even salarymen dozing in the back rows could follow with one eye half open. Then in 1973, with "Jingi Naki Tatakai (Battles Without Honor and Humanity)," Kinji Fukasaku brought the gang movie into the messy present, in which the lines between good and bad were no longer clearly drawn -- and even the hero was looking out for No. 1.

News photo
Kentaro Shimizu (front) and Hakuryu in "Don e no Michi"

Fukasaku also showed how complex the politics of the postwar gang world had become, boasting Machiavellian scheming to match anything in medieval European history.

Shigeru Ishihara's "Don e no Michi (The Road to Bossdom)" is a throwback to the glory days of "Jingi" and other jitsuroku (realistic) yakuza films, in more ways than one.

First, several of its veteran actors were active during the genre's 1970s heyday. Akira Kobayashi, in particular, was a major star during this period, first for the film studio Nikkatsu and then the studio Toei. Though he had the looks of a Japanese Elvis, right down to the bedroom eyes and crooked smile, he was a cool, deadly presence.

Second, the film's story of a gang succession struggle derives from a manga by Kazuhiko Murakami that ran in "Tokushu Manga Topics" from 1978 to 1980 -- and reflected the complex, violent realities of ongoing Kansai gang wars.

"Don e no Michi," however, unfolds in the present, beginning with a police raid on a gambling session run by the Shimada-gumi. Suspecting a rat, two hoods from the Shimada gang, Sakurai (Kentaro Shimizu) and Kanazawa (Hideo Nakano) grab two suspects -- businessmen who were at the session that fateful night -- and learn that the rival Byakko-kai (White Dragon) gang was behind the snitch. Sakurai and Kanazawa whack Otsu (Shinya Hashimoto), a high-ranking Byakko-kai gangster, in reprisal, but in the ensuing gunplay, Kanazawa is wounded -- and volunteers to take the rap for both of them.

Naturally, the Byakko-kai gangsters are outraged by this turn of events, but their boss, Shirosaki (Kojiro Honjo), decides that the beef is not worth a war. Instead, to smooth troubled waters, he calls on Mitamura, boss of the Mitamura-gumi and a gang world elder.

But just when the two gangs are about to formalize a truce, shocking news arrives -- Narita (Rikiya), the bearish second-in-command of the Shimada-gumi, has been clipped by hit men from the Otsu-gumi, a Byakko-kai subgang. The truce forgotten, the two sides square off for battle.

Wanting to head off a blood bath, Sakurai goes to Shirosaki's house alone and asks him to take responsibility for Narita's death by resigning. Impressed by Sakurai's resolve -- and by the dynamite he has strapped to his body -- Shirosaki agrees, on the condition that Sakurai join with Shirosaki's successor, the saturnine Ochi (Hakuryu), in gang brotherhood. Shirosaki sees Sakurai as a up-and-comer, and wants the Shirotora-kai to be on his good side. Sakurai agrees.

Ochi proves to be powerful ally, bent on whacking anyone who threatens Sakurai and his rise to power. His exertions, however, cause resentment among members of the Shimada-gumi, who decide to mount a coup d'etat. The road to the top, Sakurai discovers, is rockier than he had thought.

Where Fukasaku's "Jingi" films were bursting with a chaotic energy that seemed to well up from the postwar streets, "Don e no Michi" plays slowly and sedately, with its mostly over-40 cast engaged in more sitdowns than shootouts. This may reflect reality -- the gangs are graying together with the rest of the population -- but gives the film a middle-aged feel.

As Sakurai, singer-turned-actor Kentaro Shimizu tries to make with the macho fireworks, but being a beefy, if deeply tanned, 50, he lacks a certain spring in his step. He compensates by over-acting, but bulging eyes and a clenched jaw do not a yakuza movie hero make. Meanwhile, Shigeru Ishikawa, who made his directorial debut in 1998 with an entry in the "Hissatsu" series of Samurai films, adds little in the way of visual pizzazz, though his orthodox, spell-it-out approach makes it easier to tell his large cast apart.

The best thing in the film is Kobayashi, who exudes the sort of relaxed, confident charisma that the camera -- and audience -- loves. Why have the years been so good to him -- and so bad to the jitsuroku films that once seems the yakuza genre's last, best hope?

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