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Wednesday, April 6, 2005

Comeuppance in a comely package

Gokudo no Onnatachi: Joen

Rating: * * * 1/2 (out of 5)
Director: Hajime Hashimoto
Running time: 118 minutes
Language: Japanese
Currently showing
[See Japan Times movie listings]

In 1986, when the traditional yakuza movie was dying a slow, lingering death, Toei producer Goro Kusakabe read a weekly magazine article by journalist Shoko Ieda about the wives and girlfriends of gangsters. He was impressed by not only Ieda's work ethic and guts (she had spent nearly a year getting to know her subjects while dodging the occasional bullet), but the stories and personalities she had unearthed. Instead of the stereotypical dumb, clingy gangster moll, many of her women were tough, earthy types who had learned to assert themselves in a male-dominated world.

News photo
Aya Sugimoto and Reiko Takashima in "Gokudo no Onnatachi: Joen"

Kusakabe spun a successful series out of Ieda's reportage, "Gokudo no Onnatachi (Gang Wives)," that gave a boost to both the genre and Toei's bottom line. The first 10 episodes were dominated by Shima Iwashita, who could chill with a glance -- or kill without mussing a hair of her impeccable coiffure.

When Iwashita exited the series in 1998, Toei tried to restart it with Reiko Takashima, but after four installments, the studio let it lapse. Now Takashima is back with her first film in the series in four years: "Gokudo no Onnatachi: Joen (Gang Wives: Flame of Love)." Although the producer is Toei subsidiary Toei Video -- the supplier of cheap action entertainment to lonely guys in rented rooms -- the cast and production values are top of the genre line.

Also, director Hajime Hashimoto, who lost his way in the labyrinthine plot twists of "Shin Jingi Naki Tatakai: Bosatsu (Another Battle: Conspiracy)" (2003), films the simpler, more primal story of "Joen" with clarity and force, as well as a surprising undercurrent of gangster-mocking humor and butt-kicking feminism. Toei long took its signature genre with unsmiling seriousness, while glorifying the gangs' macho ethic. Its most popular female star, Junko Fuji, embodied a male fantasy of proper, pure-hearted Japanese womanhood, even as she was coolly dispatching enemy hoods with her short sword.

As Namiko, the widow of a murdered Osaka gang boss, who now reigns in his place, Takashima certainly exemplifies traditional virtues, including an unshakable fealty to the memory of her dead hubby. At the same time, she is no longer, like Fuji, a dewy-cheeked yamato nadeshiko (ideal Japanese woman), but the middle-aged manager of a struggling business, in a tank full of hungry, shifty underworld sharks -- all male, of course.

To survive in this environment, she has to use every weapon at her command, from the flawlessness of her makeup to the sharpness of her wits. Unlike Iwashita, whose imperious Ice Queen act verged on self-parody (think Bette Davis in a kimono), Takashima reveals a softer, more human side, which makes her dealings with her ruthless male rivals all the more impressive.

The story proper begins three years after the murder of Ryuji Saigo -- Namiko's husband and the original choice of the gang's elderly kumicho (chairman) to succeed him. The kumicho is ailing and his lieutenants argue that the youngest of their number, the brainy, saturnine Korean Kawamoto (Naoki Hosaka), should be his successor. Namiko, however, is opposed -- Ryuji's killer has yet to be found and, though she doesn't say it, she suspects that one of his gang rivals ordered the hit. She also has her own candidate for the job -- Ryuji's younger brother and loyal lieutenant, Kyohei (Junta Yamada).

Kawamoto defers to her, for the moment, but has powerful allies, including Nagamine (Yutaka Matsushige), the reptilian second-in-command of Osaka's biggest gang. What Kawamoto doesn't realize, however, is that Nagamine has lustful designs on Kawamoto's zaftig, avaricious wife, Ranko (Misaki).

Another complication arises in the form of Kawamoto's Korean wife, Eigyoku (Aya Sugimoto), who has served five years in prison for a crime he committed -- and is now in Japan looking for payback. When she learns he has a Japanese family, her wrath grows, but she still has feelings for him. He tells her he wants to return to her -- and she wants to believe him, for the moment. Meanwhile, she has made the acquaintance of Namiko and found a kindred spirit. Both women are grimly determined to learn the truth -- and wreak revenge on those who have betrayed them.

They are a contrast in types: the wronged wife, dressed like a commando and striding manfully down Osaka streets, and the embattled anego (gangster lady) in kimono, wearing her femininity like armor. But when these two run into each other at Ranko's new night club (paid for -- better not say how) and perform a pas de deux on the dance floor, it is Namiko who leads, while Eigyoku, resplendent in a body-hugging red gown, follows. Eyes flashing with ironic sensuality and conspiratorial understanding, they wordlessly seal a bond that the gawpers around them sense only dimly, if at all. (Though Ieda, in a cameo appearance, seems to be drinking it all in.)

In other words, a scene not found in the typical Toei yakuza movie. Neither is the way Hashimoto strips away the Japanesque veneer and gaudy glamour of yakuza life to reveal the piggery and thuggery underneath. Instead of samurai in suits, his gangsters are mostly yobbos who have learned neither table manners nor impulse control. Watching them cram sausages into their maws or explode in animal lust or rage, we begin to long for the inevitable comeuppance from the two heroines.

When it arrives, with blades, bullets and geysers of blood, choreographed for maximum impact and photographed in gorgeously saturated colors, it is as though they are not only righting specific wrongs, but engaged in righteous battle against the male species -- or at least the sexist, ageist, oinkish portion of it. Thelma and Louise deserved this.

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