Retaliation (Shima wa moratta), Yasuharu Hasebe’s follow up to his 1967 yakuza flick Massacre Gun is another gem from the director worth a look. Packed with great Japanese actors throwing themselves fully into their roles as gangsters and plenty of full color violence, the film’s only “weak” point is a plot where you can often see what’s coming a mile away. But Hasebe’s technique shines here as the director pulls off some great shots and keeps you hooked in right from the beginning.
Akira Kobayashi plays Jiro Sagae, a gangster fresh out of prison after an eight-year stretch for murdering a rival yakuza. He’s followed from jail by Jo Shishido’s Hino, the brother of the man he killed who’s been planning his revenge for years. As Hino attacks Jiro, Hino’s girl (who’d been following him) rushes in and interrupts the battle, forcing Hino to put off his vengeance until later. Jiro eventually goes to see his aging and indebted to another crime boss Godfather who sends him to pay his respects to his former rival. That Boss makes Jiro an offer he can’t refuse in the form of busting up another gang trying to buy up farmland in a tiny village so a factory can be built. Jiro gets a ragtag group of assistants from a failed actor, a card shark, a pair of singers and amusingly enough Hino, the man who tried to kill him at the beginning of the film.
Hasebe makes the most of the Hino/Jiro thing by having Kobayashi and Shisido play off each other whenever they’re together. But the film works best as a look at the coldly calculating Jiro’s methods at slowly wiping out the rival gang. He has the card shark infiltrate one of the gang’s gambling dens to expose other cheaters and start a fight. That causes the farmers to refuse to deal any further with the gangsters but isn’t enough to do the job. As some of Jiro’s gang fall (post-capture torture, a failed assassination), the walls close in on him when it’s discovered he’s not the handsome humble real estate agent who’s set up shop in the village. His ailing Godfather is tracked down and threatened, and under threat of death for merely showing his face in the wrong place, Jiro comes back home one final time to really settle the score.
Most of the violence here is due to gangsters whipping out swords and knives in close quarters for some painful (and mostly off screen) slashings and stabbings. As with Massacre Gun, there are only a handful of women in the cast and other than Hino’s nagging, pretty girlfriend (or is it wife?), all are treated terribly. One squealing gal is about to be tied up by a creepy older yakuza, but this is interrupted by a meeting the old lecher needs to attend. However, the yakuza who interrupt them end up yelling at the girl for not complying before they beat and tie her up for when the old man returns. The film does pull off a slick and nasty twist of introducing Meiko Kaji as one of the farmer’s daughters and a potential love interest for Jiro. But she only gets in a handful of scenes before she’s gone thanks to being too close to Jiro at the wrong moment.
The film relies heavily on Hasebe’s compositions and camera movement and some shots may seem strange to those expecting a standard action/revenge movie. A key card game scene shows individual players through a small window as if the camera is someone walking by and looking at each person. Other shots focus on certain actors while some object is blocking the foreground, as if someone is spying on the men from a short distance. One of the best scenes in the film is an assassination filmed with a fast-moving (possibly handheld) camera and lit by multiple flashlights (or lighting similar to them). It’s a fantastic, almost frightening scene as you feel for the poor guy running through that house and crashing into things before he falls and gets stabbed to death by his assailants.
Outside of the clever camerawork there’s a straightforward and almost clinical look at old yakuza methods falling by the wayside to newer, cruder ones. Jiro wants to take that farmland and raise a “respectable” business out of it with him as the boss in order to merely raise his old family crest once more. His new Boss wants Jiro to hand over everything once the old gang is ousted. Jiro refuses and this sets up the bloody finale that’s all flashing swords and bodies flailing and falling. It’s also here where the most bloody work happens and feels quite cathartic when all is said and done. By this point even Hino is on his side even joking at one point that it’s the first time he’s ever fallen for a man. You could say Retaliation is one of the foundation films for later work by John Woo and other directors that made “buddy” films with both good and evil characters.
In terms of special features, critic and historian Tony Rayns is back with more on Nikkatsu Studios and his conversation feels like a extension of his discussion from the Massacre Gun Blu-Ray. There’s a nice Japanese trailer and image gallery for the film and that’s it on the video front. As this was a review disc only, I can’t comment on the Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Ian MacEwan or the booklet featuring new writing on the film by Japanese cinema expert Jasper Sharp, newly illustrated by Ian MacEwan and featuring original archive stills. But again, it’s the film that counts here and Retaliation is a great genre film that helped kick off a bunch of other films better remembered to this day. If you’re collecting these Arrow Video sets, well here’s one more you’ll be proud to own.