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The third film in the Outlaw yakuza film series did not step forward in time nor did it move in a lateral direction.  Instead, it went back in time for a kind of loose prequel designed to give us some background on the character of Goro Fujikawa, played as usual by Tetsuya Watari.  The results hew closely to the template established by the first two films but manage to deliver other little surprises in the form of variations on the OutHeart-posseries’ archetypal plot and setpiece elements.

A few years before the timeline of the first two Outlaw films, Goro participates in a hit on a hapless soul who owes money to a yakuza boss.  When he discovers his boss manufactured the “debt” and that the man was trying to get money for his wife’s illness, Goro vows to help the woman get the treatment she needs using the money the yakuza owe her husband. In short order, he’s caught between warring mobs and gets involved with an ex-yakuza bar owner’s daughter (Chieko Matsubara) as the treachery of mobster life once again forces him into action.

As a prequel, Outlaw: Heartless doesn’t do much with its pre-history setup.  There aren’t any real life-changing events or discoveries that give us added insight into the Goro character: instead, the plot follows the usual Outlaw film beats of tragic love, betrayal and knife-fights.  For example, even though Matsubara plays a different character from her role in the first two Outlaw films, her character still fits the identical profile and purpose of her character in those two films.

However, Outlaw: Heartless remains a solid programmer.  Director Mio Ezaki delivers the tight, slick direction you would expect from a Japanese studio director of the era and he manages some effective setpieces, including an unexpectedly baroque knife-fight finale in a room filled with cans of paint in multiple colors.  Watari and Matsubara remain an effective pairing, with Watari effortlessly carrying the film on his shoulders, and the OGVIP-blurest of the cast effectively carries the film’s heavy tone of melodrama.

It’s also worth noting that Outlaw: Heartless develops an interesting theme across its various subplots of how the yakuza mindset tears apart family bonds of all types.  This theme is beautifully illustrated in a battle near the film’s one-hour mark where Goro and a couple of supporting protagonists unite to battle with the yakuza who have been preying on them and their loved ones.  Superficially, it’s a redux of a familiar scene in the series where a battle or assassination is intercut with a nightclub performance – but on a deeper level, it pays off several subplots while giving the characters a moment where they can take on their real enemy, even if it can’t turn the tide.  The result is as moving as it is exciting and it alone is reason enough for fans of the series to check out Outlaw: Heartless.

Availablity: This film was recently reissued by Arrow Video as part of their Outlaw Gangster VIP box set.  It is presented in both blu-ray and DVD formats, with an excellent new transfer and uncompressed Japanese mono audio on the blu-ray.  New English subtitles are included to go with the transfer.  Extras for this title consist of a trailer and an image gallery but a visual essay on the entire series is included elsewhere in the box set.