As yakuza films moved from the ’60s into the ’70s, the smarter filmmakers in this genre addressed how the changes in Japanese society were impacting the gangster antiheroes that populate these films. The pinnacle of the yakuza film in this respect is Kinji Fukasaku’s epic Battles Without Honor And Humanity series. However, there are plenty of other noteworthy examples. Director Yasuharu Hasebe threw his hat in the ring with 1968’s Retaliation, which remains a memorable example of the “yakuza in decline” trend.
The central figure in Retaliation is Jiro (Akira Kobayashi), a young gangster who is released from prison as the film begins. He immediately faces two problems. The first is that Hino (Jo Shishido), the brother of the man whose murder landed Jiro in prison, is hungry for revenge. The second is that Jiro’s old crime family has fallen on hard times and he must go to work for a different boss who is caught up in gangland warfare over a patch of farmer-occupied land that a corporation wants. Circumstances conspire to force Jiro and Hino to work together – and the changing climate of yakuza life leads them to reevaluate their conflict as they find mutual, unexpected enemies.
On the surface level, Retaliation is a tried-and-true Nikkatsu yakuza programmer: there’s lots of fistfights, knifeplay, double-crosses, a bit of torture and some S&M-themed mistreatment of women that hints at the “roman porno” fare that would soon overtake Nikkatsu’s output. Hasebe directs the mayhem briskly and infuses it with fascinating stylistic flourishes, including a nocturnal attack in a house illuminated only by flashlight and some clever manipulation of sound during the film’s bloody finale.
However, what makes Retaliation fascinating is its intense cynicism about the gangster’s ability to survive in post-WWII Japan. Once-proud bosses either slip into age-induced infirmity or find themselves working at the best of corporations that are more ruthless and manipulative than the gangsters themselves. Even Jiro, who attempts to find a way out of these dishonorable circumstances, finds himself betrayed by the changing times. When the final showdown arrives, it is more an elegy for a dying way of life than an attempt to reestablish its place in the world.
Hasebe’s direction plays a big role in making this doomy bill of fare palatable but the finishing touch is provided by the performances of its leads. Kobayashi takes a cool-under-pressure approach, using his matinee idol looks as a sphinx-like mask as he deals with circumstances that grow grimmer with every reel. The zen-like cool he effects anchors the movie. Shishido provides a nice balance to Kobayashi, providing flashes of anger that give the film a pulse and also showing a great skill for gallows humor. They get solid support form Hideaki Natani as a mid-level gangster caught in the middle and an early performance from Meiko Kaji as a farmer’s daughter who tempts Jiro towards a more honorable life.
In short, Retaliation is to the Yakuza genre what films like The Wild Bunch were to westerns. While its main order of business is delivering the gangster goods, it does so in a pointed way that reflects societal changes. Anyone who likes the Battles Without Honor And Humanity series should check it out as a sort of precursor to the achievements of that series.
Blu-Ray Notes: after decades without a home video release, this title was recently revived by Arrow Video and was issued in both the U.S. and the U.K. The transfer is gorgeous, with crisp details and a rich color palette. The LPCM Japanese mono track is presented with English subtitles and is well-mixed, with a nice use of music.
Extras consist of a black-and-white gallery, the original Japanese trailer and interviews with Shishido and Japanese film expert Tony Rayns. Shishido’s 13-minute chat finds the actor talking about a variety of topics – his t.v. work, his thoughts on Kobayashi, his favorite directors. Rayns discusses the careers of Hasebe and Shishido in detail via an informative mini-lecture about how Nikkatsu worked in the ’60s. A liner notes booklet from Jasper Sharp adds further, well-researched info on the studio and its workings. All in all, it’s a fine release – and it is limited to 3000 units so fans of yakuza fare should snap it up.
Full Disclosure: this review was done using a check-disc blu-ray provided by Arrow Video U.K. The disc used for the review reflects what buyers will see in the finished blu-ray. A PDF of the liner notes was provided by Arrow for this review.