As the ’60s drew to a close, the yakuza film was approaching a turning point. Throughout the decade, the ninkyo eiga trend of yakuza movie dominated the form by presenting its gangsters as noble, romanticized outlaws. The ’70s would bring in the jitsuroku trend that drew its inspiration from real gangster chronicles and portrayed yakuza life in a grimmer, more downbeat light. Outlaw Gangster VIP represents the tension between these two trends, keeping the romanticized outlaw heroes of ninkyo eiga at its core while bringing in grimmer elements of social and criminal critique that hint at jitsuroku.
The titular figure in Outlaw: Gangster VIP is Goro (Tetsuya Watari), whose hard-knock childhood is summed up in a prologue that explains how he was drawn to the the yakuza life. After doing time for a job-related assassination, he tries to return to the gangster life while retaining a personal code of honor. However, his path is complicated by internecine gang warfare, the duplicitous politicking of the gang bosses and Yukiko (Chieko Matsubara), a young woman romantically drawn to Goro despite his attempts to push her away. When Goro is betrayed and loses friends to yakuza warfare, his code of honor drives him to dangerous acts of violence against the system.
The plot of Outlaw: Gangster VIP might sound like boilerplate material but the way it is told gives it new lease on life. Goro Fujita’s script, reportedly inspired by his own life, uses familiar yakuza film tropes as a vehicle for a critique of the yakuza life. It presents a world where men who aspire to a crook’s code of honor have it used against them by coldhearted bosses who treat them like cannon fodder while demanding loyalty unto death. Indeed, the cruel mob bosses shown here and the poltiical manipulations of loyalty hint at the grimmer take on the genre that Kinji Fukasuku would explore in his classic Battles Without Honor And Humanity series.
However, the intense and stylish direction by veteran director Toshio Masuda gives Outlaw: Gangster VIP an old-school flair. He pumps up the melodrama to an epic degree that will make John Woo fans swoon and knocks out several fantastic action sequences, including a man-vs.-gang knife fight on a building site in the rain and an amazing finale that intercuts a nightclub singer’s performance of a ballad with a brutal assassination. There’s also a “doomed young lovers” subplot that is capped with a flourish so melodramatic that genre aficionados will need to fan themselves afterwards.
Even better, Outlaw: Gangster VIP is driven by a phenomenal lead performance by Watari. He has matinee idol charm and looks to spare but it’s his commitment to the role that makes his work here take flight: whether he is blustering at rivals or reluctantly showing his tender side to a woman, he brings a singular combination of machismo and deep emotion to his work. A few key cloesups require him to fight off tears when responding to the plot’s melodramatic turns – and no one has ever made sorrow look as macho as Watari does. It’s a true star turn and genre fans will appreciate his captivating work here.
In short, Outlaw: Gangster VIP respects the classic yakuza film style while turning its eyes towards the new trend around the corner. It’s powerful genre filmmaking that can be appreciated by any yakuza film fan, regardless of which yakuza film style they prefer.
Availability: This title just made its U.S. home video debut in high definition in Arrow’s Outlaw: Gangster VIP set, a box that collects this film and the five sequels that followed. The transfer looks crisp and colorful and the LPCM presentation of Japanese mono audio sounds nice and clear (English subtitles are provided). Extras on the set include a Jasper Sharp commentary for the first film, a new video essay about the series and image galleries and original trailers for each film. Any student of the yakuza film will want to pick it up.