Goro the Assassin (Tetsuya Watari) is a yakuza hitman haunted by his past. He is a charismatic loner, wandering the rain-swept streets in his black leather jacket, his knife never far from his hand. Over the course of the six movies in this collection, Goro uses that knife frequently and with convincing effect. Neon streetlights glinting off ludicrously long steel blades have rarely looked this good.
As we discover in the first film – Outlaw: Gangster VIP – Goro is a product of his damaged childhood. He is a small boy when his mother dies, and when his baby sister becomes ill shortly afterwards, none of the townsfolk will help. His sister’s death coupled with his neighbour’s cruelty sets young Goro on a course that will make him a legendarily feared gangster but no matter where he goes, he cannot hide. His reputation precedes him. His life is one brutal knife fight after another and Goro knows that death can never be far away. Still, despite receiving some horrific wounds, Goro always seems to survive until tomorrow.
The Outlaw Gangster series was notable for its gritty social realism, and for daring to portray a violent criminal as a heroic protagonist. These are remarkable movies. Yes, there is a formula that can become repetitive and the quality of the films does – very slowly – decline over the course of the series, but this was a fascinating period in Japanese cinema when directors and screenwriters were paying attention to what was happening in the West and layering those elements into their projects, while still staying true to their own culture. Goro is an almost Shakespearean character with an intense Marlon Brando quality. The women who love him (and that hardly ever turns out well) are either demure bystanders to the Yakuza lifestyle or gangster’s molls, but they still have a valuable part to play in the stories. And the gangsters are colourful – the elderly bosses swagger about in kimonos, puffing cigars and casually watching while their rivals beg for forgiveness and chop off their own fingers, and the snappily dressed goons are determined to look their best, even when smashing up a rival gang’s bar. In many ways, it’s all quite cartoonish, except there is nothing cartoon-like about the violence – the street fights are brutal, faces are slashed and limbs are broken and the blood flows brightly. Check out the opening of Outlaw: Black Dagger when Goro impressively lays waste to an entire street-full of Yakuza, while barely seeming to break a sweat. True, the killings aren’t as visceral as we’re used to (these films were made at the tail-end of the 1960s) but that hardly matters when the fight choreography is so dazzlingly effective.
This is the first time the Outlaw: Gangster VIP movies have been available in the West and they look and sound absolutely terrific. The extras aren’t vast (although Jasper Sharp’s audio commentary on the first film and Kevin Gilvear’s impressive visual essay more than make up for that short-fall) but, with a series as good as this, special features aren’t important. These are wonderful films and very highly recommended.
OUTLAW: GANGSTER VIP COLLECTION / CERT: 18 / DIRECTORS: TOSHIO MASUDA, KEIICHI OZAWA, MIO EZAKI / SCREENPLAY: VARIOUS / STARRING: TETSUYA WATARI, CHEIKO MATSUBARA, IZUMI ASHIKAWA / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW