Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Seijun Suzuki's last "straight" yakuza tale before his bizarre semi-abstract Tokyo Drifter and
Branded to Kill is a complex and
satisfying genre crossbreed that peppers a straight story with interesting stylistic
accents. It concludes in the expected katana bloodbath, but the complicated plot leading up to that
is both accessible and intriguing. It's the least mysterious and most entertaining Suzuki picture
Savant's yet seen, perhaps because it is the most openly Western.
Tokyo Yakuza Tetsu (Hideki Takahashi) flees with his artist brother Kenji (Kotobuki
Haranomoto) when they kill an opponent in a double-cross. A swindler takes their money, so they
never reach the haven of Manchuria. Instead they take jobs as laborers on a tunnel project, where
in loves with the boss's wife and Tetsu is pursued by the boss's daughter. The shifty company
accountant decides to blackmail the drifters: besides finding out that they are fugitives, he's
in the employ of a rival outfit to sabotage the tunnel - and the rival company is aligned with
Tetsu's old Yakuza clans.
Tattooed Life is a sure-footed tale of a city gangster finding both trouble and new values
out in the sticks. It's similar to a 1930s Warners tale with George Raft or James Cagney stuck on a
farm and discovering there's more to life than speakeasies and crime. The titles play out over a
series of tattooed human figures, prefiguring hero Tetsu's eventual unmasking (or dis-robing) as
"White Fox Tetsu," swordsman extraordinaire.
The story appears to be set at a time when some transport is still conducted in rickshaw-like carriages,
although we see trains and revolver guns. As in City for Conquest, an experienced fellow
repeatedly tries to sacrifice himself for his younger
brother, a talented artist who makes bad emotional decisions. Tetsu describes himself as a low-eschelon
dupe tricked into a murder. Brother Kenji saves him from an assassin and the two become
pure-hearted but naive fugitives. A scrape with a boastful con-man who steals their money scotches
their plans to high-tail it to freedom in Manchuria, and they find themselves forced to alight in a
little mining town. They're accepted on a work crew after a good-natured fight with the head
dynamiter, and instantly connect with a pair of females. Tetsu can't shake off the attention of one
woman, while Kenji becomes obsessed with the wife of the boss. That entanglement leads to several
more, when they're suspected of blowing up one of the tunnels. Tetsu is arrested and unmasked as an
outlaw, but subsequent events clear the brothers of suspicion. The two warring families in Tokyo
are apparently moving their operations into this rural industrial town.
The final reels kick the already fast-moving story into overdrive. The characters are sketchy but
we still identify with Tetsu's noble loner and Kenji's excitable artist. Suzuki's oddball color
experiments start to kick in about the time Tetsu reveals his shameful tattoos to the woman who
loves him. Events happen so quickly - last minute reversals, desperate romantic meetings, unexpected
revelations - that the last few minutes become a whirlwind of disconnected actions that we're
surprised we can follow. The loyal work gang decides to back up Tetsu in his fight with his old
yakuza thugs, but he chooses to face them alone, armed only with an umbrella from the local
barmaid. A one-armed ex-swordsman donates a blade at the last minute, and we're set up for an
old-fashioned but satisfying one-against-30 showdown.
Red light moves across the sets and the sky turns the color of blood; Tetsu runs through scores of
paper doors looking for his enemies. The stylized action (good movement but rather artificial and
unrealistic) results in dozens of casualties in slow tracking shots. In one slick move, Tetsu
breaks a standoff by suddenly drawing his pistol and blasting away. Scarlet flashes light up the
darkness. One bizarre shot (pictured on the cover) depicts a face-off with an up angle that replaces
the wooden floor with one of glass.
Yakuza loyalists will note the characteristic wound - a slash across a tattooed back - received by
the hero (even Takakura Ken got one in The Yakuza), and the finale's insistence on jail for
the triumphant hero. To fulfil the genre requirement for "noble loser" status, Tatsu tosses his
gambling cards into the sand, saying he'll never be free as long as they taint his life.
Tattooed Life is a lively and exciting action tale with a solid story.
Another in its series with The American Cinematheque, Vitagraph and Chimera, Home Vision's DVD of
Tattooed Life is an excellent presentation. The enhanced picture is colorful and unblemished,
and the interesting music (good title tune, good suspense cues) is clear and dynamic. The only
extra is a Suzuki filmography.
Liner note writer Ray Pride praises Tattooed Life but reserves some jabs at modern action
directors for having far more resources than did Seijun Suzuki. He also criticizes the action in
Tarantino's Kill Bill as clumsy compared to the art of the sword fighting here. I doubt
many viewers will agree with him on that one. Suzuki's film is part of the flow of a real genre
in bloom, where Tarantino's is a tricked-out revisionist hybrid, and there's really no comparison.
The subtitles are good but tend to sprinkle contemporary English phrases ("I'll kick your ass!")
that don't seem appropriate for a period picture. The box text needed some
proofreading, with "rescue" written as "resuce." Nobody's perfect, and Savant would probably be
well advised not to point fingers.
I really liked this one, from the Nikkatsu logo to the bittersweet ending.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Tattooed Life rates:
Supplements: bio for director
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: April 9, 2004
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson