Manga artist turned director Takashi Ishii, best known for his breakthrough yakuza film Gonin, continued to explore the neon-soaked urban underworld with the Black Angel series.
The Black Angel is an assassin for hire. In Black Angel (1997) she rescues Ikko, the young daughter of a yakuza don, who is betrayed by minor boss Nogi. Ikko was given the name of a boy so she could inherit the leadership of the family, and Nogi succeeds in killing off the don's line except for her and her elder half-sister, who Nogi is involved with. Ikko finds refuge in the US and returns to seek revenge fourteen years later, monkey boytoy in tow, and now calls herself the Black Angel. Enter the original Black Angel, who has fallen into a drug addicted and depressed state and is assigned to take out Ikko. However, after Ikko is captured by Nogi, the (original) Black Angel begins to sober up and realize her downfall through the eyes of this girl she once saved and is determined to save again.
Black Angel Vol. 2 (1999) finds Mayu (a different, younger Black Angel) nightmare addled, drinking, and coming into conflict with her past and guilt over her bloody profession. An assigned hit on a Toyo yakuza family member goes drastically awry after two competing hitmen interfere and innocent bystanders are caught in the crossfire. Suzu was caught in the line of fire, resulting in her losing both her baby and her husband. Both Mayu and Yamamba, the gangster who fired the shots that killed Suzu's husband, feel a responsibility to her as she slides into a degenerated life. Call him the yakuza with the heart of gold, Yamamba was once a friend with Suzu's husband and, in the past, he saved Mayu from some attackers. United in guilt, they defend Suzu from the Toyo family and help her get vengeance.
Ishii straddles the line between action exploitation and wanting to say something about guilt and responsibility. Black Angel is your typical anti-hero, this haunted figure at a moral crossroads who strikes cool poses and kicks and kills with maximum action heroine efficiency. Like any good action hero, she seems to go from licking smack off a dirty barroom floor to sober in a day, and, after she is shot in the leg, it isn't long before she's doing spinning kicks at some thugs with the same leg. Call it being healed by her convictions.
The premise is simple in both films. It is Ishii's execution that makes it interesting. In part one there is a long, complex, single take, heartbreaking scene where Ikko is being tortured in a run-down building. Nogi lets her go, cruelly saying she can leave, but every exit is blocked, and poor Ikko beaten and bloodied stumbles around, until the scene ends with Nogi beginning to rape her. Also in the first film there is a yakuza hit in a strip joint that uses nothing but slow motion shots. The second film finds some more nice trickery in its action, uses of freeze frames and more slow motion. It has a nice bit of simlple symbolism with Suzu running a flower shop, the flowers dying as she slips more and more into a revenge fueled junkie.
But, they are still just b-films and predictability hampers them a little. In tone, the melodrama antics may turn off some yakuza film fans, those wanting a bit of underworld cool or crazy Miikelike action. The first Black Angel drags quite a bit. The actress who plays Ikko, while cute and all, is prone to many scenes where she is bratty and screaming, making for one of the most annoying characters I've seen in awhile. The actress is also extremely uncoordinated and seems to drunkenly trip everywhere. I swear, I've seen epileptic hobos with more grace. I far prefer the second film, which is better paced and has a much more satisfying, though still bleak, finale.
The DVD: Media Blasters
Picture: Anamorphic Widescreen. Seems to be the case with many Asian imports that the picture quality is a notch or two below the average US pic transfer- this is probably equal amounts budget restraint and just getting poor source materials. Both prints are pretty clean and free of any troublesome transfer quirks, though the sharpness and contrast is a little bit weak on both.
Each also has their own little drawbacks, areas where they are weaker than each other. With the first film, colors are strong, but too, strong, resulting in some serious color bleed. With part two, the film is seeped in a lot of grain. I hate to think what that grain will look like on a large tv. Still, fans should be very satisfied since it is not uncommon for Japanese imports to run $40 with the same pic quality.
Sound: Dolby Digital Stereo 2.0, Japanese or English with optional English subtitles. The Japanese audio tracks are all pretty good. Not a lot of dynamics but they get the job done and are clear. The subtitle translation is also very good. The English dubs suffer, like so many dub tracks, from having the vocals mixed too much in the foreground, thus relegating the music and fx tracks in to the background, diluting them.
Extras: Chapter Selections--- Trailers (on both discs) for Wild Criminal, Blood, Score, Reborn from Hell 2, Zero Woman Returns, Gonin 2.
Conclusion: Well, I'd give the first film a "rent it" and the second a "recommended", but they are packaged together, putting me at an impasse. This collection is for the solidified Ishii yakuza film fan. The basic presentation makes them something not likely to be high on your list of "must haves", but, all things considered, it is certainly fair enough to warrant a recommendation for fans of the genre.