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Blackmail Is My Life

Blackmail Is My Life
HVe / American Cinematheque
1968 / B&W / 1:85 anamorphic 16:9 / 89 min. / Kyokatsu koso Waga Jinsei / Street Date January 6, 2003 / 29.95
Starring Hiroki Matsukata, Tomomi Sato, Yoko Mihara, Tetsuro Tamba
Cinematography Keiji Maruyama
Production Designer Kiminobu Sato
Original Music Hajime Kaburagi
From a book by Shinji Fujiwara
Produced by Akira Oda
Written and Directed by Kinji Fukasaku

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

The programmers at the American Cinematheque based part of their 1990s reputation on their rediscovery of foreign directors and genres largely never released in the United States. They particularly championed Japanese crime and action thrillers, which even in the 1960s had energy, graphic creativity and a penchant for violence and eroticism unseen on American screens.

Heavily promoted was director Kinji Fukasaku, who until the rediscovery of his outrageous yakuza tales like Battles without Honor was known here only as the commercial director of things like The Green Slime and Message from Space. Reliable enough to be entrusted with the Japanese scenes in Tora! Tora! Tora!, Fukasaku had already firmly established himself.

Blackmail Is My Life is a commercial programmer that channels the spirit of rebellious anarchy seen in Jean-Luc Godard, filtered through America's Bonnie & Clyde. Fukasaku adds a jumpy 'chaotic but formulaic' style that keeps it moving along, through a lot of crime clichés.


Muraki (Hiroki Matsukata) is a handsome worker turned blackmailer. He joins forces with two more men, an ex- Yakuza and Zero, a boxer (Akira Jo) and a thrill seeking woman, Otoki (Tomomi Sato) to rip off other criminals. Their capers are more like exuberant joyrides, and bring success that allows Muraki to keep seeing the famous model (Yoko Mihara) he met as a 'client' victim. Then the gang starts doing jobs for vengeance, and to bring down corrupt high officials. The punks go after a big criminal hotshot with legitimate connections (Tetsuro Tamba), a move that leads to their downfall.

Blackmail Is My Life is pretty good so far as it goes, but the filmmakers' flip attitude toward crime and decadence has more to do with commercial slickness than artistic expression. In other words, it's a Japanese variant on a Hollywood-style exploitation film.

It took Hollywood a couple of years to develop the 'radical chic' attitude some thought was inaugurated by Bonnie & Clyde, itself borrowed from Jean-Luc Godard films, especially Pierrot le fou. The heroes scoff at square society and the morons who hold down salaried jobs, but their alternate lifestyle is to be selfish thieves. Unlike real thieves, these glamorous movie types rob only other criminals or fashionably corrupt targets, thereby excusing their crimes as above morality - they're like Robin Hoods who get to keep the loot.

The gang's crimes are noisy and often done in broad daylight in speeding cars, leaving plenty of witnesses. Like many 'fun-loving' films about crooks, there's little police presence no matter how outrageous things get. They only blackmail each victim once, but soon graduate to kidnapping. Their victims' gangs, other crooks, influential bigshots and even a newspaper reporter know exactly who they are, but nobody turns them in. They're punks too small-time to be bothered with, an excuse that wears thin after a while.

Fukasaku follows a strategy similar to American exploitation films - find a visual style that's distinctive but cheap. Scenes are either tightly - composed dialogue scenes (some very effective) or chaotic montages shot with a wild handheld camera, accompanied by raucous rock music. Longer lenses concentrate the subject matter in the frame and make action scenes look a little claustrophobic. The editing is fast-paced and often forced, hyped with constant freeze frames and flashbacks in B&W or color. The action scenes are cheap, and no attempt at realism is made in the fights or with the fake blood and makeup.

Reportedly written in a weekend, the script is nicely structured but long on flat exposition, particularly in the flashbacks. Muraki is the only real character, but his gang is an okay mix. The boxer Zero expends himself avenging his father's death, the Yakuza reluctantly goes along with his buddies, and Otoki slowly finds she's attracted to the hero.

Star Tetsuro Tamba (You Only Live Twice) has only a couple of silent walk-ons, similar to American productions that use big names as bait. More prominently shown is an actor I think I recognize from Kurosawa's High and Low, Kenjiro Ishiyama. He plays 'Bos'n', the bald, dogged detective in that film, and a shrewd gangster in this one. Star Hiroki Matsukata coasts on his baby face and a cute smile, and is less memorable.

Fukasaku's story constantly tells us that his heroes are shallow opportunists, while peppering their motivations with hints that they're borderline revolutionaries - eager to take down the 'real' criminals in government, etc. This self-serving non-rationale is what critics found debasing in the many counterculture crime films that followed Bonnie & Clyde - it's for the revolution, man, even though the people in the picture don't realize it. Young punks are really the world's best hope, if only the squares could see the truth. 1

Home Vision Entertainment's DVD of Blackmail Is My Life is a good transfer of the American Cinematheque's Japanese discovery, which they premiered in 2002. Colors are bright and the encoding of the shallow-focus photography is mostly good. The anarchic soundrack goes from grating rock vocals to more serious music for the comeuppance conclusion.

Fukasaku provides a candid interview overseen by Cinematheque head programmer Dennis Bartok. Author Patrick Macias provides insightful liner notes that end with a confusing story about the bloody street finale shot (and re-shot?) with a camera hidden in a car. Fukasaku was surprised when the real street crowds didn't react to the stumbling man leaking volumes of scarlet blood.

In the film itself, we only see a couple of snippets that resemble a POV from a car, although some angles could have been shot discreetly by telephoto. Most of the sequence is from a handheld camera circling the victim, so we don't at all get the idea that the crowd reaction might be verité, as it was said to be in Midnight Cowboy2

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Blackmail Is My Life rates:
Movie: Good
Video: Very Good
Sound: Very Good
Supplements: Interview with director Kinji Fukasaku, director filmography
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: January 13, 2004


1. Actually, this sub-genre of hip crime points to another Faye Dunaway movie just before Bonnie & Clyde, The Happening. Its kidnappers are fun-loving, wild 'n wacky criminals kidnap a gangster just like Fukasaku's, and the film uses off-kilter montages and humor to keep the whole enterprise light and larky.

2. The filming among real Manhattan pedestrian traffic in Midnight Cowboy is a myth as well, methinks. Dustin Hoffman claims they were all stolen scenes, but stills show extras, cameramen and the director waiting between takes along with the stars.

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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