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Tattooed Life

Tattooed Life
Home Vision/American Cinematheque
1965 / Color / 2:35 anamorphic 16:9 / 90 min. / Irezumi ichidai / Street Date January 20, 2003 / 19.95
Starring Hideki Takahashi, Kotobuki Haranomoto, Akira Yamauchi, Hiroko Ito, Masako Izumi
Cinematography Kurataro Takamura
Production Designer Isao Kimura
Original Music Masayoshi Ikeda
Written by Kei Hattori and Kinya Naoi
Produced by Masayuki Takagi
Directed by Seijun Suzuki

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 Kenji falls 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:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: bio for director
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: April 9, 2004

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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