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Savant Review:

Afraid to Die

Afraid to Die
1960 / Color / 2:35 anamorphic 16:9 / 96 min. / Karakkaze yaro
Starring Yukio Mishima, Ayako Wakao, Keizo Kawasaki, Eiji Funakoshi, Takashi Shimura, Yoshie Mizutani
Cinematography Hiroshi Murai
Written by Hideo Ando and Ryuzo Kikushima
Produced by Hiroaki Fujii, Masaichi Nagata
Directed by Yasuzo Masumura

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

This latest surprise from Fantoma is yet another Yasuzo Masumura film made in a style totally different from the pathological Moju and the wild satire Giants and Toys. Afraid to Die is a Yakuza gangster picture but not an ordinary one, as the intellectual Masumura seems incapable of making an ordinary movie. This would appear to be a response to Yakuza films, and as such it replaces their outlaw-chic celebration of criminal outcasts, with a much more downbeat appraisal of the genre. An even greater draw is the fact that the film stars celebrity writer and legendary seppuku suicide Yukio Mishima, a cult figure here ever since Paul Schrader's poetic Mishima in 1985.


Gangster underboss Takeo Asahina (Yukio Mishima) hasn't even been released from Tokyo prison, and already his rival underboss Susumu Aikawa (Eiji Funakoshi) is trying to have him murdered. Takeo's wounding of Susumu is what sent him to prison in the first place, and now he finds that an out-of-town, asthmatic hitman has been assigned to rub him out. Ditching his old flame Yoshie (Masako Katori), Takeo pursues Ayako (Yoshie Koizumi), a cashier in a movie theater and the sister of a communist striker. Takeo's adopted brother and uncle Gohei (Takashi Shimura) encourage him to assassinate Susumu without delay, but Takeo openly admits to being a coward - instead, he kidnaps Susumu's child and holds her for ransom. When Ayako becomes pregnant from Takeo's rape, she suddenly decides to reform him and make a life together, proving herself a stronger influence than he. Takeo has a change of heart, but going soft is not a good idea for a Yakuza underboss with enemies.

Hitting as hard as a Sam Fuller underworld film, and packed with comment on crime, politics and business, Afraid to Die is so interesting as a drama that one forgets how little action it has. There are only three instances of gunplay and almost all of the violence is directed toward helpless women and kidnap victims.

Savant's no authority, but the few Yakuza films he's seen (and the American Yakuza, written by Paul Schrader) pay lip service to the Japanese gangsters as losers, misfits, and lost men - and then use every means at their disposal to glamorize them. Even the bad guys have all kinds of girls hanging around, and the heroes are austere, vendetta-driven zealots with boundless reserves of honor and dignity. Many use swords like modern day samurai.

Not so here. Yukio Mishima is excellent as a true anti-hero, a slouching slug who whines to the police, dodges urgings to strike his enemies, and avoids confrontation at any price. His own half-brother, an ex-lawyer who we at first think is going to be the 'noble twin,' Pat O'Brien stereotype of American gangster lore, repeatedly calls Takeo a coward to his face. The brother is the one with the opportunity to go straight, but he turns out to be ruthless as well.

What Takeo mostly does is brutalize women, and his relationship with the spirited Ayako is the best part of the film. His craven attempts to force her to have an abortion or to slip her a 'German abortion pill' are as about as low as we've seen a gangster get in any country's genre films. We get the message: Yakuza are slime, not citizens. They constantly betray one another. Money is the only thing of value, and beloved relatives are a fatal liability because they are a way to get to men who otherwise have no weaknesses.

Masumura injects other stinging commentary into the show. The Yakuza hire themselves out as strike-busting thugs for business. Ayako's brother's strike group defends themselves against an attacking Yakuza mob, and the ensuing fight gives the cops the pretext to move in and arrest the offenders - the strikers only, of course. The big score in the film comes when rival gangs play blackmail with a new pharmaceutical that's too dangerous to be marketed. 500 deadly dose samples of the pill are stolen from a company that would rather pay ransom than admit that it tried to cover up trials where human testers died.

Afraid to Die moves fast and has a surprise every minute, at least for us Occidentals. Like the other Masumura pictures, it leaves familiar Toho family films in the dust with its dramatic and political sophistication. Best of all, the script is as tight as a drum. There's no problem whatsoever in keeping characters and faces straight. The film also breaks what Savant thought to be a rule among Japanese studios. Takashi Shimura, the most recognizable Japanese actor save for Toshiro Mifune, has a big (and good) role in this Daiei film. I had thought the various studio stables over there were kept completely separate.

Yukio Mishima makes a very good slimeball hero. He shambles through scenes in a leather jacket, and his macho thuggery is very convincing - he looks like such a creep, you'd never believe he was Japan's most celebrated writer, or that he would have the guts to commit such a shocking suicide ten years later. Here he's an actor 15 years ahead of his time.

The heart of every Yakuza film is a dilemma where the 'hero' has an impossible choice to make, between staying loyal to a solemn pledge or saving a loved one, etc. The usual solution involves some kind of personal sacrifice. Afraid to Die tosses all of this in a can. The hero is no less a jackal than the other vermin criminals and thus Masumura paints a probably much truer picture of the world of crime. The only fingers that are cut off belong to innocent torture victims.

Afraid to Die ends instead more like a Noir-inflected classic American gangster epic. Takeo gets soft enough to change his stripes and swear fidelity to his deserving girl, and you know he's in trouble. When he goes to buy baby clothes for his unborn son, he might as well have a big target painted on his chest. A set of escalator stairs stands in for the rainy steps of a church, but in all other particulars, the film ends in fine James Cagney fashion.

Fantoma's DVD of Afraid to Die is only slightly less stunning than its predecessors in the Yasuzo Masumura series. The picture quality is very good in all respects. It tends toward a greenishness that appears to be a part of the production design, but also might be from the filmstock used back in 1960 by Daiei - even the blacks have green in them. But there's still an acceptable range of color, and fleshtones are healthy, so the image has a pleasing originality about it. The punchy jazz score (on the evidence of three films, Masumura seems to go in for this) comes across nicely too.The extras include a trailer full of spoilers and the usual thorough Fantoma text resources. I was disappointed when I couldn't navigate past the first page of an essay on Mishima, but maybe that glitch was a problem with my specific player.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Afraid to Die rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Good
Sound: Good
Supplements: Trailer, text essays
Packaging: Amaray case
Reviewed: April 11, 2002

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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