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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Blackmail Is My Life
Blackmail Is My Life
Home Vision Entertainment // Unrated // January 6, 2004
List Price: $29.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Stuart Galbraith IV | posted January 12, 2004 | E-mail the Author
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An enjoyable but generally routine crime melodrama, Blackmail is My Life (Kyokatsu koso waga jinsei, 1968) was thrown together in great haste, admits director Kinji Fukasaku, who adapted Shinji Fujiwara's story over a weekend. During the DVD's exclusive interview, Fukasaku even forgets the name of the movie, referring to his notes to jog his memory. That's not to say the picture is a forgettable work, but it's no great sociopolitical expose either and much inferior to, say, Fukasaku's more personal If You Were Young: Rage, made two years later.

The film's story concerns Shun (Hiroki Matsukata), a blackmailer not so much obsessed with, as the DVD's jacket suggests, "keep[ing] his freewheeling lifestyle intact," but rather with his law-abiding but depressing youth, spent busing tables and cleaning toilets as his crooked bosses got rich. Accidentally uncovering a scheme by one of them to water down Scotch sold to bars and nightclubs, Shun joins ex-gangster Seki (Hideo Murota, very good here), former boxer Zero (Akira Jo), and high school dropout Otoki (Tomomi Sato) in the first of many blackmail schemes. They become an adept if smalltime foursome, with Shun even finding a girlfriend in one of his former victims, a sexy movie star (Yoko Mihara). The stakes are raised when Zero's father, who is black, is murdered by drug dealers, and later when the mini-gang become involved with a high-stakes memorandum. Everyone is anxious to get their hands on the document, held by a rich loan shark (Kenjiro Ishiyama, Detective "Bos'n" from High and Low) for the international political implications of its contents.

Blackmail is My Life was made at Shochiku Studios, but pretty much looks like a crime film in the style of rival Toei, where Fukasaku spent most of his career. He even imported Toei contract player Matsukata to star, along with free-lance actors like Ishiyama and Tetsuro Tamba (in a cameo as a crooked lobbyist type) who specialized in these types of roles.

The picture is highly stylized, with a dizzying number of black & white and tinted flashbacks (to get inside Shun's head) and myriad freeze frames used for dramatic punctuation. The latter effect is overdone, with the picture coming dangerously close at times to resembling a slide show. Add to this a smattering of slow motion and other visual distortion effects and the result, if nothing else is consistently interesting to look at.

It sounds good, too. Hajime Kaburagi's (Tokyo Drifter) score is quite excellent, a pulsating mass of twanging ereki and group sounds music.

The film is not without its share of problems. Biggest among them is Shun's relationship with the actress, which is completely unbelievable. Fukasaku cuts back and forth between their first meetings (in black and white), when he beat and raped her, to present day when she practically worships him. He, in very Toei yakuza movie fashion, uses her as a trophy lover and audience for his long, wistful monologues about murdered friends and lost opportunities. Pure macho male fantasy stuff.

Video & Audio

Blackmail is My Life is presented in its original Shochiku GrandScope aspect ratio of 2.35:1, with 16:9 enhancement. The image is sharp and has color good, but the source elements (possibly an internegative) are unaccountably grainy at times, especially during nighttime scenes. Sometimes the film looks clean and clear, on par with Home Vision's other Fukasaku release, If You Were Young: Rage. Some shots, however, notably during a big action set piece at the 44:03 mark, are downright hard to make out. The mono sound is fine, however, and the removable English subtitles are clear and well translated.

Extras

As with If You Are Young: Rage, the main extra is a lengthy (18-minute) interview with Fukasaku, conducted just months prior to his death in January 2003. The director rambles on redundantly at times, but does offer some interesting observations contrasting Shochiku with Toei, and how his early life in postwar Japan influenced the films he chose to make. Both the interview and Patrick Macias's informative liner notes have major spoilers, so be sure to watch the movie before looking at either.

Stuart Galbraith IV is a Los Angeles and Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf -- The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune. He is presently writing a new book on Japanese cinema for Taschen.

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