As Retaliation's opening credits play, the movie's central theme cues up. It sounds like a blend of three different songs: a chunk of score from one of the spaghetti westerns that Tarantino loves so much, the thunderous repetition of war drums, and just at the end, the surfer twang of an electric guitar. Retaliation is kind of like that: a blend of different genres and concepts that may not create something coherent, but are certainly interesting to see together. Directed by Yasuharu Hasebe, it's not as effective as Massacre Gun, the other film of his that Arrow has recently brought to Blu-ray in the United States, but even in its slow patches, Hasebe is trying to find new ways to wring excitement from a set of ideas Nikkatsu was happy to dust off and reuse again and again.
Akira Kobayashi plays Jiro Sagae, who has just finished a seven-year stint for killing a gang member. He is no more than a few steps from the prison gates when he is confronted by Hino (Jo Shishido), the older brother of his victim. Hino has had nothing on his mind but killing Jino in revenge since his brother's death, but his girlfriend manages to interrupt their first showdown. Jiro then returns home and learns from his Godfather that other gangs have taken over in his absence. Jiro goes and talks to Hazama, another Godfather who watched over his while he was away, and is offered the chance to run a city, Takagawa, if he can not only handle the farmers who own the land and the factory owners who want to move in, but wrest it from the control of Tono and Aoba, the two gangs warring over it. He agrees on the condition that he'll be allowed to run the city as he pleases, and assembles a team that includes an actor (Eiji Go) and a card sharp (Tatsuya Fuji) as moles in the Aoba gang, two singers as point men, and Hino (yes, Hino) as his right-hand man.
Although Massacre Gun is a stylish and often impressively-directed movie, it didn't convey those elements through a distinct or specific voice so much as the combination of a jazzy mood and exceptionally well-executed action sequences. Retaliation has more of a distinct and unusual fingerprint, with Hasebe finding unique and unexpected angles from which to capture the action. One early scene of Jiro first meeting his men at a dinner table is shot almost entirely from the ceiling looking down so that every member of the group can be in the shot at the same time. During fight scenes, he makes the slightly odd choice to obscure some of the battle by constantly allowing objects in the foreground, such as chairs or support beams or even blades of grass to intrude, out-of-focus. This prevents the movie from being entirely engaging with some of its action, but also emphasizes the depth of the frame, as if Retaliation was a movie made with the intention of being post-converted into 3D. There is also an incredible bit of cross-cutting where one of the moles is being tortured and the other escapes to a dance floor upstairs to try and maintain his cover, but can't help but imagine what's happening to his partner.
Although the material is pretty standard gangster stuff, Hasebe seems disinterested in action, staging the story more like a slow-boil thriller. Much of the movie finds the characters sitting around plotting, or waiting to see how their plot has shaken out. Although there are battle scenes between gangs, in addition to his odd perspective on them, he also frequently cuts away from them, getting back to the suspense aspect of Jiro trying to out-think his competition. Jiro may be a gangster, and a smart one, but he's clearly hoping that he'll be able to leverage his success into a legitimate business that still benefits Hazama. As such, he forms a friendly relationship with the farmers who own the land using his cover as a real estate agent, and even opens himself up to a blossoming romantic relationship with one of the farmers' daughters.
Throughout it all, Hino stands by his side, and their friendship grows, despite Hino's repeated assurances that the moment the Tono and Aoba are out of Takagawa, he's going to kill Jiro. He sits in the real estate office and offers his cynical read on many of Jiro's ideas, yet is also the first to jump into action when the situation calls for it. When the film takes a sharp (but not necessarily unexpected) turn in the final twenty minutes, the two men battle side-by-side, unexpected and unlikely brothers in arms. It's a bloody, drawn-out finish that Hasebe pulls off with a reasonable amount of flair. It may not be nearly as spectacular as the finale of Massacre Gun, but it delivers -- even as it closes in on the only resolution possible, it finds new and interesting aspects to focus on within the chaos.
The Video and Audio
A photo gallery closes out the extras. An original theatrical trailer for Retaliation is also included.