Nikkatsu bankrolled a series of films directed by Toshio Masuda and starring Tetsuya Watari that started in 1968 and ran for six installments with the final film being released in 1969 (which shows you how quickly these were churned out!). Based on the life of a former Japanese gangster named Goro Fujita, the series has now been collected on Blu-ray from Arrow Video and is receiving its first official subtitled release through this collection.
Gangster VIP 1:
The first film introduces us to Goro Fujikawa (Tetsuya Watari), a troubled young man. He had a tough childhood and that's shaped him as he's come into his adult years and as such, he's more than a little bit rough around the edges. Not surprisingly, he falls in with the wrong crowd and winds up joining up with some yakuza, the Aniki gang. He proves his loyalty early on when a would-be assassin from a rival clan tries to take out his boss. Goro deals with the killer immediately, ending the man's life and earning himself a few years behind bars but in exchange for this, he's earned the respect of his peers.
Goro is released from prison three years later and almost instantly finds himself a magnet for trouble when he saves some young women from the clutches of some toughs. Yukiko Hashimoto (Chieko Matsubara) falls head over heels for him pretty much immediately and while he doesn't necessarily want her hanging around, once he finds out the girl who promised to wait for him, Saeko Sugiyama (Yasuko Sanjo), did no such thing, Yukiko doesn't look so bad. He befriends Takeo Tsujikawa (Tamio Kawaji) and they soon realize that the rival clan are still around and out to take things over. Hearts are broken, and people are killed while Goro sets out to settle the score once and for all.
Gangster VIP 2:
This time around, Goro once again find himself a magnet for trouble. Some odd but stylish black and white flashback footage plays during the opening credits as we see Goro arrive in the snowy countryside after a lengthy train ride. He wants to leave his past as a gangster behind him and live a quiet life with Yukiko (Chieko Matsubara). A fight breaks out upon his arrival and he's forced into violence. Hired by the yakuza as an assassin he winds up injured and of course, romance blossoms between he and the woman who tends to his wounds. When he wants to leave and head back to the city, she wants to go with him but as we all know, Goro is destined to live a lonely life and with a sick woman in need of money to pay for her medical expenses, Goro has to return to the life of crime he tried to leave behind.
Lots of violence and stabbing ensues, as well as the requisite amount of melodrama and tears and there's a great scene where he and a few of his cohorts wind up in a night club where we see some unusual dancing girls do their thing. There's also a great and particularly vicious fight scene here that takes place along a water front, a brawl involving guns and knives aplenty and lots of heroic and noble (as well as not so noble) bloodshed. And to top it all off? A young Meiko Kaji (she of Lady Snowblood and Female Convict Scorpion fame) has a decent supporting role in the picture.
The snowy countryside setting is a nice touch and helps to differentiate what is otherwise a story that is unusually similar to the first chapter. Repetition and formula are part of the appeal in a series like this, however.
In his next adventure, which doesn't seem to tie into the earlier films at all, we see Goro sent to collect on a gambling debt owed to his clan. As dutiful as ever, Goro arrives at the home of the man and woman who have welched on what they owe, only to find that they have their own set of problems: the husband, who is dying, is in trouble for fraud, while his wife is also in very poor health. Goro wrestles with his conscience a bit and winds up taking the woman to get the treatment she needs, but of course, this inevitably winds up opening a completely new can of worms for our ‘hero' to fall into.
While all of this is happening, a subplot plays out in which Goro's brother must try to resolve an issue between his wife and some tough yakuza characters.
Outlaw: Goro The Assassin:
This one starts off with a great opening scene in which our titular killer gets involved in a bloody knife fight on the snowy streets of a darkened city. It sets the stage for what's to come as sirens blare in the distance and Goro must make his escape… except he's unable to and he winds up in prison. He's later released, telling his fellow inmate, his brother, that he'll help him once he too is a free man. He wants Goro to give his sister a message, to tell her that he's doing fine and working hard and not to worry, but really, the guy is in pretty rough shape.
Teary eyed, Goro leaves the prison and is back on the streets. He heads into the city to try and find the sister and after searching various seedy locales (affording the film the chance to bring us into a strip club and offer up some skin!) he finds and follows a woman he meets on a bus. Of course, she's in trouble with some local gangster and he intends to solve that problem for her… but at what cost? Lots of fighting and a broken heart or two later, Goro once again finds himself on the wrong side of some dangerous, violent men leading up to a stylish brawl in a train yard, a pretty great fight scene in the rain and no shortage of tragic bloodshed!
Outlaw: Black Dagger:
The penultimate film in the series starts out with a stylish shot showing the flash of Goro's blade. He pulls it from its sheath and lays waste to a few unlucky souls as the lyrics to the opening song tell us about his unfortunate blight and his lack of trustworthy friends. It's an opening you don't forget!
Goro leaves the scene of the battle, bloody but alive, and he looks back on a past love unaware that more yakuza are watching him. Another fight breaks out and one of the men, addressed as ‘young master' and the son of a high ranking gangster, wants to take Goro on by himself. His lady friend, Yuri, shows up just as the fight breaks out and winds up dying in his arms (in yet another train yard scene). She was supposed to be on a train out of town but couldn't leave him and now she's paid the ultimate price!
Perpetually broken-hearted Goro wants revenge, but this ‘young master' guy… he's got some serious connections to some seriously bad dudes. He winds up in Tokyo where he lays low for awhile and works a construction job. When an accident breaks out, he's brave enough to save one of his co-worker's from certain death, injuring himself in the process. When he is treated for his injuries he meets a lovely young nurse, the same lovely young nurse who just might have a connection to the man who killed Yuri… all while two yakuza factions battle over a brothel with one of the soldier's having to defend his wife's honor from a rival boss and his lecherous advances.
The last movie begins with a scene where some gangster rough up a restaurant and kill a man in the streets. This sends the culprits to court but law is no match for the yakuza, they've got the city held in their icy grip! Some gangsters from outside the territory want to get Goro to help them make a move but he just wants to mind his own business and shop for some underwear! While in the store he sees some bad dudes hassling a pretty girl. He puts a stop to it and winds up getting into a scrap on the rooftop.
Of course, the fight gets ugly once Goro proves his skills and the yakuza he defeats decide they want their revenge, setting into motion a bit of a cat and mouse game/gang war thing that extends throughout the duration of the movie, and of course, a romantic subplot. Goro's penchant for attracting violence once again comes into play as the movie takes us to various locations and the fights break out time and time again (in offices, health spas, back alleys, etc.) but when Goro gets gravely injured, will he really come out on top this time?
This final film in the series also features a fantastic scene in a night club featuring live music from some psychedelic garage rock style band who provide the kind of jams that get the kids dancing like mad! The movie cuts back and forth between this scene and a scene where Goro takes on the bad guys underneath them (the floor is glass) in a bloody knife fight, and it makes for some pretty great contrasting imagery.
The first movie sets up the lead character well. We learn how he loses his parents and sister, winds up in a boys home and, essentially, spends the better part of his early life on the wrong side of the tracks. As he wanders a post war Tokyo getting in and out of trouble the series becomes more than a little formulaic, but like the Elvis movies that definitely inspired it, there's plenty of entertainment value to be had regardless. It's made clear very early on, and this continues throughout the six films, that Goro is just as likely to be wounded by affairs of the heart as he is a rival gangster's blade.
Tetsuya Watari carries the series pretty effectively. The guy has a serious star quality about him in that he's charming, handsome, cool and tough but so too can he show good range, making Goro's more sensitive moments (and there are quite a few of them) believable enough to work. Yes, things are geared towards the youth audience of the day so the stories never rise to the level of intensity or ferocious violence as films like Kinji Fukasaku's Battles Without Honor And Humanity series would become so in famous for, but Watari makes for a pretty good tough guy in his own right, even if he's probably lose in a fight with Bunto Sugawara. There's an interesting array of supporting characters that pop up throughout the run as well.
The films are directed with quite a bit of flair and style and while repetition is hard to ignore (the second film is almost a remake of the first picture), even with that being the case things are paced quickly. It's interesting (and odd) to see the same actors play different characters throughout the series. The fights are plenty bloody, sometimes pretty vicious as well, and they happen in the series often enough that they do a fine job of offsetting some of the melodramatics that were clearly intended to keep Goro's romantic plights in the hearts and minds of the intended youth audience to which the series was geared.The Blu-ray:
The six films in the Outlaw Gangster VIP collection debut on Blu-ray from Arrow Video in AVC encoded 1080p high definition transfers taken "from original film elements by Nikkatsu Corporation." The transfers are typically quite nice, offering a colorful image on a trio of well authored 50GB discs. Compression artifacts are never a problem and if any noise reduction was applied here, you can't see it. Some minor print damage shows up in the form of white specks but never massive splices or scratches while color reproduction is generally nice, black levels as well. Detail is solid though not always reference quality, which isn't shocking as these were made fast and probably on a pretty modest budget. Regardless, things shape up quite nicely here. Arrows presents two films on each of the three 50GB discs in the set.Sound:
The only audio track for this set is an Japanese language DTS-HD 2.0 Mono option with removable subtitles available in English only. While range is understandably limited by the source material, the tracks here sound just fine. There are no problems with any hiss or distortion and the levels are properly balanced. There's a reasonable amount of depth present in each mix and the subtitles are clean, clear and easy to read.Extras:
Extras in the set begin with an audio commentary on Outlaw: Gangster VIP from Jasper Sharp of Midnight Eye. Sharp offers a pretty concise breakdown of the first movie, talking up the biographical details of the series' star player and making some interesting observations about the supporting cast members as well. He gives us some background information on the films' real-life inspiration, offers details on the director as well as on the studio's intent with the films and also similar youth market films that were being made around the same time. Also included in the set is a Visual Essay entitled An Outlaw's Odyssey that provides a thirty-eight minute overview of the entire Outlaw Gangster VIP series courtesy of Kevin Gilvear. This makes for an interesting watch as it's a look at the progression of the films that also provides some details on the different participants in their evolution. He also gives a nice overview of the Yakuza film phenomena and notes how youth film elements were worked into these films as well.
Outside of that we also get the original theatrical trailers for each of the six films, a still gallery dedicated to each movie, menus and chapter selection. Additionally we get a nice booklet that contains essays on the film by Chris D., Mark Schilling and Kevin Gilvear. The boxed set also includes DVD versions of the movies as well.Final Thoughts:
Arrow Video's Outlaw Gangster VIP boxed set collection does a very fine job of bringing to home video for the first time in English friendly editions six entertaining films that offer up romance, action, violence and intrigue in spades. The films look and sound really good and some interesting extras detail the history of the pictures nicely. Highly recommended.