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Retaliation - Limited Edition
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.
Retaliation arrives in packaging that complements Arrow's Massacre Gun release. Once again, the combo pack case is adorned with vibrant, comic-book-like artwork by Ian McEwan, featuring the protagonists surrounded by opposing gangs (I'm still not a huge fan of the way he draws Shishido's iconic cheeks). The two-disc set comes in a slightly thicker transparent Amaray case to house the Blu-ray and the DVD copy, and there is a booklet featuring an essay by Jasper Sharp and more of McEwan's illustrations.
The Video and Audio
The 2.39:1 1080p AVC presentation of Retaliation isn't quite as handsome as Arrow's presentation of Massacre Gun, but that doesn't mean it's not a good transfer. On this Blu-ray, this is a hazy, gauzy looking film, with extremely soft texture and detail that creates an almost dream-like appearance. Light bounces off white or bright clothing in such a way that the edges of sleeves and jackets glow with a hint of blue or red. Color saturation is a touch anemic (almost as if the film has been colored in with pastels) and black levels lean toward gray. As a newcomer to the film, I admit I can't tell whether the picture's finer nuances have been lost to time or if the appearance is a stylistic effect, but I can say these issues don't detract from what is overall a pleasing, film-like image. Although Retaliation doesn't have the sharpness or clarity of other Japanese movies from the same era, it still looks as if Arrow has done the best they could with what they had, and most viewers should have no trouble taking these limitations in stride, given this is certainly the best presentation of Retaliation available anywhere in the world. Sound is a decent LPCM Mono track. Free of crackle and hiss, dialogue can sound low at times and the occasional sound effect is a tad anemic, but such quibbles come with the age of the film. Of course, English subtitles are provided.
The selection of extras for Retaliation are essentially identical to those for Massacre Gun, although the content is different -- both the Tony Rayns Interview and Jo Shishido Interview get companion chapters here (31:25 and 13:33, respectively, and both in HD). In Massacre Gun's interview, Rayns covered the history of Nikkatsu; here, he focuses on director Yasuharu Hasebe and Shishido, taking the viewer on a little tour of the two men's history, including Hasebe's workaholic attitude and eventual departure from the studio when their direction turned toward roman porno, and Shishido's notorious cheek implants and history with the studio. Shishido talks about the differences between Hasebe and Seijun Suzuki, Akira Kobayashi, and which directors he enjoyed working with ("I did not like the directors who wanted to make masterpieces!"). He also looks at some promotional artwork from TV shows that he worked on, including a Japanese version of "Candid Camera" (!). Similar to MG's extras, neither is exceptionally specific to the movie in question, but fans will likely enjoy these informative pieces anyway.
A photo gallery closes out the extras. An original theatrical trailer for Retaliation is also included.
Yasuharu Hasebe's Retaliation, similar to if not as extreme as Seijun Suzuki's Branded to Kill, finds its director looking to liven up the formula Nikkatsu was handing out. It's an unusual film, but that stamp of creativity and invention is what makes it worth a look. Arrow's Blu-ray goes nicely with their set for Massacre Gun, from the packaging down to the supplements. Recommended.
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