Tuesday, May 10, 2011


Hideo Gosha's 1971 film is the second yakuza film in a row that I've seen set during the early Showa period, i.e. the late 1920s, early in the reign of Emperor Hirohito. I don't know if that's an especially popular period to set these films in, or whether it reflected a nostalgia for the Twenties equivalent to what Americans have often felt. Like many Japanese period pieces, the sense of period isn't really that strong. The music score is noirish rather than simply jazzy, more appropriate for a movie set in the Forties or later. It may simply be that Japanese writers and audiences find these years important, since the nation was on the brink of the adventurism that led to Nanking and Pearl Harbor and Hiroshima. In both The Wolves and Seijun Suzuki's Tattooed Life Manchuria is described as a land of opportunity where businessmen or ordinary people out for a fresh start -- not to mention the army -- can make a killing. The period atmosphere, such as it is, may be that of dread, such as Americans might feel when a movie evokes any of the many moments when their nation supposedly lost its assumed innocence. For the Japanese, The Wolves adds the irony of yakuza thugs being manipulated by malignant forces beyond their control, with destiny against them.

The Japanese government celebrated the ascension of Hirohito (i.e. the Showa emperor) by declaring an amnesty for many convicts, including members of two rival families who'd feuded over railroad labor contracts. A representative battle of this war is fought in a movie theater, the mayhem interrupting the narrator's presentation of a silent movie. While Iwahashi (Tatsuya Nakadai) and Ozeki (Noboru Ando), representing the rival gangs, cool off in stir, a powerful politician brokers a truce between the clans, ushering in changing times and visions of a national yakuza network in league with Japan's expansionist militarists. Released by the amnesty, Iwahashi and Ozeki both feel that they were let out too early, before their clans' rivalry could resolve itself naturally without their complicating presence. But events are evolving rapidly and not according to nature or tradition. Iwahashi's brother was in love with the daughter of their boss, but she's now being pushed into an arranged marriage with the new boss of Ozeki's gang -- yet the brother can't keep away from her. Meanwhile, a mysterious sister-act of parasol-toting assassins are attacking people in a manner that looks like a cleanup of loose ends.

Something more has gone on while Iwahashi was away than he initially noticed, including an unthinkable betrayal of the yakuza code of honor and loyalty. Once enemies, he and Ozeki become allies, upholding a fragment of the honor code that both clans seem to have abandoned....

A visual highlight of The Wolves is Gosha's staging of the climactic action during a wildly colorful night-time festival

The Wolves has the kind of intrigue that fascinates many fans of gangster films. Gosha's effort is more like a Godfather movie than the grittier, more cynical yakuza films of Kinji Fukasaku, and Gosha aspires to more picturesque compositions than Fukasaku's handheld hurlyburly. Wolves ends up often seeming overproduced whenever Gosha tries too hard for the beautiful moments on the beach. His complex narrative lacks the suspenseful energy of his earlier samurai film, Goyokin, and the final fight between Iwahashi and his treacherous boss is protracted beyond all reason. He gets good menace from the parasol girls, but they're eliminated from the story too early after it seemed that they were being built up for the hero's final battle. But if Wolves lacks Goyokin's near-perfect pacing, it gets by on the reliably strong performances of Nakadai (who must have been to Gosha what Mifune was to Kurosawa) and Ando (a real-life ex yakuza who became a star by playing himself), along with a solid supporting cast. As a yakuza filmmaker Gosha may not measure up to Fukasaku or Suzuki -- on the evidence I've seen he was better at samurai stuff -- but he still put together a solid story that'll resonate with global crime film fans despite its flaws.

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