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December 08, 2005

On the Street with Fuller and Fukasaku

Street of No Return
Samuel Fuller - 1989
Fantoma DVD

Street Mobster
Gendai yakuza: hito-kiri yota
Kinji Fukusaku - 1972
Home Vision Entertainment Region 1 DVD

In the entertaining "Making of" documentary that accompanies Street of No Return, Samuel Fuller discusses how the history of humans consists of violence and action. He could well be describing some of the films of Kinji Fukasaku. The character of Isamu, played by Bunta Sugawara is not too different from Cliff Robertson or Richard Widmark in his nihilism. Fukasaku's film was made when he was re-defining the Yakuza genre, while Fuller's film was his last film made for theatrical release.

In his autobiography, The Third Face, Sam Fuller notes that the film was re-edited by the producer, Jacques Bral (not to be confused with Jacques Brel). I'm not sure if Fuller's version would have been significantly better. The story, from a novel by David Goodis, involves a pop singer involved with a gangster's girlfriend, and a Chinatown plot involving race riots, crack and a real estate scam. I don't know if this was a coincidence but along with using a writer associated with Francois Truffaut, Streets was photographed by Truffaut cinematographer Pierre-William Glenn. Filmed in Lisbon, the film takes place in an American city. In The Nakes Kiss, Fuller would film a couple, with just a couple pieces of furniture, and manage to transcend his sparse sets to convey a dream of Venice, Italy. In Street, everything looks like it was shot on a phony set, even when it wasn't. Fuller, who witnessed race riots as a young reporter, has staged what looks more like a large street fight on a paper strewn set. One could either be generous and say that Fuller did the best with his available resources, or view the film as the misguided imagining of America by someone who's lost touch with his country.

Even if the film is disappointing, it is still fun to see Fuller talk about it in the documentary. Sam Fuller was one of Hollywood's great raconteurs. Even if his logic seemed faulty or he got his facts wrong, Fuller was always fun to listen to, rattling one story after another with his ever present cigar. One wishes that Fuller had been able to do the commentary as well, instead of Keith Carradine who seems to have trouble remembering the film. Carradine's singing and songwriting don't seem to have improved much since Nashville. Street also has the dubious distinction of having the title song co-written by Fuller. Fuller's wife and daughter have cameo performances. Sam Fuller's appearance is like a comparison of Street with his past films: he is reduced to a shadow.

Street Mobster begins somewhat like Street with No Name with street fighting. The main character, Isamu, is a thug who lacks interest in rising in the ranks of the Japanese underworld and has contempt for the elaborate rules regarding Yakuza life. The film can be viewed as a warm-up for Fukasaku's five film series, The Yakuza Papers: Battles without Honor and Humanity. Isamu and his small gang are caught up between the larger "families". In prior Yakuza films, emphasis was placed on characters living within the code. Fukasaku's gangster films are Darwinian excercises where characters continually change alliances, break promises and take whatever action is needed for self-preservation. Fukasaku undermines the genre tradition of the Yakuza cutting off his pinky finger as a form of great apology.

As Fukasaku's Yakuza films are also examinations of the cultural shifts in Japan following World War II, this quote is instructive in explaining his view: "I was working in a weapons factory that was a regular target for enemy bombing. During the raids, even though we were friends working together, the only thing we would be thinking of was self-preservation. We would try to get behind each other or beneath dead bodies to avoid the bombs. When the raid was over, we didn't really blame each other, but it made me understand about the limits of friendship. I also had to clean up all the dead bodies after the bombings. I'm sure those experiences have influenced the way I look at violence."

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at December 8, 2005 06:54 PM


I have seen woefully little of Fukasaku's work, especially considering how many films he has made, but it is interesting that the Darwinian philosophy that you mention and that he references in his quote preoccupied him until the end of his career, as evidenced by the BATTLE ROYALE films.

Posted by: nilblogette at December 9, 2005 04:10 PM