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August 08, 2018

Street Mobster

Street Mobster poster.jpg

Gendai Yakuza: Hitokiri Yota
Kinji Fukasaku - 1972
Arrow Video BD Region A

The title roughly translates as "Modern Yakuza: Murderous Hoodlum". The title character as played by Bunta Sugawara, is undoubtedly a hoodlum, but arguably is not yakuza, at least not in the classic sense. His character, Okita Isamu, and by extension, Fukasaku, expresses disdain for the ritualized aspects of yakuza life. Unlike the more classic films, no one extends an empty palm as a form of greeting. The viewer sees bandaged hands, but the only moment of cutting a pinkie finger as a sign of contrition is Isamu's impromptu and ultimately futile gesture. There is no honor among thieves here.

The basic narrative outline is familiar, following a gangster's rise and fall. Announcing itself as being a fictionalized account of true events was part of a new trend at the time for yakuza films. Fukasaku, who rewrote the screenplay to help set it apart from similar films, mixes hand-held documentary style filmmaking with dutch angles, freeze frames, and a few highly stylized visual moments. The "true story" aspect is anchored with Isamu's off-screen narration, introducing himself as having been born on August 15, 1945, the same day that Japan officially surrendered on World War II.

Isamu is shown having a difficult childhood, in extreme poverty, with an uncaring mother who primarily earned money as a prostitute in the margins of Tokyo. This is followed by leading a street gang, and imprisonment for killing the member of an established yakuza gang. Isamu could belong to one of the gangs that use legitimate business fronts, with members dressed in uniform black business suits. What keeps him as a perpetual outsider is his attraction to getting into fights with other gang members, especially those he perceives of as arrogant.

The yakuza films in general are about masculine societies. Isamu steps into contemporary Tokyo of 1972 after several years in prison, noting the influence of "hippie culture" with men with long hair looking similar to girls. One might argue that the yakuza films, and the existence of the yakuza, are a reflection of crisis of masculinity following Japan's defeat, a sense of humiliation that was previously unknown to the country. Isamu chooses to live in a way that he is always physically asserting himself, and his sense of being a man. His one relationship with a woman is with a prostitute that he raped and sold to a brothel prior to his imprisonment. His sense of entitlement to be with other women conflicts with his pained sense of loyalty to her. Isamu's uncompromising sense of self ultimately leads to his inevitable violent death.

The blu-ray comes with a commentary track by Tom Mes, helping to position Street Mobster within the careers of Kinji Fukusaku and Bunta Sugawara. Mes also talks about actor Noboru Ando's early life in crime, with his acting career taking place following six years in prison. Close-ups of Ando show a knife scar on his left cheek. Mes also discusses how Street Mobster marked a change in yakuza films from the "romantic chivalry" series that frequently starred Ken Takakura, the type that Paul Schrader cited when introducing the genre to U.S. cinephiles. There is also a booklet with notes by Jasper Sharp that is of interest for going into more detail on Sugawara's life and early acting career.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at August 8, 2018 02:02 PM