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Sympathy For The Underdog (Radiance Films) Blu-ray Review

    Ian Jane

  • Sympathy For The Underdog (Radiance Films) Blu-ray Review

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    Released by: Radiance Films
    Released on: May 16th, 2023.
    Director: Kinji Fukasaku
    Cast: Koji Tsuruta, Tomisaburô Wakayama, Tsunehiko Watase
    Year: 1971
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    Sympathy For The Underdog – Movie Review:

    When Kinji Fukasaku’s seminal 1971 Yakuza film, Sympathy For The Underdog, begins, we meet a former gang leader named Gunji (Koji Tsuruta) who has just been released from a ten year stint behind bars. Open his return to Yokohama, he learns, much to his dismay, that the gang he once lead has been essentially dissolved after his former enemy moved in on his territory and gobbled up the gang, now operating under the guise of a legal business.

    With returning to his old gang no longer an option, Gunji decides to track down a few of his former associates, ones that he feels he can trust, in hopes that they can once again work together and start a new venture. It doesn’t take him long to realize that there isn’t any opportunity for him in Yokohama anymore, so he packs up his crew and heads to Okinawa (still occupied by American forces after the Second World War).

    Okinawa proves to be the wild west of the east, and Gunji makes the most of the fact that the island territory is really devoid of much competition. No one single gangs rules the territory, and Gunji decides to start consolidating power with his gang by attempting to take out a smaller gang involved in bootlegging whiskey. With one victory under his belt, Gunji decides to become increasingly brazen in his attempts to take out his rivals, culminating in a gang war with a Yakuza crew connected to his former boss from before he went to prison.

    If The Wild Bunch was Sam Peckinpah’s look at the end of the American west and the tough men that built it, then Sympathy For The Underdog is Kinji Fukasaku’s look at a man dealing with the end of the Yakuza code he has always lived his life by. Thematically, the films are similar, they even build up to appropriately violent and bloody conclusions, even if the settings are very different. Like The Wild Bunch, Sympathy For The Underdog sees an aging man get the gang back together for one more go of it, but Fukasaku’s movie also serves as a metaphor for the changing state of the country in which it is set and the influence of western culture on that country. When Gunji makes the trip to Okinawa, we see firsthand how American culture, like jazz music, has had an impact on the locals who seem to prefer this new music to more traditional Japanese forms of entertainment.

    Like most of Fukasaku’s Yazkua and crime films, this one doesn’t shy away from the violence, though it saves most of the chaos and carnage for the final reel. Frequently shot with handheld cameras to give certain scenes a documentary look and feel, the film is appropriately gritty. Koji Tsuruta is really solid in the lead role, playing his gangster, almost perpetually clad in a slick suit and dark sunglasses, with an effortless sense of cool. Looks for Tomisaburô Wakayama, famous for his turn as Itto Ogami in the Lone Wolf & Cub films, in a supporting role.

    Sympathy For The Underdog – Blu-ray Review:

    Sympathy For The Underdog arrives on Blu-ray from Radiance Films in an AVC encoded 1080p high definition transfer provided by Studio Canal framed at 2.35.1 widescreen on a the Region A/B locked 25GB disc. The transfer is a good one, presenting the film in very nice shape. Colors are reproduced nicely and quite accurately and the image is free of any noise reduction or edge enhancement issues. The picture is very clean, showing really no real print damage at all while retaining the expected film grain. Detail is quite nice, looking much better than the older domestic DVD edition that came out years ago. Compression artifacts are never a problem and there’s good depth and texture to take in.

    The only audio option on the disc is a 24-bit DTS-HD 2.0 Mono track in Japanese with optional subtitles provided in English only. This is a fairly dialogue heavy film despite frequent scenes of intense action, but the track handles everything well, giving things some punch when the movie calls for it and doing a very nice job with the score and the punchy gunshot sound effects. No problems with any hiss or distortion and the levels are balanced nicely. The subtitles are clean, clear, easy to read and free of any noticeable typos.

    Extras start off with an audio commentary by yakuza film expert Nathan Stuart that makes for an interesting listen. It does a great job of breaking down where Fukasaku’s career was at this point in addition to going over the cast and crew details, the film’s production history, the themes that it explores and its importance in the Yakuza film pantheon.

    A twenty-seven minute interview with Fukasaku biographer Olivier Hadouchi is interesting as it allows Hadouchi to cover where the storied filmmaker’s career was at this point in time, his relationship with Toei, the production history of the film, Fukasaku’s work on the picture and how it compares to the other Yakuza films that he made. The disc also includes a visual essay on Okinawa on screen by film historian and author Aaron Gerow that clocks in at twenty-six minutes which covers the history of the city in which the story is set, how it’s changed over the years and the significance that is has to Yakuza films and Japanese cinema in general.

    A trailer for the feature finishes up the extra features on the disc.

    As to the packaging, Radiance supplies, with the first pressing, some really nice reversible sleeve artwork featuring newly commissioned artwork by Time Tomorrow on one side and art from the original Japanese theatrical poster on the reverse. This release also comes packaged with a limited edition full-color booklet featuring an essay on the film by Bastian Meiresonne titled ‘Sympathy For The Underdog - A (Hi)story Of Consideration’ that does a nice job of exploring the film, alongside and archival review for the movie written in 1971 by Tetsuo Iijima. The nicely illustrated booklet also includes cast and crew notes and credits for the Blu-ray release. This limited edition first pressing is being pressed in 3,000 copies and comes with a removable Obi strip, which is a nice touch.

    Sympathy For The Underdog - The Final Word:

    An early effort in the director’s run of Yakuza films, Sympathy For The Underdog may not hit with quite the same amount of impact as some of this later efforts in the genre but it lays the groundwork for what would come and still manages to pack quite a punch. The Blu-ray edition from Radiance Films is a strong one, presenting the film in a really nice presentation and with a host of interesting extras. Highly recommended!

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