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What Asian Films Have You Been Watching Recently?

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  • Brotherhood's Honor and Humanity (兄弟仁義) (Japan, 1966) [TV] – 3.5/5
    A ninkyo yakuza vehicle for young enka singer Saburo Kitajima, whose 1965 hit song served as the basis. Somewhat unexpectedly, this grew into a seminal yakuza film series with nine instalments until 1971. The start was more modest, however, the first film being produced as black & white supporting feature to the fifth Abashiri Prison picture, and Kitajima only given the 2nd billing after box office insurance Hiroki Matsukata (Koji Tsuruta gets the prestigious guest star billing). This film sets the series’ theme immediately with an opening sakazuki scene (cup exchange / yakuza brotherhood ceremony) that would be followed by many more in the sequels. Kitajima is a gambler rascal who gets caught cheating in the gambling table, but pleads honourable boss Hideo Murata to free him for three days so he could complete his quest to reunite with long lost mother. Murata, upright successor Matsukata and wanderer Tsuruta stake their honour and business to grant him his wish, while rotten rival boss Toru Abe sees an opportunity to hijack their hot springs operations. Future genre master Kosaku Yamashita helms the film – the series provided him with an opportunity to hone his skills (*) – with his trademark eye for giri / ninjo (duty vs. compassion) conflict mixed with big emotions. The finesse of his later masterworks may not quite be here, and the script cuts some corners, but there’s not much to complain besides that. Kitajima isn’t the most charismatic lead, but he has slightly punkish out-of-the-left-field appeal. A solid genre entry.

    * Yamashita had been directing since 1961, including some high profile pictures for Kinnosuke Nakamura, but he had not quite become the in-demand top tier director he’d later be known as. Prior to this film he had only directed 9 films in 5 years, whereas a few years later he’d be turning out near similar numbers of films annually.

    Brotherhood's Honor and Humanity 2 (続兄弟仁義) (Japan, 1966) [TV] – 3/5
    Switch to colour. A higher budgeted sequel to the black & white original, though still paired with yet another Abashiri Prison film. Kitajima redeems his well earned first billing this time as the film's lone lead, with Tsuruta and Murata providing the usual support. They play different characters than in the previous film, as they would in the subsequent films. Kitajima is a yakuza who comes to aid Minoru Oki and his clan to make an honest living in the construction business, but rotten gambling boss Hosei Komatsu starts making trouble until the boss of bosses Murata interferes. Yamashita continues as the director, but he and screenwriter Akira Murao seem to be on autopilot. They handle the film with professionalism and deliver an entirely passable ninkyo film, but there's no particular passion or inspiration evident on screen. Added comedy relief and a filler kid character don't really help. Two thirds into the film it however comes alive big time with a great sakazuki scene and the usual bloody end rampage. Not a bad movie despite its shortcomings, but probably the least accomplished entry in the series.

    Brotherhood's Honor and Humanity: Three Brothers from the Kanto District (兄弟仁義 関東三兄弟) (Japan, 1966) [TV] – 3.5/5
    Part 3. Kitajima is a slightly reckless, but good hearted punk who allies with a decent yakuza clan who are looking after the local fishermen. He and clansman Kotaro Satomi eventually become sworn brothers in one of the most touching and visually stylish sakazuki scenes in any ninkyo film. Bad guys Tatsuo Endo and Tomisaburo Wakayama (who is terrific as egocentric boss looking down at everyone) resort to deadly violence, resulting in an even more memorable posthumous sakazuki ceremony involving one of our now-dead heroes. Third brother Koji Tsuruta comes to aid in his usual, but this time rather poorly justified guest role. Honourable but affiliated with the villains Hideo Murata fares much better and gets one of the film's best scenes when he has to choose sides. The ending delivers a typically good massacre, preceded by probably the only instance of ninkyo heroes wearing full rainwear (hat included) that I can recall ever seeing! Admittedly this little detail may not be fully appreciated by anyone but the most ardent genre fans. All in all, this is quite a good film, with director Yamashita's beautifully romantic and old fashioned ninkyo aesthetics and a number of great scenes compensating for what is otherwise a relatively standard tale.

    Brotherhood's Honor and Humanity: Return of the Three Brothers from the Kanto District (兄弟仁義 続・関東三兄弟) (Japan, 1967) [TV] – 3/5
    Part 4. This is probably the most uneven film in the series, with several good set pieces that don’t quite come together. The tale opens in spring with cherry trees in full bloom. Kitajima is a member of a decent gang who gets in fights with less honourable rivals. As the situation escalates out of control, Kitajima alone takes responsibility, departs with his finger, and takes a hike. A great matatabi montage follows, only to be over in two minutes (a missed opportunity for sure, as this could have lead the series to fresh paths). We then jump forward in time by exactly two years, so it’s the cherry blossom season once again! Kitajima is back with his gang, and the film is back to ground zero. This time he has to watch out for a civilian-turned avenger whose yakuza father got killed in an earlier nagurikomi scene. Unfortunately this character is soon forgotten and only brought back for the climax (another missed opportunity here). The series’ trademark sakazuki scenes however come in plenty, and are as good as one would expect. There’s probably no need to mention about the cherry trees adding to the film’s visual appeal. But the title does require some clarification. Despite being called “Return of the Three Brothers…”, none of the three brothers from the previous film return. It’s just the same actors in different roles. It didn’t matter; it was just 1960s Japanese marketing business as usual.

    Brotherhood's Honor and Humanity: The Truth About Kanto Life (兄弟仁義 関東命知らず) (Japan, 1967) [TV] – 4/5
    Part 5. This is the best film in the series! Kitajima is a small time punk who arrives in Yokohama in hopes of making easy money. He and his thugs go against Kyosuke Machida's honourable dock worker clan on rotten rival Toru Abe's behalf. Kitajima is of course being used by Abe, and eventually comes to realize that, but it is nevertheless a novelty to see a ninkyo protagonist play for the evil team for a relatively long time. It's a terrific role for Kitajima, who gets to be both reckless and noble in the course of the film. That mix seemed ideal for him, considering his slight lack of charisma which had to be compensated with a bit of punkiness. Guest star Tsuruta is even better as lighting fast knife fighter Killer Choji, who does a seriously cool entry halfway into the film. If the film and other characters weren’t as well written and directed as they are, Tsuruta would steal the entire show. Much thanks goes to the script which is exceptional: heartfelt, rich in characterization, and full of small unexpected story developments while still delivering all the expected ninkyo goods, including a superb, ceremonial sakazuki scene. The climatic nagurikomi is also excellent, with the small and spirited Kitajima moving through the enemy masses like a tornado. Director Kosaku Yamashita, Toei's perhaps best ninkyo director and particularly skilled at handling complex webs of conflicting obligations among characters, is in his element here. This was his fifth and last contribution to the series; the remaining four movies would be handled by other directors.

    Brotherhood's Honor and Humanity: Kanto Big Brother (兄弟仁義 関東兄貴分) (Japan, 1967) [TV] – 3.5/5
    Part 6. This is considered the best in the series by some fans, Chris. D included. It is certainly good, though perhaps not as enjoyable as the previous entry. Kitajima is a rather cold, somewhat tempered clansman sent to chase down a young brothel runaway couple. They seek shelter from a yakuza-gone-straight inn owner Hideo Murata, who is being targeted by local bastard Bin Amatsu who wants to set up a gambling den in his premises. Guest star Tsuruta wanders into the picture as Murata’s wife’s ex-lover who was thought to be dead. This was the first film in the series after Yamashita departed, with Sadao Nakajima taking over. It comes out as sombre, humourless tragedy set against the political turmoil of the mid Taisho era with historical events frequently referred to in passing. But the film’s script is also its weak point, with too much reliance on coincidences that allow writers Akira Murao and Norifumi Suzuki to cut some corners. Curiously, themes of yakuza brotherhood are downplayed and there are no series trademark sakazuki scenes. Chris D. compared this film to the works of Tai Kato, and that’s not a bad comparison as far as the tone goes. Visually the film is quite accomplished, moving between indoor sets and brutally beautiful winter outdoors. But the film doesn’t quite reach the energy, the intensity (of giri vs. ninjo), or the old fashioned charm of Yamashita’s best entries.

    Brotherhood's Honor and Humanity: Loyalty Offering on Brink of Adversary (兄弟仁義 逆縁の盃) (Japan, 1968) [TV] – 3.5/5
    Part 7. This entry was helmed by none other than Norifumi Suzuki during his ninkyo era (he was involved in several mid-tier projects as director, and in many top-tier films as screenwriter). It’s a very enjoyable film with perhaps lower artistic ambitions than the previous film. What it loses in art and politics, it makes back in pure entertainment. Unusually for a ninkyo film, the tale explodes into action from the first frame, with Kitajima slicing and dicing his way through an enemy gang. He then takes a hike rather than giving himself in, taking the opportunity to go looking for his long lost mother in a plot thread that is essentially a remake/adaptation of “In Search of Mother”. The road takes him to a small town that has become a battle front between industrial evil Nobuo Kaneko and noble Minoru Oki, whose clan sides with the townspeople. Tatsuo Endo is cast hilariously against type as nerdy lab rat examining water pollution levels and trying not get killed on the job. This is very much a Suzuki film, from his trademark authority jabs to silly but surprisingly funny comedic relief, and of course plenty of melodrama. It's also a pretty good ninkyo film dealing with friendship and conflicting duties between men. Tomisaburo Wakayama emerges as the film's highlight as a conflicted, lightning fast swordsman affiliated with evil Kaneko, but slowly figuring out he might be playing for the wrong team.

    New Brotherhood's Honor and Humanity (新兄弟仁義) (Japan, 1970) [TV] – 3/5
    A partial reboot with Bunta Sugawara taking over the lead role. Kitajima is still on board as a supporting player. Righteous Sugawara is one of boss Ichiro Sugai’s lieutenants, who goes to prison for taking out a rival boss. His hopes of washing his feet (or going straight, as normal people would put it) go up in smoke when upon returning he is awarded the successor’s role by the elderly oyabun, much to the dismay of the boss’ corrupt son and other lieutenants Toru Abe and Nenji Kobayashi. Unsurprisingly, the three bad eggs start plotting Sugawara’s downfall. This is a pretty good ninkyo film, but it feels a little out of place in this series without Kitajima in the lead or the excessive male bonding of the early films. There may be a very logical explanation to this: unlike the previous films which were original scripts, this is actually an adaptation of a Shinji Fujiwara novel. The resulting film is pretty solid, and lacks bigger mishaps like dumb comedy, but it’s also void of true highlights. For a genre fanatic there is some fun to be had from seeing Sugawara as a very mind mannered ninkyo protagonist. Although it wasn’t by any means his only appearance or even only lead role in a ninkyo film, he was nevertheless being aggressively branded as “modern yakuza” by Toei’s marketing department ever since his first Toei lead role in 1969, and this role is quite the opposite of that.

    Brotherhood's Honor and Humanity: Chivalry (関東兄弟仁義 仁俠) (Japan, 1971) [TV] – 3/5
    Part 9. This movie basically pretends the previous entry never happened by dropping the “Shin / New” from its title and reinstating Saburo Kitajima in the lead role. However, the film still feels a little different from the older entries. Kitajima is a quieter, more cynical and almost blood-thirsty hero who takes a long time to come to realize that his foe Kyosuke Machida isn’t actually a bad man. Machida, who gets the film’s meatiest role, plays a dishonest gambler whose conman tactics are actually a way to feed a child and a mother whose father/husband he killed in front of their eyes several years earlier. The film benefits from a solid script by Koji Takada (his only for the series) and plenty of gambling (oddly enough, this not a given in many gambler films), even if director Buichi Saito doesn’t have the style and characterization skills of Kosaku Yamashita. It makes for a pretty satisfying ending for what is, perhaps surprisingly, one of Toei’s most consistently good yakuza film series. Oh and as a side note, here we finally have it, a Toei ninkyo film that put the word “ninkyo” into its title (Kanto kyodai jingi: Ninkyo).


    • i watched Ran for the umpteenth time. The Beast and the Magic Sword, Paul Naschy.
      Out here on the perimeter we is stoned...immaculate


      • Chivalrous Third Generation (遊侠三代) (Japan, 1966) [TV] - 2.5/5
        Tatsuo Umemiya in talkative ninkyo film that loses its focus to a multitude of characters. It smells of a novel adaptation, though to the best of my knowledge isn't. The setting is immediately post war in 1945. Umemiya belongs to a trucking company / gang whose enemy has teamed up with prominent military figures. Tsuruta runs a restaurant and offers help, while Ryotaro Tatsumi is the evil gang's tool with a secret connection to Umemiya. Lots of talk ensues, with little action. The ending, which unusually shows the aftermath of the carnage and comes with heavy religious (Christian) thematics, however, is so unusual and rewarding that it alone makes the film somewhat worthwhile. Side note: Umemiya also sings the theme song, as was common for ninkyo leads in the 60s.

        Three Ex-Con Brothers (懲役三兄弟) (Japan, 1969) [TV] – 4/5
        A very entertaining post-war ninkyo tale set in an onsen town. Bunta Sugawara and Kyosuke Machida star as mischievous but ultimately honourable punks (Ryoji Hayama is the less featured 3rd brother) who go against Tatsuo Endo and Bin Amatsu's awesomely dressed Chinese gangsters. It all feels very “early 70s” with a breezy, humoristic touch, despite having come out during the peak of the old school 60s ninkyo wave. For a film somewhat stuck between two eras, and is frankly nothing profound storywise, this is however spectacularly enjoyable. There's a nice laidback touch to the entire film, and a sense of hanging out with characters. Sugawara, starring in his only second lead role at Toei (the first one was in Modern Yakuza, released three months earlier) is clearly eager to establish himself as a new leading man. He and Machida both play it fresh and reckless, setting themselves apart from the more stoic Ken Takakura. Speaking of Takakura, he and Tomisaburo Wakayama both appear as quest star, and are as good as ever. Great film and one of the best of its kind: laidback but heartfelt, with plenty of humour but none of the routine filler that similar lightweight Toei pictures from the early 70s often come with. P.S., this also know as “Brothers Serving Time”, a misleading title considering the film’s prison segment comes right in the beginning and lasts less than five minutes.

        Rogue's Self-Sacrifice (捨て身のならず者) (Japan, 1970) [TV] – 2.5/5
        Takakura is a newspaper reporter who gets framed and jailed after snooping too close to the yakuza. Years later he's out for revenge. Good start, with Takakura for once not playing a yakuza despite this being a contemporary yakuza film! But the film soon runs out of steam. Unable to pursue his vengeance for a certain reason, Takakura goes alcoholic and meets Mie Hama, a woman whose father may have been to blame for Takakura's misery. Takakura then does some more snooping and has some more run-ins with gangsters, but ultimately nothing very exciting happens. It's still an alright film, but the opening promised more. P.S. this is not related to the 1968 Takakura film “Rogue” in any way.

        Chivalrous Woman: I Request Shelter (女渡世人 おたの申します) (Japan, 1971) [35mm] – 4.5/5
        Kosaku Yamashita's late ninkyo masterpiece strips the genre of its trademark romanticism and leaves its characters emotionally drained. Junko Fuji plays a female gambler who travels to another town to deliver a fellow gambler's ashes to his parents - and to collect the dead man's debt from them. The father is a noble man looking after townspeople and his blind wife. They are quick to catch who Fuji really is, and that how she's directly related to their son's death (he was killed after losing to Fuji and drawing his sword in desperation), but they treat her with utmost politeness as per etiquette. Fuji sympathises with them and attempts to help the best she can against the local yakuza, however, her every attempt at doing something good results in the opposite. There's a great scene where she helps the local women by kicking some yakuza ass, but to her surprise the mindless violence she just displayed isn't met with admiration but disgust and distrust. "The yakuza are like flowers that bloom in the shadows. Try it in daylight and you will only bring misery to yourself" says honourable companion Bunta Sugawara to crying Fuji. Fuji probably delivers her best acting performance here, especially evident in the many quieter scenes where she goes through emotional despair unseen in any other ninkyo film. Kyosuke Machida is another standout as a gray area companion who might be friend or foe, as is nearly unrecognizable sex starlet Yoko Mihara as prejudiced villager. The film's only weaknesses are some unnecessary comic relief in the beginning, and a rather abrupt jump cut near the end where Yamashita probably tried to break away from genre conventions but didn’t quite nail it.

        Angry Cobra: Kill the Witness (怒れ毒蛇 目撃者を消せ) (Japan, 1974) [35mm] – 3/5
        Frequent Shaw Bros. collaborator Umetsugu Inoue was in the right place at the right time with this cop / karate actioner, which reached the theatres just two weeks after The Street Fighter had initiated the domestic karate film boom. It’s not anywhere near as great, but it is an entertaining b-class affair on its own. Former Daiei star and university karate alumni Jiro Tamiya stars as karate-skilled Dirty Harry assigned to protect a witness. What follows is a sloppily written detective tale with karate, car chases, bare breasts, and some wonderfully hammy dialogue ("You're not human. You're... you're a cobra!). Tamiya's martial arts form seems a bit off, but his kicks and punches actually look powerful, which makes it a lot of fun to watch. There's also occasional creativity to the action, such as a major martial arts sequence set on top of a snowy mountain, a villain with a blade arm, and a climax set in a hospital. Now, as mentioned Inoue spent much of his late 60s and early 70s helming films at the Shaw Brothers. However, he wasn't making action pictures but mainly musicals. And here he is back in Japan at the venerable Shochiku studios who excelled at many things, but not necessarily at modern action (Teruo Ishii has been quite vocal about this). So the time and place might have been right, but the studio and genre knowledge perhaps a bit off, explaining some of the evident but amusing sloppiness. For a more serious and karate-free take on similar topic, see Toho’s Wild Cop films (1973) with Tetsuya Watari.

        P.S. There’s an English dubbed VHS print on YouTube. On a quick glance, it seems to be missing all the nude scenes from the Japanese version. It also runs 5 minutes shorter, though that might be mainly due to PAL conversion.


        • Thanks once again, Takuma, for zooming back with a bunch of amazing reviews.

          I'm really fixated (have been for a while) on seeing Brotherhood's Honor and Humanity: The Truth About Kanto Life.

          Chivalrous Woman: I Request Shelter
          sounds fascinating, too.