Yasuharu Hasebe, a disciple of Nikkatsu’s maverick filmmaker Suzuki Seijun, made his directorial debut with Black Tight Killers (1966), a crazy, campy spy adventure fun shot in bright, pop-art color. Massacre Gun (Japan, 1967), his follow-up feature, remains in the action genre but takes a turn into the dark alleys of gangster noir with the drama of loyal mob lieutenant Kuroda (Japanese crime movie icon Jô Shishido) who breaks with his boss and ends up in a gang war.
It’s Kuroda and his brothers, the hot-headed Eiji (Tatsuya Fuji) and rising boxer and part-time drummer Saburo (Jirô Okazaki), versus his best friend turned nemesis (Hideaki Nitani) in a fight that is doomed to end in tragedy. That’s not a spoiler, mind you, merely a convention of this kind of grim gangster drama with a personal twist. This is a film that opens with Kuroda ordered to kill the woman he loves while his young brother (Jiro Okazaki), who Kuroda is determined to keep out of the outlaw life, gets a beatdown by the same vindictive boss. Kuroda is so loyal that love isn’t enough to buck his boss but family is different and the assault sparks a territory war.
It’s a sharp-looking film, shot in black and white widescreen with dynamic designs and graphic flair, and Shishido is the coolest of the cool and a tragic figure all at once, torn between his loyalties to the code and to his family. The opening sequence, which plays wordlessly under the credits but for a single line (“Kill her”), sets the tone, with a tease of romantic rebellion set against Kuroda’s tortured obedience, and it follows with pulp gangster fantasy all the way to the inevitable showdown.
Hasebe isn’t the rebel of his mentor, Suzuki, and the script doesn’t always make sense—”It could be a trap,” warns Kuroda as they approach a seemingly abandoned ship, to which Eiji responds, “Let’s check it out anyway,” with predictable results—but it offers a cool portrayal of Japanese mobster culture. How do these three hold off a veritable army of gunmen? And what are the rules of the gang war game that both sides seem to be following (and periodically breaking)? Never mind, it’s all in the name of romantic doom and conflicted allegiance. But there is one question: why does Kuroda’s nightclub have a staircase to the offices and private rooms opening right out on the dance floor, as in an old west saloon? Is this a standard feature of sixties jazz clubs I never knew about? Or just another example of design over logic?
Not rated, Japanese with English subtitles
Also on a superb Blu-ray+DVD Dual Format edition from Arrow and on SVOD through Amazon Video and other services. Availability may vary by service.
Massacre Gun (2-Disc Limited Edition) [Blu-ray + DVD]
Arrow’s Blu-ray+DVD set features a newly-remastered edition of the film with new video interviews with star Jô Shishido, who was 80 at the time and kind of drifts through his memories (18 minutes, in Japanese with English subtitles) and British film historian Tony Rayns, a specialist in Asian film history, who offers a comprehensive history of Nikkatsu, the oldest movie studio in Japan (37 minutes).