The Film: 4/5
Most Japanese gangster movies of the 60's and 70's are little more than cleverly-achieved exercises in style over substance, with plenty of lurid violence and salacious sexuality to pleasure their thrill-seeking audiences. Maybe they're fun to watch, but after your first viewing you might not feel compelled to grant any of them an encore. Massacre Gun, the second feature from prolific film and television director Yasuharu Hasebe (Assault! Jack the Ripper) does not fall into this obvious trap; instead of glorifying in its exploitable elements, it uses them to lure you into a more complex and involving narrative that touches on themes of honor, brotherhood, and using the promise of a brighter future to navigate your way out of a life that offers nothing but darkness and crushed dreams. But there are gun fights, and a little nudity as well.
The heroes of Massacre Gun, if you can call them that, are Kuroda (J˘ Shishido), a seasoned hitman in the employ of powerful crime boss Akazawa (Takashi Kanda), and his brothers Sabur˘ (Jir˘ Okazaki) and Eiji (Tatsuya Fuji). Sabur˘ is a promising young boxer whose career is being managed by none other than Akazawa, who also muscled his way into control of the very gym where Sabur˘ rigorously trains, and the impulsive Eiji works at the nightclub the brothers own. When Akazawa orders Kuroda to kill a particular woman, Kuroda obeys without question....even though the woman in question is the woman he loves (and who was once loved by the big boss). His brothers express their fury over this, but Kuroda is prepared to let it go. Not so much Sabur˘, who tells Akazawa he can stick his sponsorship where the rising sun don't shine. For his act of bravery, Sabur˘ receives the reward of a busted hand, effectively ending his boxing ambitions. This gives Kuroda the reason he needs to quit Akazawa's organization for good, but in lieu of a healthy severance package, the boss sends some of his goons to trash the restaurant.
Now that a life of quiet retirement is no longer an option, Kuroda unites with his brothers to take over Akazawa's territory and declare war on him and his mob. This causes some understandable tension between Kuroda and his lifelong best friend Shirasaka (Hideaki Nitani), who also happens to be Akazawa's second-in-command and the most likely candidate to take over the throne once the big boss croaks. As it tends to go with most wars, what starts out as a series of swift moves by Kuroda and his brothers soon escalates into harrowing violence with several innocents caught in the crossfire.
Shot in stunning monochrome black & white by the master of shadows Kazue Nagatsuka (Branded to Kill), Massacre Gun downplays the flashy violence and heated melodrama of its peers in the genre in favor of a more moodier and grounded approach to a story that could have seemed tiresome and repetitive in the wrong hands. Hasebe's inspirations for becoming a filmmaker were men like John Huston and Sam Fuller, fearless cinematic visionaries who followed their own primal instincts and refused to bow to the whims of audiences demanding simple, facile entertainment that failed to challenge them emotionally and intellectually. The director, who also co-wrote the screenplay (under the pseudonym Takashi Fujii) with Ryűz˘ Nakanishi (The War in Space), prizes the development of the characters and their many complicated and involving relationships over bombarding the viewers with dopey action sequences.
What fascinates Hasebe is the brotherly trifecta who provides Massacre Gun with its moral center. Kuroda is the calm, pragmatic elder sibling acting as the ideal centrist between Sabur˘, who doesn't intend to be a servant of a power mad monster like Akazawa but doesn't want to end up a casualty either, and Eiji, who is ready and willing to go to war with Kuroda's dangerous former employee regardless of the cost weighed in human life. With his sad eyes and doughy face, J˘ Shishido makes for a riveting presence in the film by constantly playing his emotions close to the chest and refusing to allow any to register in physical form. What is clear from the very beginning is that Kuroda is tired of the life he has made for himself but has resigned to live out for the rest of his days nonetheless. He ultimately decides to take a stand against Akazawa not because it's the right thing to do, but because he believes his younger brothers have promising futures and therefore are worth protecting. Shishido creates a strong chemistry with Jir˘ Okazaki (the tormented Sabur˘) and Tatsuya Fuji (the hot-headed Eiji), and the performances from the other two actors helps to make their on-screen relationships believable enough to support the story, though it rarely transcends it. Hideaki Nitani is excellent as the conflicted Shirasaka, Takashi Kanda makes for a great villain as Akazawa, and both Tamaki Sawa and Y˘ko Yamamoto lend the film quality support as the only caring women in our antiheroes' lives.
Most of the scenes are underscored with a powerful soundtrack composed by Naozumi Yamamoto (Gate of Flesh) that is beautifully backed up by several haunting blues songs performed by Ken Sanders, a face - and voice - no doubt familiar to fans of the Stray Cat Rock. Sanders also appears as Chico, the house band leader at the club owned and operated by Kuroda and his brothers, and his music offers both a running commentary on the proceedings and a calming respite from the rising tide of brutality. Hasebe keeps the action restrained to a few memorable set-pieces, including a violent ambush inside a rusted barge and a climatic gun battle on a deserted highway where every score will be settled once and for all. Though Massacre Gun isn't wall-to-wall bloodshed, the director punctuates certain scenes with disturbing visuals bound to make even the staunchest action fan wince. Men are beaten until they vomit, bones are crushed (through suggestion) with barbells and bowling balls, and even women are slapped around. This is a dark and ugly world from which death is the only real escape. Even those who survive to see the next sunrise will have to carry the weight of their deceased loved ones for the rest of their lives. Massacre Gun is one hell of a crime drama. Hasebe's heroes would be proud.
Nagatsuka's striking monochrome compositions look absolutely terrific thanks to the 1080p high-definition transfer restored by Nikkatsu from original preservation film elements for Arrow's Blu-ray release. The MPEG-4 AVC-encoded picture has been correctly framed in the original 2.35:1 widescreen aspect ratio, and outside of the occasional defect doubtlessly due to the condition of the elements used for the transfer the restoration is bound to be the best Massacre Gun has ever looked on home video. The video quality is crisp and full of enriched detail, boasting shadows so deep and clear they could practically reach out and grab you. The daytime scenes contain some impressive, balanced brightness levels. Film grain has been reduced to a necessary minimum and the amount retain doesn't fluctuate from scene to scene. The only audio option is an uncompressed 24-bit Japanese 1.0 PCM track, but it perfectly replicates the film's original mono sound with little trace of damage or distortion. The downbeat blues tunes and Sanders' brooding vocals are the greatest beneficiaries of this solid mix. The volume levels are well-balanced and the result is a fine audio track that serves Massacre Gun very well and without any distracting flaws. Newly-translated English subtitles have also been included.
J˘ Shishido, looking mighty frail but still full of memories, sits down for a new interview filmed at the Nikkatsu headquarters (18 minutes). Speaking of Nikkatsu, critic and historian Tony Rayns offers a detailed history of the studio and the many phases it went through during its time in a longer interview (36 minutes). Rounding out the disc-based extras are a small gallery of rare promotional images and the original theatrical trailer (2 minutes). A standard-definition DVD copy is also included, as are an informative booklet featuring an essay on the film and its place in Japanese gangster cinema written by Jasper Sharp and a reversible cover sleeve with a new illustration by Ian MacEwan commissioned for this release on one side and the original poster art on the alternate.
Massacre Gun is a terrific, nail-biting yarn where the innocent suffer, the evil thrive, and the only true justice comes from the barrel of a gun. At its core is a story of three brothers united in a common goal, but who choose to see it accomplished through conflicting methods. Yasuharu Hasebe's second feature is one of his best and a top-tier effort from Japan's fabled Nikkatsu Studios, boasting excellent ensemble acting, brilliant monochrome cinematography, and a handful of marvelously executed action sequences. Fans of Asian action cinema should give Massacre a shot. It will definitely not disappoint.