Goro ‘Slasher’ Fujita was a Yakuza member in Japan. Born into poverty, his family were either absent or dead while he was still very young. Finding himself in a juvenile correction facility, once he was free he joined a clan and started a life of crime. Upon becoming disillusioned with the dishonourable Yakuza lifestyle, he went straight in order to write about his experiences.
In 1968, Toshio Masuda, who would go on to direct the Pearl Harbour classic Tora! Tora! Tora!, teamed up with leading man Tetsuya Watari to bring Goro’s story to the big screen. The result was Outlaw Gangster VIP, a tale grounded in the reality of post-war Japan that featured a frank look at Yakuza life. So successful was this franchise, it spawned five sequels and now, finally, Arrow Films are releasing all six of these crime epics on Blu-ray for the first time to western audiences.
Considered the forerunner to Kinji Fukasaku’s Battles Without Honor and Humanity – itself considered to be Japan’s Godfather – the Outlaw series brought a gritty realism to the Yakuza genre as well as utilising the daring approach of trying to make you sympathise with a member of the despised gang. It created a series of films that in lieu of pomp and circumstance, had to have a workman like rate of storytelling and characterisation. Unlike most other offerings from distributers Nikkatsu, the Outlaw films are simple, unfussy and practical.
Each picture seems to be made using a handbook of good filmmaking techniques. I was astonished that throughout the series each film really puts the work in to make you care about the characters – including Goro – time after time. Little touches like Goro covering his face with the scented cloth left by his latest love interest and smiling himself stupid, reminds us that this walking one-man army is human. Moments like this allow us to open our hearts to him all over again, even if this is his fourth or fifth outing.
But perhaps the thing that impressed me most throughout the series is that through the introduction of new characters and relationships, the series quality endures far longer than a series of six films should. They all have their own twist on the format, each using their supporting cast to squeeze as much life out of the franchise as possible. Each character introduced brings a new perspective on the Yakuza lifestyle, whether it is the son of a mob boss whose loyalties are conflicted or an aging hitman, disgusted at the corrupt modernisation of his clan.
But for each set of old characters to make way for the old ones, they must all find themselves on the tip of a Yazuza dagger. Goro becomes something of a harbinger of doom to all those he comes into contact with. The correlation of Goro’s arrival into a town or city and the rising murder rates must surely have become cause for national concern. By the third film you start to fear for anyone he so much as asks for the time. But by the forth film the predictability of this cycle becomes a problem. Death no longer has the impact it did in previous instalments as it no longer becomes a fearful possibility, but a tedious inevitability.
It is one of the many things that get recycled for each instalment. While the new characters can often stave off the series’ staleness, it becomes harder to ignore the rigid formula the films stick to. Goro enters a town with a Yakuza problem. His fame causes a spike in Yakuza activity and inter gang violence. His loved ones get caught in the crossfire. He stands up to the violence, gets hurt, gets nursed back to health by next poor girl to fall in love with his bad boy looks, someone betrays him (in at least one movie this happens twice), he has a last stand and walks away from the town beaten and bloodied in order to save the people left and move on to the next place in need of a population cull.
That habit he has of getting his girlfriends killed is one of the series’ nastier sides. Mostly it seems to happen just so he can fall in love with someone else all over again, predicting the audience’s ADHD when it comes to beautiful young women. They’re thrown away like disposable razors, justifying Goro’s bleak and cynical life outlook, and his impaling world record attempt. It seems like the entire the female population of Japan have either loved Goro at one point or will fall in love with him the second they see him. Along with having a body count bigger than a first person shooter protagonist, the women who swoon over Goro before he even has a chance to introduce himself runs the biggest risk the series has falling into self-parody.
It presents an old fashioned set of gender roles for an old fashioned character. He walks through life with a code of honour he sticks to like he has a determination to be buried with it. He scolds anyone who shows a lack of respect for the danger of the Yakuza world, threatening both male and female alike with disciplinary bouts of violence. Crucially though, he never makes good on those threats.
Thankfully, this stony-faced, macho personality is presented to us in the package of Tetsuya Watari. Watari owns the role of Goro Fujita. He brings an easy charm to the ex-gangster with a friendly and laid back smile. He is all at once disarming and lethal. His face lets you know that he isn’t here to cause trouble, but his size tells you he will be able to handle it if there is any.
At first glance, there isn’t too much memorable about the appearance of our hero, save for the fact that he drapes a leather jacket around his shoulders like he invented it. But this all goes in with the gritty and realistic world he inhabits. Outlaw’s view of Japan isn’t interested in taking us on a tour of famous landmarks and tourist traps. The locations on offer here are slums and ghettos, dives and blue collar hangouts.
The shots of the landscape are true depictions of the people’s Japan; brown and grey housing developments, neon signs cluttering the narrow streets and concrete industrial sites. The unembellished view of the environment complements the film’s unembellished view of the Yakuza way of life. The major theme of the films is that the honour bound agreements, debts and dependencies between the grunts and the bosses do nothing but cut young life short and tear families apart. Goro’s story is an uncompromising view of an often glamorised element of organised crime. His sense of honour is often at odds with their ever decreasing lack of it, plunging him into these conflicts time and time again.
It is that grit that will no doubt immortalise the series. Thankfully, after the sixth film ups the violence significantly – in the first scene alone someone’s eye gets poked out and another grunt is burned with boiling oil – it declines to make a seventh. If the series descended into exploitation any further we’d cease liking them authentically and start liking them ironically.
If any of this interests you, then I’d be quick. Arrow are only releasing 3,000 copies of this series, and as this is the first time it has ever been made available to European audiences I expect them to run out quick.
Dir: Toshio Masuda
Scr: Goro Fujita, Kaneo Ikegami, Reiji Kubota
Cast: Tetsuya Watari, Chieko Matsubara
Runtime: 87 minutes
The Outlaw Gangster Collection is out now.