Friday, January 13, 2012

Street Mobster (1972) Movie Review

The moment Okita found himself out of the joint, the world outside had changed dramatically, right down to even how gang life operated. Ten years had indeed done quite a bit to Japan, one wonders how a street tough like him could even remotely fit in. And in Kinji Fukasaku's brutal character study, it's all about things that could never be. Bunta Sagawara makes an indelible impression as a product of much more fist-to-face era in Post-War Japan at odds with the more ingrained reality of the late 1960s. With a main character who's constant sneer toward authority, and impossible to snuff rage at any and all around him, the audience can only wonder just how far the film is willing to go in regards to his inner savagery without cutting away to some semblance of safety. It's the chinpira drama that helped pave the way for Fukasaku's Yakuza Papers series to come to fruition, and it's a merciless one at that.

For those unfamiliar, Fukasaku's films became well known for their unflinching look at the outsiders, the wandering souls still reeling in the years after WWII, often into violent lives, filled disastrous decisions, and tragedy befalling even those nearest. Not unlike Blackmail Is My Business, the film takes a look at the life of one unwilling to easily fit into the new Japan, and ready to take on larger forces they are wholly unprepared for, and incapable of understanding. This time, instead of the Japanese governmental infrastructure, it is the hierarchy of the contemporary Japanese underworld, where allegiances are tenuous, and face is everything. Whereas many other filmmakers of the era often portrayed the gangster as something of a folk hero, Fukasaku was unafraid to call out a harsher reality to matters, often portraying his characters as conflicted, and even completely unsympathetic to a whole new generation of filmgoers. And Street Mobster does this with the grit and grime still fresh on its coattails decades later as Okita attempts to make a name for himself in a world simply not fashioned for him, despite what seems to be working for him in the moment (a place Okita only seems to live in, while simultaneously being locked in an endless time loop).

Practically programmed to rape and beat at will, Okita is poised to meeting his destiny by way of some bizarre turns during his one-man campaign to regain what he claims is his. Almost immediately, he is granted his own little gang of underlings who offer him a girl for the evening, only to the startling realization that his "gift" was amongst one of his many victims in the salad days. A country girl, now a prostitute, Kinuyo (Mayumi Nagisa) begins what can only be described as a tormented relationship with Okita after this chance encounter. At once deeply scornful of his terrible nature, and yet violently jealous when pushed aside, Kinuyo is in many ways not unlike him in that no matter the circumstance, they are inextricably self-destructive despite the potential surrounding them in a nation now ready to embrace something resembling a "normal" existence. All of this comes to a head when it is learned that the two largest power players on the streets are what stands between Okita and possible glory.

Enter Fukasaku's hidden gut punch in the form of rival gang leaders, now owning and running large business sections of the city, often with buildings overlooking the organic spoils of modern success. With the slightly still rough around the edges Takigawa running his gambling establishments et al on one side, and the cool-headed businessman, Yato (Noboru Ando) on the other within his glass tower. Quickly after essentially bailing the loose-cannon Okita on more than one occasion, Yato takes him under his wing, granting him a place within the organization to the behest of many around him. The now calm, collected leader sees a reflection of his more rough & tumble past in him, and sees potential despite all the nattering happening on both sides, clueless as to why he would give such a hopelessly two-bit sociopath such a shot. It is within the endless turmoil that occurs here, that allows Street Mobster to be more than merely another exercise in anti-hero melodrama, but rather a requiem for a Japan that has become something where the rage has been put on permanent boil, rather than made to face itself- to the detriment of all involved.

Bringing to life such a character study could have easily become something designed only for those eager to wallow in the muck of it, but Fukasaku, Sugawara and company make the film into a surprisingly potent human affair in that it somehow balances the anarchy of Okita's life with the lives that share it to startling effect. The director's signature freeze frames, disorienting action shots, and rapid editing are well intermingled with the often very busy blocking often making the frame a lively one from frame one to the last. And Sugawara's portrayal of an out-of-time loser is strangely compelling, not to mention iconic of a day when unbridled passion could get one far suddenly faced with a radically systemized world, ready to consume his energy whole in the name of progress. An easy film to dismiss for being too bleak, but ultimately far too potent to resist.

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