Sunday, January 15, 2012

Sympathy For The Underdog(1971) Movie Review

When Gunji, an old-time gangster is released after ten years of prison life, he comes home to see the remnants of his gang scattered, and worse, at the point of scraping the bottom. Having nearly being driven out of town by the now powerful Daitokai gang, Gunji and his remaining loyals plot a new course in Okinawa. Now surrounded by American GIs, foreigners of all kinds, and the roar of passing jets overhead, the small band of would-be captains face up against not only a number of treacherous characters, but of a possibly greater threat from the past. And before one says that much of the initial premise sounds strangely similar to Fukasaku's Street Mobster produced one year later, one would have to agree- but what makes this two sided coin of Yakuza films so special, is in how they spiritually aim to better understand two generations caught in the malestrom of the post war Japan experience. With Sympathy, Fukasaku's last movie with favorite, Koji Tsuruta in the lead, it is something of an elegy to a time that had only so long to live. Much more cool-headed and meticulous than the pure blazing anarchy of Street Mobster, this is a movie that both explores the pride, and perhaps even soul of the outsiders looking to make a mark despite the encroaching odds.

Also unlike Street Mobster, we are given just enough coverage regarding those coming along for the ride. Including the passionate youngsters , and even a battle-hardened family man, the film takes on more of a classy ensemble piece. Alongside Gunji and his gang, is Kudo (played brilliantly by one-time-real gang member, Noboru Ando, also in Street Mobster) who's outsider nature makes for an interesting wild card for them. And true to older forms, the narrative begins not unlike a classic caper film, allowing for scenes of planning between these characters. Which is how we are introduced to those who would rule the docks of Naha, and those lesser lieutenants working the smaller beats. These are cooler cats who are calm & collected, but erupt with great fury in short, effective doses.

So once Gunji and company begin to make their big moves within Naha's nightlife leaders, not only does the danger level rise, but the questions of worth in the entire operation begin to appear. It isn't very long before these seemingly nostalgic streets begin claiming victims, forcing Gunji and his men to reassess their choices. The loss of one big mover within this smaller than usual infrastructure opens up a world of trouble in the form of long boiling envies, long hoping for their share of the island community. Suddenly, this great assumption of Okinawa being the last truly free-market becomes a stage for a final showdown of ideologies, and splintered allegiances. A slow, creeping sensation begins to form that there is little where else to go, and that men of Gunji's stature and temperament are destined for merely stories in the future.

Having heard that Fukasaku was inspired largely by The Battle Of Algiers makes a great deal of sense when considering the choice of Okinawa, and everything it entails within the piece. With the central gang looking toward a new world of success in a land untouched by the corporate assimilation process in Yokohama, themes of displacement sink in when they discover that not all is hopeful and pleasant off the mainland. Even Gunji's prostitute companion/echo from days past laments life in Naha, and that there's little else for anyone to do here to survive. (In an interesting counterpoint to Mayumi Nagisa's character in Street Mobster, she seems well within her faculties to be her own person, just at the mercy of what fate has dealt her.) There also seems to be a grand concern regarding colonialism embedded here, not to mention the eradication of any sort of self-made individual within the criminal set. It is as if Gunji's gang remains the last of a more colorful time on a collision course with the growing mass of dark suits and ties that has inspired the major look of the Daitokai.  A ragtag bunch of passionates versus an all-consuming hive mind.

While every bit as bloody as Street Mobster came to be, there is a more contemplative game plan within Sympathy that perhaps even strengthens how we view Sugawara's unforgettable mad dog character in that film. By looking into Tsuruta's Gunji, we are looking into a generation scarred by the last days of war, reaching its sunset, longing for a respectful resting place. Those growing up throughout the end of World War II, saw much to repair and reconsider, while characters like Street Mobster's Okita were born in the sprawling confusion that came in years after. Both generations having little understanding of one another, and yet inextricably linked by way of the tide. While both are ready to go down fighting, one has clearly ruminated what is being lost, while the other cannot see much beyond the flames of conflict itself. While not necessarily portraying the gangs of old in a flattering light, Fukasaku's curiosity about a life alongside them, even in their final throes cannot be understated.

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