By Jeremy Carr.
Street Mobster found director Kinji Fukasaku at a pivotal point in his career, a situation reflected in the evolution of a genre he had so effectively worked to fashion. Fukasaku made his directorial debut in 1961, with the Sonny Chiba-starring Fûraibô tantei: Akai tani no sangeki, and from 1964 to 1977, he turned almost exclusively to documentary-style yakuza films (a notable exception being the Japanese sequences of 1970’s Tora! Tora! Tora!, where he and Toshio Masuda took the place of a fired Akira Kurosawa). In repeatedly exploring the intricacies and anomalies of Japan’s gangland interests, Fukasaku began to refine and revive its screen depiction, strengthening the form with a vivid, boisterous, and increasingly complex concentration.
Also known as Gendai Yakuza: Hitokiri Yota, Street Mobster was the sixth and final installment of Toei Company’s Gendai Yakuza, or “Modern Yakuza,” series of films, each with a distinct narrative and a different director, but all starring Bunta Sugawara, a former model. Written with Yoshihiro Ishimatsu, Fukasaku’s film centers on Sugawara’s Isamu Okita, an unruly ruffian who, as he remarks at the start of the picture, likes fights and girls (but isn’t a fan of gambling). Born August 15, 1945, the day Imperial Japan officially surrendered to effectively end World War II, Okita feels his destiny has been set, his lot in life irrevocably secured. Delivered into a defeated land, Okita meets a life marred by squalor, deprivation, and a broken home, as he was raised with no father and only a promiscuous, alcoholic mother, who drowned in unsavory fashion when he was just a boy. Jostled in and out of reform school, Okita turns to petty street thuggery, with no direction, no allegiance, and no deference to any particular code of honor. His wayward rebellion inevitably lands him in prison. Once released, he teams with a negligible yakuza named Kizaki (Asao Koike) and unwittingly reunites with Kimiyo (Mayumi Nagisa), a girl he had years earlier raped and pimped out to a debauched clientele. Okita’s rag-tag street gang swaggers forth with something between legitimate ambition and blind arrogance, ruffling the feathers of not one but two local gangs, the Takigawa family and their rival, the Yato family.
For all his outward bluster, Sugawara’s spirited, dynamic gangster is also anxious and apathetic. He appears inquisitive and uncomfortable, with a bemused, indignant grimace. In the tradition of James Cagney’s Tom Powers (The Public Enemy, 1931) and Robert De Niro’s Johnny Boy (Mean Streets, 1973), Okita is both fascinating and repulsive. Running wild with his third-tier posse, middling punks hell-bent on disruption more than proper integration or collective progression, he is defiant and impulsive and he revels in his autonomy: “Get what you want with your own hands,” he states early on; “I don’t belong to anybody’s gang,” he affirms later. There is certainly an appeal in his brash, outcast behavior; his independence is a refreshing criminal contrast to the staid suit and tie variety that had occupied earlier yakuza fare. But he is no hero. Aside from being stubborn and impetuous, he is, after all, a reckless and selfish rapist and murderer. Unlike Sugawara’s appearance in Fukasaku’s five-part Battles Without Honor and Humanity, AKA The Yakuza Papers, released in 1973 and 1974, where his Shozo Hirono is a dominant figure but just one of several primary players, Okita is an explicitly solitary focal point. Sugawara’s demeanor is also markedly different, as is Fukasaku’s treatment of his character, but the actor commands the same on-screen dominance. That Okita’s thorny relationship with Kimiyo works as well as it does attests to the effective identification fashioned by the director and star (and Nagisa’s thankless turn as Okita’s kindred castaway).
Shot on location in Kawazaki, a working-class Tokyo suburb still reeling from post-war economic strain, Street Mobster has a rapid and chaotic opening, setting the scene and the tone to come (though it is far clearer than the prologue summaries of Battles Without Honor and Humanity). And the momentum rarely lessens. Corresponding to his rambunctious protagonist, Fukasaku has energy to spare, employing a barrage of kinetic camera movements, usually abrupt and in close proximity to his actors. The hand-held intensity is frenetic, barely able to contain the characters as they run, jump, punch, and fall all over one another; the commotion produces a frequently exhausting portrait of violent youthful vigor, a relentless yet casual madness. The rare moments of extended single takes are illusive breathers from the barbarity, soon giving way to anarchic howls and the crashing, piercing sounds of structural or personal destruction. Layered by Fukasaku’s teeming compositions and the distilled cinematography of Hanjiro Nakazawa, Street Mobster presents a gritty and tawdry street life, enlivened with brothels and bars and incessant brawls, by flickering neon lights and an occasionally noirish nighttime ambiance.
Nearly failing under the furious weight of this disorder is Street Mobster’s shrewd social poignance. The era represented in Fukasaku’s film was a transitional time for Japanese mobsters, as the line between gangsters, business men, and politicians were steadily dissolving, and the competing criminal organizations (so pervasive in the early entries of Battles Without Honor and Humanity) moved to the public periphery. Street Mobster still emphasizes the importance of allied strength and illicit influence, but as seen through the obstinate eyes of Okita, it’s not an all-consuming force. The good old days are gone, as one elder reflects, and those like Okita no longer respect the established order. As alluded to by Tom Mes, who provides an informative if generally unremarkable commentary track on the Arrow Video Blu-ray of Street Mobster (the disc’s only supplement of note), when Okita scoffs at ceremonial practices and mocks a semblance of chivalrous tradition, he embodies a broader shift in underworld protocol, a key facet of Fukasaku’s thematic objective. And as Okita himself observes when discharged from prison, contemporary Japanese culture is now populated by long haired young people, moving, as they do in Street Mobster, to the tune of a jazzy disposition. This is the start of something hip, something vibrant, and something modern, but it’s also something unnerving.
Okita remains unsettled. As the child of a lost generation, money and territory mean little to this angry young man, who instead of appreciating his eventual security laments the reduced opportunity to fight. The only thing he has left to do, he says, is make love, but even that is vicious. He lashes out – psychologically and physically – flailing in the face of his insatiable agitation. He simply can’t help himself, and the result is a self-destructive, cathartic conclusion, a bloody, slow-motion finale that seems like the only conceivable and contented end possible. Contracting a narrowed dramatic scope (again, this is in contrast to Battles Without Honor and Humanity, where it is easy to lose track of who is fighting who and where each participant ranks in the grand hierarchy of things), Fukasaku advances Street Mobster with an essentially restricted and idiosyncratic focus. While the cultural causes of Okita’s condition could have been amplified, and his mental erosion could have been sharpened further (with less attention paid to the Takigawa and Yato families, for example, as immaterial and undeveloped as they are anyway), the flashes of genuine existential angst, however brief, give Fukasaku’s film a striking emotional resonance, and Sugawara’s anti-hero becomes a problematic, subtly tragic individual. He is a juvenile hood trapped in an adult’s body, an encumbered man struggling to find release and reprieve in a setting that is quite uncooperative. He is a criminal who has known no other way. “I can’t bear it,” he declares as a pounding train passes for throbbing emphasis. “Girls, gangsters, everything. I just want to have some fun.”
Jeremy Carr teaches film studies at Arizona State University and writes for the publications Film International, Cineaste, Senses of Cinema, MUBI/Notebook, Cinema Retro, Vague Visages, Cut Print Film, The Moving Image, Diabolique Magazine, and Fandor.