Sunday, April 3, 2016

Outlaw Gangster VIP (1968)

Director: Toshio Masuda
Notable Cast: Tetsuya Watari, Chieko Matsubara, Mitsuo Hamada, Tamio Kawachi, Kyosuke Machida, Kayo Matsuo, Yasuko Sanjo, Sanae Kitabayashi, Michitaro Mizushima, Hiroshisa Toda

“You’re not really yakuza. You are yakuza, but in your heart you’re not yakuza.”

When Arrow Video announced the Outlaw: Gangster VIP series to be released in a box set, I was stoked. Firstly, the deal that Arrow Video has made with Nikkatsu films is a godsend for fans of cult Japanese film making. The films that they have released together for us in the US and UK have been pretty consistently awesome. Secondly, most of the writers here at Blood Brothers are franchise whores and we are always up for a new series to explore. Seeing as this series has six films, it only exponentially lifted the expectations for us. However, considering that this series seems to be far more underground than expected, there was also some hesitation about just how good it would be considering it remained a bit more obscure. If the rest of the series is nearly as good as the first entry though, every one of the films is going to be in for a fantastic cinematic treat. Outlaw: Gangster VIP, the first of the six films in this set, is a remarkably fun, heartfelt, and absorbing film that runs on charismatic performances and director Masuda’s knack for dynamic pacing. While the combination of Arrow Video and Nikkatsu have already shown us some overlooked gems, this one might be one of the best releases that they have dropped thus far and Japanese cinephiles are going to want this set if only for this film.

Goro (Tetsuya Watari) has always had a tough life, run through the wringer of always being on the sharp end of the stick as a kid, he takes his cold demeanor with him into his life as a yakuza. When he kills a would be assassin attempting to erase his boss, he immediately earns a reputation…and three years in prison. When he finally gets released, he finds the world is even more dangerous and vicious than before and all he wants to do is find some sense of normality.

Original poster artwork
There are two major aspects to respect about Outlaw: Gangster VIP: one is the subtle way that the film builds a fairly complex narrative. The second one that fuels Gangster VIP is how much of a character study it is. The two are connected inherently, director Masuda pulled off this same combination in one of his previous films Red Pier (which you can read our review HERE), but each part is definitely worthy of analysis on its own merit. The film starts off with a black and white montage that showcases the life that our anti-hero Goro had to live through as a child including parental neglect, escaping a juvenile detention center, and the death of his sister. While little of the following plot would call back to this staging, it does admirably set up our lead character and his cold demeanor – even when he’s attempting to do the right thing as plot progressions continually make things difficult. Watari balances the heartfelt emotions of a man haunted by his own life and the charming heroics of being the lead in this kind of production, but really the script does him all kinds of favors and the chemistry he carries with the larger secondary cast (including a rather rushed, but wholly believable romantic subplot) drives his character as the main reason Gangster VIP works so well. The film does a remarkable job at making the audience empathize with a cold and often complex character. Not an easy task that the film makes look natural and Goro ends up being one of the more memorable characters that I’ve seen in this style of yakuza film.

At first, the film seems simplistic enough when it comes to its plotting. Goro is released from prison, his clan gives him some money, and he is paired up with two young yakuza men to help him acclimate back into the real world. Soon we see smaller characters pop up in reoccurring roles and the plot, even in it’s rather stripped down formulaic revenge tactics, adds in a lot of depth through those character interactions. Powered by the previously mentioned role and performance of the lead, it drives an energy into the film that keeps the plot moving. The film hits a lot of rather cliché yakuza beats, including betrayals, traps, and big knife fight action set pieces, but Masuda handles it impressively with an artful approach. Perhaps the ace up the sleeve though is how much the film criticizes the yakuza lifestyle through its character work and plotting. Not even 48 hours out of prison and Goro finds himself at odds with another group and he sees potential in his two new friends that gives the audience hope for their own lives in such a ruthless world – including a fantastically built and executed character arc for one of Goro’s friends Takeo. It’s a damn near perfectly paced film that only builds on the emotional impact of the characters.

It's not a yakuza film until someone loses a finger.
I felt it necessary to also touch base on one more piece of Outlaw: Gangster VIP for our readers to know about outside of the character and plotting – the action. Masuda may not be the flashiest of directors, but he crafts two very awesome knife fight sequences in this film worthy of the action genre tag this film is given. The first one, which comes about at the halfway point of the film, is vibrant in its pacing as Goro stands against damn near an entire gang through an ally and around some construction in the rain. However, it’s the finale which is done with an artistic merit (there is a cabaret singer that croons over the fight instead of having the sound effects) that might be the most potent moment of the film and leaves a lingering echo of the themes and haunting character bits that made the film so good up until that point. While many newer cinephiles might not think the action is as exciting as what the term has become at this point and time, the emotional and visual work that is present at these moments make them effective and wholly memorable.

If the rest of this series is nearly as good as Outlaw: Gangster VIP then this might end up being one of the more compelling yakuza series that I’ve seen thus far. The combination of brilliant character work, cynical and complex plotting, and iconic action set pieces make this film a must see for any fan of cult cinema. Other Japanese directors like Kinji Fukasaku and Seijun Suzuki might take a lot of the spot light when it comes to this time period and genre, but it’s hard to deny that Masuda and this film don’t deserve to be part of the discussion. Gangster VIP is the kind of film that still resonates decades down the line and it deserves the awesome treatment that Arrow Video and Nikkatsu have given it. It does beg the question though, why did a brilliant film take this long to get here?


  • Limited Edition Box Set (3000 copies) containing all six films in the Outlaw series, available with English subtitles for the first time on any home video format
  • High Definition digital transfers of all six films, from original film elements by Nikkatsu Corporation
  • High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) and Standard Definition DVD presentations
  • Original uncompressed mono audio
  • Newly translated English subtitles
  • Audio commentary on Outlaw: Gangster VIP by Jasper Sharp
  • Visual essay covering the entire series by Kevin Gilvear
  • Original trailers for all six films
  • Extensive promotional image galleries for all six films
  • Exclusive gatefold packaging featuring brand new artwork by Tonci Zonjic
  • Booklet featuring an interview with director Toshio Masuda by Mark Schilling, plus new writing by Schilling, Chris D and Kevin Gilvear

Written By Matt Reifschneider

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