Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Outlaw: Goro the Assassin (1968)

Director: Keiichi Ozawa
Notable Cast: Tetsuya Watari, Chieko Matsubara

With the speed that Nikkatsu was pumping out these Outlaw films, it’s not terribly out of realm of possibility that they would continue to adhere to the basic concepts and formulas that made the series so popular to begin with. I touched base on this idea with the third film Heartless and its more episodic approach to the foundation, but with the fourth film Goro the Assassin it’s pretty much a solidified truth in what structure and emotional beats the audience is going to see. However, it’s not a bad thing. In fact, it’s probably for the best for a film like Goro. The yakuza thriller further strips itself of a lot of the artistic moments and thematic material that the series used (both in successful and detrimental ways depending on the film) and instead throttles down on tight writing and more naturalistic character arcs. It might be predictable if you’ve seen the first few films, but that doesn’t mean it’s ineffective.

Goro (Tatsuya Watari), after heading to prison for a brief stint with a yakuza brother-in-arms, promises his friend on his deathbed to take a message to his sister. Being the loyal friend he is, Goro intends to do just that, but finding the woman proves harder than expected. Soon he becomes entangled in a brothel and strip club scheme with the local yakuza who intend to make sure Goro never interferes again…which is probably the worst decision they’ve ever made.

Truthfully, being as the film is still within the range of being a prequel to the first two entries (and I think a sequel to the last one…but at this point, I’m not entirely sure), then you already know basically how things turn out. We know that Goro is in danger, but not life threatening danger. We know that he will not end up with the girl at the end who is once again played by series regular Chieko Matsubara. You know that he’s going to end up assassinating some yakuza boss in the final moments of the film. The formula exists and Goro the Assassin seems very content to follow it as such. That doesn’t stop this film from being one of the best that this franchise has to offer though based on sheer execution. Director Ozawa, returning after directing the second film, has a knack for creating a tight and emotionally resonating plot that lingers even if the themes and artistic elements are pulled back. The writing here is simply better and the film wraps around itself in some strong ways. Many smaller characters have great return pieces, the subplots are all wonderfully finished and finalized (unless they are not meant to be – as the final scene of the film would indicate), and the character work is developed precisely to the amount needed to keep the narrative moving. The few knife fight sequences are well put together and the twisting plot moves in some surprisingly effective and dark ways. If anything, while Goro the Assassin might not quite have the artistic punch of the original film, it might be just as well written and executed overall.

Goro the Assassin original art.
One of the more intriguing aspects of the film is its rather effective look at women and the social commentary about their role. At this point we know that Goro has become this wandering yakuza force of justified vengeance unleashed upon those who try to control him or infringe on his promises and loyalties. Goro the Assassin really establishes a unique and heartfelt position he has about women though. The plot takes us into the realm of strip clubs and brothels as a setting, but the film really builds some fascinating themes and characters within this concept. A young yakuza man refuses to allow his unspoken love for the girl next door to allow him to forsake her to the life of a woman in this line of work, the sister of the dying man in the opening is a woman forced into prostitution because of her financial situation, and there is a young working woman (the main love interest for our anti-hero) who remains caught in repeated situations where she is stepped on for just being female. In all of these instances the villains are the ones conspiring against their empowerment and the heroes of the film are the ones fighting for them and giving them opportunities to live like people and not things. Goro even scolds some yakuza members at one point about it being okay to do questionable things with money, but they should never slight a woman in public. This creates an interesting dynamic for the character (and his world of justice) that lurches back into how he acts in many of the previous films, adding in a layer that really deepens what might have been a rather straight forward yakuza story.

Calling a film formulaic might seem like a jab to the refreshing qualities of a film, but in the case of Goro the Assassin it’s the execution of the formula that carries it into being one of the best of the franchise thus far. It’s not overly artful or even deep outside of a few repeated themes and its feminist approach to its characters, but the film is written so tightly and effectively that it rises to be both an entertaining yakuza tale and a movie that continues to build the legend of Goro. Fans of the franchise are sure to love what Goro the Assassin has to offer and the episodic nature continues to work for the series in some surprising ways.

Written By Matt Reifschneider

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