"What an amazing world we live in. The prettier something looks on the outside, the more revolting it is on the inside."—Shun Muraki
When life gives you lemons, you make lemonade, right? Japanese B-movie master Kinji Fukasaku (The Green Slime, Tora! Tora! Tora!, Battle Royale) died in January of 2003, and that's a big, fat lemon for us all. Thankfully, American Cinematheque and Home Vision Entertainment have teamed up to make a little lemonade in the form of DVD releases of two Fukasaku classics: Blackmail Is My Life and When You Were Young: Rage.
Okay, let's shelf the clichés and take a look at Blackmail Is My Life
Facts of the Case
Shun Muraki (Hiroki Matsukata) is a blackmailer by trade. His partners in crime are a one-time yakuza named Seki (Hideo Murota, Kagemusha), a failed boxer nicknamed "Zero" (Akira Jo), and Otoki (Tomomi Sato), who's "sexy and single." The gang is strictly small-time, preying on fellow crooks and low-lifes, until Zero's old man is murdered by drug traffickers. Shun and his cohorts turn their blackmailing skills to revenge and are eventually caught up in a scheme that reaches all the way up to the country's Prime Minister. The question is, do they have the cool-headed smarts to tangle with the big boys?
In addition to being visually and stylistically cool in much the way Quentin Tarantino's films are (this is no coincidence, as Japanese B-movies have left an indelible impression on Tarantino), gendai-geki (contemporary) yakuza flicks made in the 1950s and '60s fascinate because they blend Western stylistic influences (American film noir and the French New Wave) with Japanese pop culture ephemera. They tend to be one part garish entertainment, one part social critique of Japan's postwar industrialization and economic boom. Most of the makers of these films were a generation behind Japanese cinema giants like Kurosawa and Ozu, kids who came of age during the war and Occupation. Though less bound than the older generation to the traditional Japanese culture that was quickly fading away, and more prone to wallow in the libertine extravagances of the urban experience during and after the Occupation, these younger artists were no less frustrated by their country's slow crawl towards democratization as well as the corruption they saw among government officials.
Blackmail Is My Life doesn't have near the visual punch of films by the yakuza flick master Seijun Suzuki (Tokyo Drifter, Branded to Kill), but it's still got style aplenty. Fukasaku uses freeze frames, still photos, voice-over, and clever, showy compositions to make the wafer-thin plot a good time from beginning to end. His main stylistic convention, though, is a disjointed narrative that intercuts the gang's capers with flashbacks (linked with brief black-and-white shots) that reveal Shun's history and development as a blackmailer. The effect is to make Blackmail part yakuza flick, part sheishun-eiga (youth film), two genres Fukasaku explored throughout his four-decade career. The plot itself is little more than a series of implausible vignettes until the final act when Shun and his gang tangle with the government power-brokers. I suppose the vignettes are loosely connected by the idea that Shun's victims are progressively wealthier and more powerful—a recipe for certain disaster for any small-time thug—but little of it feels narratively cohesive. None of that really matters in the end, though, because Fukasaku was more than up to the task of crafting Blackmail into a 90-minute visual thrill ride.
Japanese B-movie scholar Patrick Macias provides excellent liner notes for this DVD release that detail the film's commentary on the cultural decadence and political corruption that attended Japan's postwar economic boom—Shun's blackmailing of corrupt politicians was inspired (despite the disclaimers at the beginning of the film) by real estate swindles involving then Finance Minister and future Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka. The recognition of such subtext, however, is entirely unnecessary to enjoying the film's exuberant fatalism. One need know nothing of Japanese culture to recognize from the beginning that Shun has set himself on a collision course with doom. Blackmail is memorable because of the skill with which Fukasaku makes our ride with the young man such a joyful embrace of nihilism.
HVE has done an admirable job preserving Blackmail Is My Life on DVD. Most striking is the vibrant color, which Fukasaku used to great effect in the scope frame. The disc provides bold, fully saturated colors throughout, a feast for the eyes. With the exception of some isolated spots, the image is clean and free of damage. The only blatant flaw is heavy grain in some scenes, but that's probably a source limitation. The grainiest shots are in low-light environments, and it looks like Fukasaku was shooting at high speeds to capture the action with as little artificial light as possible, emulating the technique of the French New Wave directors whose work he deeply admired.
The DVD production team has given the Japanese mono soundtrack a little extra punch with a two-channel presentation. It's rich for a mono source, free of distracting noise or distortion. The track is the original Japanese, of course, and optional English subtitles are provided.
In addition to the insert essay mentioned above, the disc offers a Fukasaku filmography and an interview with the director as supplements. In the 19-minute interview, Fukasaku discusses his influences, the making of Blackmail Is My Life, the differences between working for Toei and Shochiku studios, and his personal aversion to happy endings.
Blackmail Is My Life isn't high art, but it's art just the same. Crime film fans looking for a good time shouldn't miss it. Thanks to Home Vision, they don't have to.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Home Vision Entertainment
• Interview with Director Kinji Fukasaku
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