B&W, 1967, 89m.
Directed by Yasuharu Hasebe
Starring Jô Shishido, Tatsuya Fuji, Jiro Okazaki, Ryôji Hayama, Takashi Kanda
Arrow (Blu-ray & DVD) (US R0 HD/NTSC, UK R0 HD/PAL) / WS (2.35:1) (16:9)
One of the many shining lights of Japanese crime films in its the genre's golden age was Yasuharu Hasebe, who made a splashy debut in 1966 with Black Tight Killers and went on to such films as Stray Cat Rock: Sex Hunter, Savage Wolf Pack, and the infamous Assault! Jack the Ripper. Made for Nikkatsu, his second feature was the 1967 monochromatic gangster saga Massacre Gun, starring puffy-faced box office favorite Jô Shishido (most famous now for his Seijun Suzuki films) and busy veteran actor Tatsuya Fuji, who would became famous in the West for starring in In the Realm of the Senses.
Sticking fairly close to the usual crime template, our tale concerns the violent trials faced by Kuroda (Shishido), a hit man who's ordered by his vicious bosses to take out his own girlfriend. He does so under duress but finds his loyalty waning, especially when his fighter brother, Saburo (Okazaki), gets pulverized after facing up against the top boss (Kanda). Kuroda decides to go off on his own and take over some of his old gang's territory with Saburo and his other brother, Eiji (Fuji), which sets off a nasty territory battle that leaves more than a few bodies in its wake.
As you can probably guess from the synopsis, much of this film centers on the short but brutal confrontations between gangsters with a pretty heavy amount of sadism for the time, including a jolting hand piercing and lots of blood-spattered bullet hits. The treatment is fairly straightforward without the eccentric curlicues found in some of the wilder Nikkatsu films of the period, so if you're looking for a fine, classical crime picture with some rock-solid performances at the center, this one should do just the trick. Shishido gets a few romantic clinches in there too, of course, and at less than 90 minutes the film never wears out its welcome. As usual for the period, the film is expertly shot in scope with a strong eye for unusual compositions, such as the highway finale complete with fun forced perspective tricks.
Arrow Films has brought this film out as a dual-format Blu-ray and DVD package in the U.S. and U.K. as one of its earliest releases in both territories, and the HD transfer is up to the standard we've come to expect from past Nikkatsu fare. The film's use of anamorphic lenses results in images ranging from the pin sharp to the deliberately blurred and distorted, so the presentation here appears to be accurate to the original filmmaking intentions. It looks great with rich, deep blacks, and fans should be more than pleased to see a title so rarely seen in the West in such fine condition. The Japanese mono audio (DTS-HD MA on the Blu-ray) sounds great as well with the smoky, subdued jazz score sounding terrific throughout, and the optional English subtitles are excellent.
Extras include a new 17-minute interview with Shosido (shot at Nikkatsu headquarters), who shares some entertaining stories about the production and his career including the automotive mishap that led to him getting cast in swordplay films, the attempts to mimic American B-movies, and the scaffolding built for the film's most ambitious shoot out scene. There's also a new interview with film critic Tony Rayns, who spends 36 packed minutes covering the history of Nikkatsu from its origins as an attempted monopoly over Japanese filmmaking patents through its explorations of noir, action, and bizarre psychosexual fantasies. Finally we round out with the Japanese theatrical trailer and a gallery of promotional artwork and stills, plus a booklet containing an essay by regular Nikkatsu historian Jasper Sharp with a smattering of poster art and photos.