Color, 1968, 95m.
Directed by Yasuharu Hasebe
Starring Akira Kobayashi, Jô Shishido, Hideaki Nitani, Tatsuya Fuji, Meiko Kaji, Eiji Gô
Arrow (Blu-ray & DVD) (US & UK R0 HD/NTSC) / WS (2.35:1)
Long before the advent of shaky cam there was Retaliation, a violent yakuza film shot predominantly with a roving, handheld camera. The traditional scope framing of most Japanese cinema at the time is still here, but the aesthetic is raw and ragged, anticipating the increasingly extreme path crime films would take in the following decade. The film was directed by the late Yasuharu Hasebe, a Nikkatsu veteran who made a splashy debut with Black Tight Killers and the violent Massacre Gun. He reunited here with the latter film's star, Jô Shishido, who had starred in several films for Hasebe's mentor, Seijun Suzuki, and the result definitely shows the Suzuki influence as it veers wildly through a maze of deceit and savagery.
Just released from a stint in the slammer, mobster Jiro (Black Tight Killers' Kobayashi) finds that his "family" has pretty much fallen apart. However, he's happy to get back into the life when Hino (Shishido) brings him in for a night of much-needed tuna sushi and an offer to help another family deal with a turf war erupting in the nearby countryside over a land deal gone bad. Along with four other recruits, the two men are sent on a mission to take care of the situation but get more than they bargained for when it turns out Hino has a grudge related to Jiro's jail time, and apparently no one can be trusted. Jiro strikes up a rapport with the farmers including beautiful daughter Saeko (future Female Convict Scorpion Kaji), whose melodramatic fate plays a hand in the bloody violence that soon erupts.
Featuring a fun spaghetti western-influenced music score by Hajime Kaburagi (Tokyo Drifter) and an ace supporting cast including a young Tatsuya Fuji (In the Realm of the Senses), this is a solid, often brutal Nikkatsu actioner inexplicably kept off of home video entirely for decades. The film feels jittery and off balance even between the action scenes (of which there are plenty including swordplay and fist fights galore), with the camera often seeming to peer in at the events from covert angles. The crimson-laden finale is a real show stopper, of course, but there are plenty of standout moments along the way as well, such as a great nocturnal attack lit only via flashlight. It's also a pretty great buddy film, too, with a different type of resolution than you normally get in yakuza films of the period.
An unexpected selection by Arrow Films in the early stages of its North American releases with a simultaneous edition in the UK, Retaliation looks great on Blu-ray (with a DVD edition included as well). The photography varies depending on the lighting conditions, which range from sharp and bright to somewhat dull and diffused, but the appearance is very film-like with nice, deep black levels, often a sticking point for some Nikkatsu-sourced transfers. The Japanese mono audio (LPCM mono) sounds great as well, with optional English subtitles. Extras include the Japanese trailer and a gallery of stills and poster art, plus two new video interviews. The 13-minute one with Shishido was shot in the same session as the one seen on the Massacre Gun disc at the Nikkatsu offices, covering everything from the shooting locations to his working relationship with Hasebe, as well as the level of screen violence and how they tried to differentiate films with essentially the same plot. Japanese film historian Tony Rayns gets another in-depth chat as he offers a 31-minute dissection of the film laying out its place in the history of Nikkatsu, the basic tenets of yakuza films at the time, the early period of Hasebe's career (which led to some pretty wild pink film avenues in the '70s), and the ins and outs of Shishido's career and unique screen appeal. The 3,000-unit pressing also comes with a liner notes booklet containing an essay by the always knowledgable Jasper Sharp.