Sunday, 29 December 2013

New Year’s Intermission.

Dear Readers –

I trust you had a enjoyable winter solstice / Christmas break, and wish you the very best for the New Year. My apologies for the sluggish pace of recent posting on this blog, but…. eh, you know how it goes. Let me at least state again that I greatly value your readership, that I’m really happy that people seem to read and engage with the stuff I post here, and that it’s only lack of time, rather than lack of enthusiasm, that prevents me from posting every day.

Anyway, this is just a quick note to alert you to the fact that by the time you read this, I will be flying high on my way to Japan, where I am spending the next few weeks. I’ve scheduled a couple of geographically appropriate movie reviews that will keep things slowly ticking over until I return, but I’m afraid it’s quite likely that I won’t be able to approve or respond to comments, edit posts, and so on, until mid-January.

(Oh, and just in case you were wondering, Breakfast In the Ruins isn’t becoming an all-Asian blog either - it’s just that things have been heading that way a bit lately! If things go to plan, perhaps I’ll even find time to review a bunch of dusty old British horror movies in the new year, just to prove the point.)

So, in short, 2013 was a great year, and I’m confident 2014 will be even better. I hope you’re able to say the same, and I’ll try to bring you back something nice from Tokyo.

Sayonara for now!


Sunday, 22 December 2013

Purani Haveli (‘Mansion of Evil’)
(Shyam & Tulsi Ramsay, 1989)

First off, I will need to begin this review with an apology / disclaimer, stating that my knowledge of Indian cinema is minimal, bordering on non-existent. So if you’re looking for an informative and insightful review that seeks to place this motion picture within the wider world of Hindi film-making… I’m afraid you won’t find it here. In all my years on this earth, I have watched maybe five or six Indian films… and one of those was Shaitani Dracula, which I think it’s safe to say only qualifies as a ‘film’ in the very loosest possible definition of the term.

Of course, like all right-thinking people, I greatly admire Bollywood for its position as the most exciting and prolific popular film industry in the world. But, sad to say, I have thus far conducted my admiration from afar. My reasons for doing so are, I would imagine, similar to those stated by movie fans in a similar position throughout the world: I mean, personally, I don’t mind the comedy interludes, and I love the music & dancing, but… I hope you’ll get where I’m coming from when I say that, when the working week ends and Movie Night arrives, 3+ hour romantic melodramas that serve to celebrate traditional family values are generally not what I’m looking for.

I would love to have the time and means to challenge this no doubt terribly misguided generalisation for myself, and were there 100+ hours in the day, I would be happy to fill at least a few of ‘em with some classic Bollywood business and see what wonders emerge. But for the moment… well, it seems like a pretty tough gig, to be honest, when there are still plenty of nice 80 minute numbers about sexy vampires, motorcycle-riding werewolves and moustached mobsters shooting each other in the face that I haven’t got around to watching yet.

So, I know what you’re thinking: what if sexy vampires, hairy beasts and severe facial trauma were to make it *into* Bollywood films? Wouldn’t that be great? Well, yes, it would be actually – thanks for asking. And thus, it was sadly inevitable that my entry point into Indian cinema should come via horror movies. And if we’re talking Indian horror movies, we’ve basically talking The Ramsay Brothers – those seven Mumbai-based sons of F.U. Ramsay who pretty much single-handedly (in so far as the term “single-handed” can be applied to seven guys) pioneered and popularised the idea of Hindi language horror films through the ‘70s, ‘80s and early ‘90s.

Thus far, I’ve been lucky enough to see three Ramsay Bros productions, and, for anyone who lacks the patience to read the rest of this review, let me summarise by simply saying that this shit is BRILLIANT. In fact, let’s make this paragraph a full-blown public service announcement: if there are any jaded horror fans out there who feel like they’ve seen just about everything American/European productions have to offer, well, fear not my friends: India is your new destination. Pack an extra bag, because you might be out there a while.

1989’s ‘Purani Haveli’ (English = ‘Mansion of Evil’) generally doesn’t seem to be considered one of the best Ramsay Bros films out there, but, but it’s the one I watched most recently, so it’s the one I’ve picked to review, and what can I say? I still thought it was pretty good. In fact I absolutely loved it.

Right from the opening credits, we get a pretty good insight into what makes these movies such a ton of fun. Sick of American movies listing pages-worth of co-producers, executive producers and casting associates in their opening crawl? Well, the Ramsays don’t need any of that crap (although their chartered accountant does get pretty high billing). After we’ve finished delighting in the fact that just about everyone with a major technical role is named ‘Ramsay’, the boys get down to business. Kiran Kumar handles DANCES. Gulab Rao does FIGHTS. Jawahar Saw Mills provided TIMBER. Now that’s the way to make a movie!

Post-credits, we meet a honeymooning couple with car trouble, who, in classic horror movie tradition, opt to spend the night in a dank crypt located in the grounds of an eerily luminescent, fog-shrouded mansion. Awakened by strange growlings, couple’s male half unwisely decides to investigate, opening a sealed iron door and unleashing a hairy, demonic, glowing-eyed caveman beast, who promptly does away with the pair in predictably blood-curdling fashion. The beast barely has time to gloat however before he in turn is set upon by a wild-eyed, poncho-clad Christian priest, who compels the fiend back to its subterranean lair using a magically charged crucifix, subsequently chaining down the gate with said crucifix, imprisoning the beast FORVERMORE.. or at least until some happy-go-lucky young people happen to stumble past and…. you know what, let’s just start the clock now shall we? Anyone want to place a bet?

Assuming we get a second to stop and think about what just happened, rather than just clapping our hands with glee like happy, horror-loving seals, the extensive use of Christian imagery in ‘Purani Haveli’ seems kinda interesting - even the opening credits play out against images of Jesus. Again, my inability to really put these movies into wider cultural context defeats me, but… that’s gotta be quite unusual for Hindi horror, right? Were the Ramsays maybe gunning for international distribution by this point in their career..? As I say, I am sadly in no position to speculate as to the why or wherefores here, but… it’s an issue worth noting, I think.

Anyway, next we’re whisked to a somewhat safer domestic setting, where an avalanche of exposition awaits us. This being Bollywood though, exposition tends to come in the shape of outlandishly exaggerated melodrama, fights, lavish musical sequences and slapstick comedy, so… that’s just fine.

In brief, then: a vain rich man (and he has a golden cannon in his living room, so he must be pretty rich and vain) declares that he intends to buy a mansion for the beloved daughter of his late brother. Conveniently, an old geezer baring pictures of the joint in which we saw the preceding carnage unfold seems willing to sell.

When the old geezer’s servant arrives at the mansion to ‘prepare’ it for its new owners, he is almost immediately terrified out of his wits by the general, insane horrifyingness of the place (guttural roaring noises, vast swathes of fog, eerie fluorescent lighting, rattling walls, staring animal heads, you name it..), and swiftly meets his doom via a feature that proves a bit of a surprise even for this singularly far-out piece of real estate: a gigantic, horned, skull-faced iron statue with penchant for coming to life at inconvenient moments and stomping around strangling anyone in its path! Happily, we will be seeing a lot of this statue through the rest of the film, so better get used to it.

By this point, more attentive viewers will no doubt have clocked the fact that the location in which much of ‘Purani Haveli’ takes place is simply bloody magnificent. Initially, I thought the Haveli’s interiors had such a perfectly phantasmagorical, horror movie look to them that they had to be sets, but by the time the aforementioned caretaker is wondering around the gargantuan entrance hall, it becomes clear that this structure is too solid and elaborate to be anything other than the actual interior of the mansion used for the equally breath-taking exteriors.

So yes, if we’re to maintain our sanity, I’m afraid we’ll have to accept the fact that the Ramsays actually DID find a sprawling, semi-derelict Masala-gothic baroque folly sitting atop a remote clifftop, and proceeded to simply film the hell out of it. And the more we see of this place, the more astonishing it becomes – perhaps the best readymade horror movie location I’ve seen in all my life, in fact. The vast, gothic-arched entrance hall looks like something out of Dario Argento’s dreams, decked out with dozens of moth-eaten, mounted animal heads and topped with a multitude of kaleidoscopic stained glass windows, whilst the exterior looks like one of those beautiful matte paintings from a Mario Bava gothic come to life in three dimensions, with subsequent establishing shots revealing that (though it’s not really utilised in the film), this joint even has a sea view over a kind of wide, picturesque bay. Stunning. Hell, I’m starting to feel a certain sympathy with Mr. Golden Cannon - I’d buy this place in a second, homicidal statue or otherwise.(1)

And, speaking of the mansion’s boastful new owner, he and the old geezer who just sold it to him turn out to be next on the menu of victims. Arriving to look the place over and finalise their deal, it takes about two minutes of screentime before the latter has suffered death by statue and the former is cowering in terror in the centre of a spontaneous circle of fire and random explosive charges in the adjacent graveyard, awaiting the approach of the hairy caveman beast. Forget your Shirley Jackson shit, this is a haunted house that doesn’t mess around.

Of course, plenty more meat is needed to fill out the remaining 120 minutes, and so before we know it, Anita, the aforementioned niece, is on her way to the house, accompanied by a literal bus load of salty characters, including, amongst others: Seema, her scheming step-sister! Vikram, the lazy, drunken brute that Seema is trying to push her into marrying! (He comes accompanied by goons.) Jagdeep, the chortlesome fat guy sidekick of Anita’s real true love Sunil, sneaking onboard in hilarious disguise as a burqa wearing woman! Sher Khan, the inexplicable elderly gay bus driver, who keeps saying things like “ I am a happy friend to all!”, and trying to molest Jagdeep! And of course, noble, upstanding Sunil himself is not far behind – a go-getting photographer (I loved how the set for his photography studio was full of giant-sized Kodak film boxes), keen to win back Anita’s love, mistakenly believing himself to have been spurned after evil Seema and Vikram forced her to reject his advances at gun-point!

And so, as you might imagine, we can more or less wrap up the plot synopsis right there by simply stating that all hell breaks loose pretty sharpish when this crew pitch up at the Mansion of Evil, and that it continues to do so for more or less the next two hours, give or take a few extended flashbacks, utterly unconnected comedy sequences, sleazy bathing scenes and romantic interludes, until Sunil finally gets his shit together to team up with the crazy, demon-fighting priest and put a Christ-endorsed stop to all this hullabaloo. So, not exactly the most innovative and involving of horror movie narratives, I’ll grant you - but, by thunder, it will do.

Ordinarily, one might be wary when a approaching a horror movie with a two and a half hour run time, but the great thing about these Ramsay movies is that (in common with more mainstream Hindi productions, I’m assuming), their pace is absolutely relentless. For these guys, 150 minutes of screen-time isn’t an excuse to ‘stretch things out a little’ and try out some of those auteur-ish indulgences our more artistically minded Western directors love so much - it’s simply an opportunity to cram the screen with 150 solid minutes of super-charged spook show mayhem, giving the audience more, and more, and more of what they want (alongside various diversions they didn’t even know they wanted), until less hardy viewers will find themselves falling from their sofas begging for mercy as yet more thunder-crashing gothic beastliness and mugging, shrieking technicolor overload unfolds, all at the kind of breakneck tempo that we in the West would more readily associate with a Daffy Duck cartoon than a feature length film.

Ok, so I suppose less patient viewers than I might find the fairly lengthy diversions from the central horror business to be something of a chore, but what can I say – I dug it all. At least once every 15-20 minutes, you can guarantee that something totally mad will happen that you’d be telling people about for weeks if it popped up in the middle of a common or garden Western genre flick, and such highlights aren’t simply confined to the horror segments either.

For instance, there’s a wonderful, extended fight/action scene that takes place during the introductory “setting up the characters” section, in which Sunil and Anita are ambushed by a gang of thugs hired by Vikram on a remote country road. (Apparently the couple’s journey from the photo studio to “the club” takes them through a picturesque jungle wilderness, which seems strange to me, but then hey – I don't know India). A feast of intense lunkhead kung fu ensues, culminating in a life or death shovel vs pitchfork battle atop a rickety wooden bridge. Well played, Gulab Rao! As far as making exciting cinema out of absolutely nothing except six actors and some garden tools go, this sequence was some A1 shit. And all that happens before anyone’s even SUGGESTED going to the haunted mansion! I mean, what kind of an awesome movie is this, where even the preliminary exposition stuff contains more crackpot fury and inept kick-boxing than most so-called films get through in their whole run time..? Donations for the Ramsay Bros shrine I’m in the process of constructing in my living room to the usual address please.

Despite what I presume to be the generally conservative approach taken to sexuality in mainstream Indian cinema (hey, correct me if I’m wrong), the Ramsays also seem comfortable with the idea that a bit of sexual frisson is an integral part of the horror experience, and to that end, they throw in a number of sequences that feature the film’s suitably curvaceous female stars cavorting in extremely tight-fitting swim-wear, including a scene in which Anita is subjected to an attempted rape from nasty old Vikram, until heroic Sunil provides a rousing, two-fisted rescue.

Again, I’m poorly placed as to speculate as to whether the Ramsays were intending to offer their audience a “hey, you don’t get this in ya regular movies” type thrill here (from what I gather, horror films have always been considered pretty disreputable in India, so if they were already incurring the wrath of the moral majority just for making movies like this, they might as well go all out and throw in a bit of sleaze too, I guess?), or whether they again had their eye on the global market, just trying to keep pace with the kind of stuff you might see in an American horror movie circa the mid/late ‘80s…? No idea, but anyway, something else to take note of and maybe return to when I’m a bit more confident on how to read Indian films.

Not that such a wild, subtlety-free approach seems to impact much on the film’s production values or technical ambition however; on the contrary, ‘Purani Haveli’, as presented in pristine form via Mondo Macabro’s Bollywood Horror collection(2), is often an extremely beautiful gothic horror film, boasting uniquely eerie location work, a feast of rainbow-hued Bava-esque lighting effects, and production design that looks like something Hammer’s Bernard Robinson might have conjured up in a fever dream after eating too much cheese. And if the camera-work is sometimes a bit crazed and ragged, the story-telling pulpy, repetitive and melodramatic, well, so be it - for me that doesn’t stop what’s going on in front of the lens being one of the most joyfully enthusiastic celebrations of horror movie imagery you could ever hope to see.

Of course, the soundtrack (by Ajit Singh) is pretty astounding too – a must-hear for anyone who enjoyed Finder Keepers’ superb Bollywood Bloodbath compilation last year, with a suitably unhinged mixture of light-weight pop, mutant retro disco, sci-fi synth abuse, squelching electronic drum beats, phaser blasting surf guitar, unearthly female wailing, blaring overdriven string crescendos and jarring bursts of what sounds like a about six sound effects records being played simultaneously – it’s a feast of low budget musical insanity that matches the everything-but-the-kitchen-sink tone of the film perfectly, hitting just about all bases re: ‘sounds you might want to hear in an Indian horror flick’, often all at the same time.

And, as mentioned, personally I really enjoyed the jarring and lengthy diversions into slapstick comedy and musical territory too. The variety of garish late ‘80s leisure-wear on show during the scenes that illustrate Anita and Sunil’s burgeoning relationship is in itself enough to keep me entertained, whilst the extended (by Western standards) run-time allows the totally irrelevant sub-plot in which strangely likeable comic relief fat guy Jagdeep discovers that he is an exact doppelganger of a feared bandit chief to become so elaborate that it could easily have been spun off into a movie in its own right – and a fairly entertaining one at that, with plenty of lovingly wrought Laurel & Hardy-esque hi-jinks to enjoy.

How many Western horror films have you seen which find time for the sight of a portly bandit chief stripping off to his voluminous y-fronts for a dip in a tropical lake whilst humming Donna Summer’s ‘Love To Love You Baby’? Very few, I should imagine. And do you feel, on the whole, that horror films could be improved by the inclusion of such antics, when judiciously applied? Let’s take a straw poll. I vote ‘YES’.(3)

And if you vote yes too, that I’d commend you to put a Saturday afternoon or two aside and investigate the world of the Ramsay Brothers forthwith. By taking the macabre, monster bash imagery, psychotic violence and leering yet puritanical sexuality beloved of the Western horror film, and combining it with the joyous excess and maximalist entertainment value of Bollywood film culture, the Ramsays created a wonderful and unique cinematic brew that simultaneously hits up just about all the pleasure-points that popular cinema has to offer, and furthermore does so relentlessly for two and a half solid hours, without even stopping to take a breath.

It tells you something I think about the richness of Indian horror that ‘Purani Haveli’ seems to be considered one of the later and lesser efforts in the Ramsey Bros catalogue, when frankly, if any director West of Istanbul had made this film, it would surely be considered a classic of mindbending OTT genre insanity, ready to be referenced by fans in the same breath as ‘Alucarda’, ‘Housu’, ‘Santa Sangre’ or ‘Suspiria’. Admittedly, it is far cruder, both thematically and technically, than any of those examples, but in purely visceral terms it provides just as much of a full-on, transformative experience for the unwary viewer. And with the paucity of critical attention these films have received thus far, I suspect we are almost all unwary viewers. Time for total immersion style education, I feel.

(1) A handy location credit on the film’s opening titles reveals that the bulk of it was actually shot at the Palace of the Nawab of Janjira, near the village of Murud on India’s East Coast – a colonial mansion set atop a hill overlooking an island that appears to have been completely transformed into a Moorish coastal fortress (the Murud-Janjira). “Distinct features of Moghul architecture with a touch of the Gothic”, according to the link above, and who am I to argue? Type it into google image search and proceed to GAWP. Currently riding high on the list of “incredible places I’d like to visit”. I couldn’t find many pictures of the palace’s interiors online (maybe it’s not publicly accessible, or whatever?), but the few blurry camera-phone pics that did come up on a search definitely match the interiors seen in ‘Purani Haveli’.

(2)All three volumes of MM’s Bollywood Horror Collection were recently declared officially out of print, so with Ebay/Amazon prices currently in the process of rocketing in tediously predictable fashion, I’d recommend grabbing copies whilst you still can – they’re really a the only way to experience these much neglected flicks in high quality / English friendly forms.

(3)According to the notes by Pete Tombs accompanying the Mondo Macabro DVD, this bandit chief is a parody of a similar character in the 1975 bollywood classic ‘Sholay’.

Monday, 2 December 2013

Yakuza Cop: The Assassin
(Yukio Noda, 1970)

Has the output of a commercial film studio ever matched the sheer level of NO RULES anarchy exhibited by Japan’s Toei studios during the early 1970s? Well, I can’t say for certain, and of course Toei were still producing plenty of relatively ‘normal’ genre pictures to sit alongside their more outré efforts through this period, but nonetheless - the more examples I see of the kind of high-octane, good taste-eviscerating madness that seemed to rule the roost at the studio during these years, the more I’m inclined to think that, for better or worse, there was *something* pretty unique going on behind the scenes.

God only knows what was transpiring on a management level at Toei during this period. If anyone has seen fit to discuss the matter in English, I’m unaware of their efforts, but we can at least speculate some, based on the knowledge that Toei had always been something of an enfant terrible amongst the Japanese film studios, having been established during the period of reconstruction that immediately followed WWII, and bank-rolled largely via the corporate/construction money that accompanied it.

Unashamed b-movie bruisers right from the outset, Toei were free of the sense of dignity and respectability that sometimes dragged down the older studios in the post-war marketplace, and from the mid-‘50s onwards, they locked into a relentless production schedule of action-focused samurai and crime films that allowed them to swiftly gain ground on their more venerable competitors, providing exhibitors with competitive deals on pre-packaged, audience-pleasing double bills that by the dawn of the ‘60s had secured them a position as one of the biggest players in the domestic film industry.(1)

With this kind of underdog, low-brow history, I guess it stands to reason that when cinema attendance began to fall sharply in the ‘70s, and with the remaining audience skewed heavily towards itinerant single men and those too poor to afford TV sets, company policy at Toei would naturally have been to try to push the sex and violence quota of their product several steps further than their competitors, whilst upping the pace of on-screen action as much as possible. And verily, this is exactly what they proceeded to do. AND THEN SOME, as anyone who has seen even the smallest fragment of their post-1968 output will testify.

Which is all well and good, but still, I think it only goes some way toward explaining the sheer madness that seems to characterise much of Toei’s output in this era. Could it be that the films in question were perhaps just the progeny of one or two rogue producers, giving their film-makers a “what the hell, go nuts” blank slate, just to help keep product rolling..? If so, I suppose it figures that when your roster of creatives includes deviants and innovators on the level of Shinyo Ito, Teruo Ishii, Kinji Fukasaku and Norifumi Suzuki - all buoyed up by the knowledge that at least some of their wilder outings turned out to be huge hits – sparks are inevitably going to fly. With this in mind, perhaps the writing was simply on the wall as the studio ploughed on toward the accumulation of what now seems like one of the world’s greatest stockpiles of totally crazed exploitation films.

Beyond all that though, Toei’s daily bread always came from straight-up yakuza films. In fact they pretty much dominated the genre from the ‘60s onwards, releasing vast quantities of formulaic product and setting the agenda for all of the genre’s periodic reinventions. Chris D.’s recently published ‘Gun & Sword: An Encyclopaedia of Japanese Gangster Films, 1955-1980’ (see footnote 1 and then BUY IT) lists details of over 300 Toei yakuza films, and in all likelihood they probably made many more. In fact they made so many of the damn things that the various other genres they dabbled in (pop culture-inclined ‘youth’ flicks and Sukeban/Pinky Violence of course, plus sexploitation, comedy, martial arts, horror, etc.) often seem like mere spin-offs from the endless grind of the yakuza machine.

But just as yakuza material tended to drift across almost by osmosis into other genres, so the pop art surrealism, weird sex and goofball humour seen in the studio’s more unglued productions also sometimes filtered back into the yakuza titles… or at least, I think that’s probably the best way for us to go about making sense of a movie like ‘Yakuza Cop: The Assassin’, whose none-more-generic yakuza title actually masks an all-over-the-map, genre-defying freakout, wantonly mixing elements of Bond-style action/adventure, screwball comedy, crime movie badassery and youth movie energy into a bewilderingly ridiculous, endlessly enjoyable brew that has little to do with any variation on the yakuza formula, but that surely does provide an exemplary demonstration of the kind of craziness Toei were capable of unleashing at the dawn of the ‘70s.

In the aforementioned ‘Gun & Sword’ (I did remind you to buy a copy, right?), Chris D. is actually pretty scathing about the ‘Yakuza Cop’ movies, describing the first entry in the series as “ eminently forgettable timewaster”, and dismissing this one as being “Not so much directed as slapped together from what looks like nearly unsupervised footage”, concluding that it is “ in a very light-hearted, non-discriminating way. Don’t go in expecting high quality and you may be able to enjoy it.”(2)

To which I say: c’mon Chris, really..? I mean, I get where you’re coming from I suppose, and I know you’re primarily about the serious, well-made yakuza films and all that but - *MAY* be able to enjoy it? To be honest, I’d question the sanity of a ‘70s b-movie fan who failed to enjoy this one. I mean, I know from your write-ups on the sukeban films and so on that you’ve got a keen appreciation for mindless mayhem too, so could you really find so little to appreciate in this... this wondrous motion picture, this film in which…. well, I think the best way for us to proceed is with a brief synopsis, don’t you?

So: ‘Yakuza Cop: The Assassin’ opens with the sight of ubiquitous character player Ryôhei Uchida, greasy-haired and cackling in an immaculate white suit, kipper tie and jauntily angled hat, boarding a brightly painted bus belonging to a Hindu dance troupe at an airport carpark. Cutting open the skin of a bongo drum, he finds what he came for – a massive quantity of weed – and the requisite suitcase full of cash changes hands. But wait! Sirens! Apparently a small army of cops are on their way to intercept Uchida! What’s he gonna do?

Well it turns out that what he’s gonna do is run around in a panic for a few minutes, until he is unexpectedly rescued by Sonny Chiba, resplendent in a full-on black leather pimp suit and Meijo Kaji floppy vengeance hat, who screeches to a halt beside him in a bright red dune buggy! “Hop in,” says Chiba, and the requisite enka/funk-fuelled credits sequence plays out against the duo’s tyre-screeching escape from the fuzz, as they leave the cops literally eating their dust.(3)

And what can you possibly say to a movie that begins like that? Not much, beyond a happy combination of “I have no idea why this is happening” and “but please continue, it’s amazing!” that is engendered by only the very best action/exploitation films, and that continues to predominate through the majority of ‘Yakuza Cop’s run time.

When we re-join Chiba and Uchida, they’re busy doing what any of us would do having just staged a daring escape from police custody whilst in possession of a large quantity of illegal drugs: namely, goofing about on a street corner in the same flamboyant outfits they wore during the getaway, exchanging banter with an itinerant fortune-teller and preparing to cement their new friendship by heading to the nearest bar to get drunk. You see, it turns out the pair didn’t actually know each other prior to their escape. But if it occurs to Uchida to wonder exactly WHY Chiba came out of nowhere to stage such an unlikely rescue, well… quick ,move along there, viewer! You’re thinking too hard, when there’s random mayhem to be enjoyed!

Entering the film’s requisite subterranean psychedelic nightspot (‘Club Queen Bee’), complete with a Group Sounds outfit called The Scorpions wailing away on-stage, our heroes are immediately assailed by the sight of a Japanese woman being man-handled by a bunch of neckless, Gomer Pyle lookalike American GIs. Clearly this kind of crap won’t stand, and our guys are just about to go into action when the club’s bouncer intervenes ahead of them. A thoroughly gigantic individual, this turns out to be none other than legendary wrestler Giant Baba, making a brief but memorable cameo appearance.

“You son uva bitch!,” yells one of the Americans, charging forward with a red Gretsch guitar raised above his head(!), before Baba hurls him across the room with such force that he and his buddies are apparently thrown completely out of the movie. With national pride safely reasserted, Chiba and Uchida proceed to pal around with Giant Baba for a few seconds, proclaiming him “the strongest Japanese [they’ve] ever known” and dutifully doing the old ‘bone-crunching handshake’ routine, before he too exits the movie and our heroes move on to the club’s next room, a casino, where some serious yakuza business is going down.

As Uchida is busy introducing Chiba to his gang boss though, disaster strikes in the form of, uh… ninjas!? Well, sort of. Four masked assassins drop from the ceiling wielding pistols and open fire, allowing Chiba the chance to take a hit that conveniently saves the boss’s life, and also to unleash a few licks of the jaw-dropping karate that make him an international star a few years after this film. It’s all to no avail though, as the assailants disappear as quickly as they arrived. Where could they have gone..? Well let’s just say that The Scorpions are piling into their tour van a little bit quicker than might be expected…

And so things go on. If I’ve recounted these opening scenes in exacting detail, it’s simply to give you a feel of the head-spinning velocity that characterises these Toei films – the relentless piling up of incident upon incident, strung together with only the slightest thread of narrative glue, with speed-freak editing and crash zooms barely giving you a chance to catch your breath before the next batch of carnage unfolds. It’s insane, and I love it.

Actually, it’s just as well ‘Yakuza Cop’ takes this kind of non-stop, event-packed approach, because when we do finally get stuck into the central plot-line, it’s pretty dull stuff to be honest. Obviously Chiba is an undercover cop, and obviously he’s busy playing out another variation on the old Yojimbo / Fistful of Dollars formula, ingratiating himself with both sides in a gang conflict and turning them against each other until he’s the last man standing, with only the fraternal bond he develops with Uchida serving to twang his conscience a little along the way.

And so things might have played out if this were a standard Yakuza film, but thankfully director Noda and his collaborators seem keen to do everything in their power to distract us from this fairly hum-drum tale, diverting our attention toward all manner of largely irrelevant shenanigans at every opportunity.

Take for instance the almost surreal romantic interludes wherein Chiba and Uchida visit the latter’s sister, a dewy-eyed young thing who appears to be single-handedly running an orphanage for a generic crowd of happy, cheering children in an idyllic rural setting. (4) A hilariously over-extended sequence shows Chiba and the sister getting to know each other by riding horses through verdant meadows, with so much Vaseline on the lens we can barely see what’s going on. Meanwhile, they leave Uchida in charge of the kids, which scarcely seems a good idea. (One suspects that this whole sub-plot only exists so that Chiba can show off his riding skills and squeeze in his rousing rendition of a romantic ballad, but it’s all pretty funny regardless – weird ‘Sound of Music’ vibes with a ramshackle looking Alpine farmhouse in the background and everything.)

This all provides something of a contrast to the scene later in the movie where Chiba follows a lascivious bar girl / yakuza operative to a wild marijuana party, where we get to see Japan’s leading action hero ‘tripping out’ on the demon weed, complete with all the wild lighting, fish-eyed semi-nudity and fuzz guitar freakout jive you could hope for.

And, making up most of the time when that kinda stuff isn’t happening, we get a veritable avalanche of light-hearted action set pieces that seem peculiarly reminiscent (in tone, if not necessarily in quality of execution) of the kind of stuff Jackie Chan would go on to perfect a decade or two later.

Highlights here are plentiful, taking in blink-and-you’ll-miss it spoofs of everything from Golgo 13 to Thunderball to The Dirty Dozen, a guy who looks like Bunta Sugawara but isn’t putting in a winningly melodramatic turn as a crippled, drunken assassin, and – my personal favourite – frequent appearances by a lead goon who looks like he’s going all-out to win the Japanese Charles Bronson lookalike contest. (I thought this might have just been an accidental happenstance, until Chiba greets him with a line that the subtitles translate for us as “be punctual, you fake Charles Bronson!”)

Frankly, Chiba’s wardrobe alone was enough to keep me entertained through the moments of dull yakuza plotting that punctuate the film’s middle half hour (aside from his aforementioned Sasori outfit, the various-shades-of-green and swirl pattern tie ensemble he’s rocking just prior to the conclusion is astonishingly cool), but thankfully those moments are rare indeed.

I mean, I don’t think I’ve even told you yet about the bit where Chiba chases a crossbow-wielding assassin through an abandoned funfair, complete with randomly placed trampolines and a potentially lethal cups and saucers ride. Or the bit where he gets the ass burned off his trousers after careering around in a burning jeep. Or how about Uchida and his mute sidekick rampaging through a coastal yakuza hideaway in a leopard-skin painted military assault vehicle with a sack full of dynamite..? Man, I was cheering like a football fan at the cup final through that shit. I guess that would have just about done most movies for their action-packed finale, but ‘Yakuza Cop’ carries on to give us random backflipping female kung-fu assassins in black & gold ‘bumblebee’ style outfits, speed boats chases, helicopter stunts, smoke bombs… holy cow, do I ever love this movie.

Well, anyway - you get the idea. Presumably you’re already sold by this point, or have stopped reading. So let’s move on.

One thing that’s notable about ‘Yakuza Cop’ compared to most other Japanese genre films of this period is the complete lack of any nasty sleaze or sexploitation elements. Throughout, the film has an earnestly good-natured, upbeat feel to it to match Chiba’s mugging and Uchida’s slovenly grin. Hell, give or take the marijuana party and the occasional gangster massacre, the movie is practically family friendly – a nigh-on inexplicable occurrence within the context of Toei’s usual MO, but I for one don’t think that makes it any less enjoyable. (Indeed, it’s nice to have one of these kinda films that can be screened in mixed company without the need to issue a warning / apology in advance.)

Such an approach becomes even more surprising though given that we last encountered Yukio Noda on this blog via the singularly vicious Zero Woman: Red Handcuffs, a film that sits at completely the other end of Toei’s tonal spectrum. Insofar as I can tell, Noda remains a fairly undistinguished figure within Japanese b-film lore, a workaday type director with relatively few IMDB credits to his name,(5) but if we can draw any comparison at all between these two examples of his work beside their relentless mayhem, it’s probably an ability to identify the core essence of a film’s appeal (psychopathic abuse in the case of ‘Red Handcuffs’, zany humour in ‘The Assassin’) and to go about as far with it as he possibly can with it before the metaphorical engine splutters to a halt.

And whilst Noda isn’t exactly the smoothest of directors, I can’t help but think that Chris D.’s above-quoted dismissal of his work here as “near unsupervised footage” is a little harsh. Sure, it’s all pretty rough n’ ready, with scenes thrown together seemingly at random, and at least some material apparently shot on the fly with little in the way of finesse or preparation. But that, I think, is very much in keeping with the spirit of a film like this one, in which sheer velocity is valued above all things, and in which any undue application of care, forethought or, heaven forbid, rational thought is liable only to succeed in sabotaging the unstoppable forward momentum.

Plus, amid all the chaos, individual sequences here are often quite well handled, I think. Noda certainly never loses the audience’s attention, that’s for sure, and, in keeping with the majority of Toei product, the cinematography remains accomplished enough to make most low budget American filmmakers weep with envy. The numerous action scenes, though knowingly absurd, are often pretty great too, at times exhibiting some imaginative framing and editing, staggering levels of destruction and above-average stunt-work and fight choreography. (Chiba himself can presumably take responsibility for some of the latter - he was in the process of establishing his famed Japan Action Club at around this time, and many of ‘Yakuza Cop’s action scenes become blatant showcases for his acrobatic prowess… not that there’s anything wrong with that.)

Furthermore, Noda also seems here to be tapping into a vein of self-aware pop art surrealism that to some extent places ‘Yakuza Cop’ within the lineage established by Japanese cult cinema godhead Seijun Suzuki, as presumably filtered through the ‘70s-exploito lens of disciples like Yasuharu Hasebe and Toshiya Fujita. (The police briefing room scenes, where the cops have life-size cut-outs of the criminals they’re tracing propped up against the wall, seem a very Seijun-like touch, for example.)

In fact, at a push you could easily see ‘Yakuza Cop’ forming a perfect bridge between the brash spectacle of those latter-day Nikkatsu youth/action movies and the even more unhinged, comic book stylings of Noda’s more notorious Toei contemporary, Norifumi Suzuki - a man whose formidable Non-Shit Giving this film definitely seems to emulate, if in somewhat less explicit form.

We’ve already noted ’Yakuza Cop’s tendency to lurch momentarily into spoof territory, but I think the legacy of the anarchic post-modernism borne of the aforementioned influences can be seen most prominently in the deliberate ludicrousness of the film’s action scenes. A form of humour that I’ve actually noticed popping up in a wide variety of Japanese films - from Kazuhiko Hasegawa’s Leonard Schrader scripted ‘The Man Who Stole The Sun’ (1979) through to Takashi Miike’s ‘Deadly Outlaw: Rekka’ (2002) - this technique reaches its apex In ’Yakuza Cop’ during the finale, in which we see Chiba in close pursuit of a boat full of heavily-armed yakuza, first in a speed-boat, and subsequently dangling from a rope suspended from a helicopter. Throughout this, our hero appears to dodge the solid wall of machine gun fire aimed at him at near point blank range, only falling when a well-aimed pistol shot cuts through his rope!

Seeking to pre-empt the viewer’s automatic “that’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve seen in my life!” response to such poorly staged or implausible goings-on, the approach used here functions by throwing caution to the wind and simply making the events portrayed on-screen so outrageously stupid that, rather than calling foul, the viewer is instead inspired simply to laugh with the filmmakers in a spirit of happy disbelief - a playful wrong-footing of audience expectation that didn’t become common in Hollywood cinema until… when? Andy Sidaris movies? ‘True Lies’? I dunno.

In conclusion, I don’t want to pump up expectation for this movie too high – god knows, it’s certainly no masterpiece, and it’s certainly not going to change anyone’s life any time soon. But: it is a blast, and sometimes that’s exactly what you need – pure, mindless entertainment, presented with an idiot grin and an energy level akin to a runaway train. A perfect Saturday night party double bill filler, ready mixed to warm up the palette, ready for, say, ‘Stunt Rock’ or ‘Ninja III: The Domination’ or ’Lady Terminator’, or some other truly world class example of mind-boggling action movie nonsense… but with just a touch of cinematic elegance and sly intelligence slipped in there too for an added kick. Perfect.

(1) Prior to this, the convention in the Japanese film industry had been to mix A and B pictures from different studios, so Toei’s ability to provide BOTH halves of the bill at a bargain rate understandably put the rest of the industry into a bit of a spin. Thanks by the way to Chris D.’s utterly invaluable ‘Gun & Sword: An Encyclopaedia of Japanese Gangster Films, 1955-1980’ for all this Toei background.

(2) Pp. 373-374 in the book. There were four films made, of which this was the second. Or at least, I’m pretty sure it is -very similar titles, cast & crew credits and plot synopses of the first two films don’t help much with aiding identification, and discrepancies between the entries in ‘Gun & Sword’, the films’ pages on IMDB and the subtitled credits on the film itself muddy the waters further, but yeah, I’m pretty sure this is the second one, also known as ‘Yakuza Cop: Marijuana Gang’. The third and fourth films by the way were ‘Yakuza Cop: Poison Gas Terror’ and ‘Yakuza Cop: No Epitaphs For Us’ (both 1971), which I mention simply because they have cool names.

(3) I’m assuming it’s Chiba himself singing the theme song incidentally, as is standard practice for Japanese popular movies, and a right, throaty, gravelly job he makes of it too.

(4) I’m afraid I can’t match up the IMDB cast list well enough with character names stated in the film to really be sure who plays who in the supporting cast, so I thought I thought it best just to leave out acting credits from the majority of this review, rather than randomly guessing. So apologies to the woman who played the sister, and to Fake Charles Bronson for that matter. 

(5) Noda went on to direct several other Chiba vehicles later in the ‘70s, and it’s strange to note that several of the cinematic in-jokes seen in ‘Yakuza Cop’ seem to act as odd ‘future echoes’ of moments in his subsequent career; the brief spoof of Golgo 13 prefigures his directorship of a live action version of that franchise in 1977, whilst the appearance of Japanese Charles Bronson seems to anticipate the utterly bizarre sounding US/Japanese kung fu flick ‘Bronson Lee’, which he helmed in 1975. Coincidence..? To avoid the distraction of further thought on the issue, I’m going to go with “yes”.

Monday, 25 November 2013

Donovan’s Brain
by Curt Siodmak
(Editions for Armed Services Inc.,
year unknown)

 So this is one of the more unusual items of acquired of recent. A miniature, pocket-sized US Services edition of Curt Siodmak’s brain-swap sci-fi epic ‘Donovan’s Brain’.

As you might expect, the paper this thing is printed on is veeery low grade - both covers are loose, and the pages feel like they’re practically falling apart in by hands. None of the usual copyright info, ISBN / Library of Congress numbers or year of publication info are present. Because, y’know, the army got better things to do than worry about that kinda shit.

Given that I’m primarily familiar with Curt Siodmak via his voluminous work as a screenwriter for ‘30s and ‘40s American horror films, I’d assumed that ‘Donovan’s Brain’ must be a novelisation (presumably based on his own screenplay) of the 1953 b-movie classic of the same name, directed by Felix E. Feist. My usual exhaustive research however reveals that Siodmak actually had no direct connection to that film. ‘Donovan’s Brain’ was an original novel, first published in 1942 and previously filmed as a Republic Pictures quickie entitled ‘The Lady and the Monster’ in 1944.

Despite having greatly admired a number of the films Siodmak worked on (every horror fan owes him a few moments of worship I think for his scripts for ‘The Wolfman’ and ‘I Walked With a Zombie’), I’ve never read anything by him in prose-form. The opening page here though makes me think that I’d very much like to try, but for the fact that this particular copy is on the verge of disintegrating;

Oh, and as an added point of interest, check out the selection of literature available from Editions for Armed Services Inc. during whatever period this book dates from. (WWII? Korea? – who knows). A varied library, to say the least.

Thursday, 21 November 2013

The Three Day Alliance
by Howard R. Simpson

(Ensign, 1975)

 From a distance, this might look the very essence of ‘70s retro-cool spy movie chic, but the closer one looks, the shoddier it gets. That one-piece, full-body knitted romper suit the girl seems to be wearing? That horribly forced, unnatural pose against the blank photo studio backdrop? And just take a good look at our super-spy himself - jesus, how many sit-com bank manager and Hammer bartender auditions did that guy fail before he was reduced to this? See the hatred in his eyes, and shudder.

Still, love those bright-yet-muted colours, and the simple-yet-elegant design, I suppose. Loved it enough to drop an astonishing *£3* on it in a Herne Hill vintage emporium recently, anyway.

Sunday, 17 November 2013

Starship Troopers
by Robert A. Heinlein

(Four Square, 1961)

Not sure there’s much I can say about this one that hasn’t already been said, except:

1. I picked it up for 50p in a Nottingham charity shop. Condition = WRECKED.

2. The book itself may be astoundingly disagreeable fascistic hokum, but this cover illustration is the very epitome of old school two-fisted sci-fi hoo-hah, and for that I love it.