Tomisaburo WakayamaTadao NakamaruKoji TsurutaHarumi Sone
Sympathy for the Underdog
Also known as: Gamblers in Okinawa
Medium: film
Year: 1971
Director: Kinji Fukasaku
Writer: Kinji Fukasaku, Fumio Konami, Hiro Matsuda
Keywords: yakuza
Country: Japan
Language: Japanese, English [lots of Americans in Okinawa]
Actor: Koji Tsuruta, Noboru Ando, Kenji Imai, Asao Koike, Akiko Kudo, Kenjiro Morokado, Hideo Murota, Tadao Nakamaru, Harumi Sone, Asao Uchida, Tomisaburo Wakayama, Tsunehiko Watase, Rin'ichi Yamamoto
Format: 93 minutes
Website category: Japanese old
Review date: 19 June 2013
I didn't like it. Obviously Kinji Fukasaku's an important filmmaker (Battles Without Honor and Humanity, Tora! Tora! Tora!, Battle Royale), but this one didn't do anything for me.
It's a yakuza film. Fukasaku's famous for his work in that genre, among many others. Koji Tsuruta has just finished a ten-year jail stretch and is looking to get back to his old ways on new turf. He has old friends who remember him and are keen to be losers again. (They'd phrase it differently.) They go to Okinawa and the movie mostly writes itself.
The film's good at what it does, in a technical sense. There's plenty of violence. If I'd cared about the cast, it would have been exciting. The gang war is convincingly done and there's even a bit of characterisation for one or two of Tsurata's thugs. It's just that none of it's interesting. It's like watching ants fight each other. Tsurata has no personality. He's a hard bastard who'll kill people. That's it. That's nearly the sum total of what he's like as a human being. He has no hobbies, no interests and negligible conversation. You might as well watch a cliff for ninety minutes. He wants to return to his criminal ways... and why should I care? Buggered if I know. Even he doesn't seem to enjoy his life or take any pleasure in it.
What's more, Fukasaku would agree. Before he came along, the dominant form of yakuza film was the 1960s ninkyo eiga, in which Ken Takakura would play an honourable modern-day samurai, fulfilling his responsibilities even at the expense of his feelings. This is horseshit. Fukasaku turned that on its head in Battles Without Honor and Humanity, which started the 1970s sub-genre of jitsuroku eiga ("docudrama") yakuza films. That title is a clue as to these films' position on their subject.
This particular flick, as the title suggests, is specifically showing us a bunch of yakuza losers. When Tsurata went to prison ten years ago, the gang disbanded and now they're a bit pathetic. One has a wife, a child and a pachinko habit. (He'll leave them behind without a second thought in order to go off to Okinawa and start gunfights.) Another doesn't know not to touch hot things with his bare hands. These guys aren't currently engaged in criminal activity because they got squashed by a bigger gang, which is also why Tsurata wants to flee to Okinawa. He's not up to mixing it with the big boys. All he's got is half a dozen loyal cretins. They're vicious sons of bitches, yes, but there are gangs out there who can send a hundred-strong army to smear you across the pavement if they think you're taking the piss.
There are also subtler ways in which Fukasaku puts the boot into his anti-heroes. They're clueless when it comes to women, being henpecked, feckless and/or by their own admission incapable of being anything more than a blank wall of dreary machismo. Also note the way in which Part Two ends with what looks like success, but everyone's still feeling "like we'd lost what mattered most" and yet more firmly locked into their myopic, destructive mindset.
So we're following a hero with almost no discernable personality, whose only goal is to do something of no interest at which he's surely going to fail. It's cold enough to make Takashi Ishii look cuddly. Admittedly there's no reason why a compelling movie can't be made about loathsome people, but this film doesn't even want to achieve that. Their goals are too pointless and too far removed from anything I can bring myself to give a monkey's about. I see no drama there. The only humanity in this film is:
(a) The fierce loyalty among the yakuza, which might have been interesting had any of them had the slightest regrets about what he was doing. They don't. They think fighting, killing and organised crime are the bees' knees.
(b) The relationship between Tsuruta and his wife/whore. I liked those scenes.
I've been hostile towards this film, but I'm also pretty sure it did what Fukasaku wanted. Presumably there was an audience who actually liked yakuza films. They'd watched ninkyo eiga. Fukasaku wanted them to watch this instead, which is something I can respect. I suppose maybe I'm attacking it for succeeding too well at its objectives. Takeshi Kitano's 1993 Sonatine pays homage to it. I approve of this kind of yakuza film and in principle I love what Fukasaku was doing, but unfortunately I found this one boring.