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Blackmail Is My Life
cast: Hiroki Matsukata, Tomomi Sato, Akira Jo, and Hideo Murota

director: Kinji Fukasaku

86 minutes (15) 1968
Tartan DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 7/10
reviewed by Jonathan McCalmont
Blackmail Is My Life (aka: Kyokatsu kosow waha jinsei) is an early film by the recently deceased director of films such as Battle Royale, and older works like Battles Without Honour And Humanity: Proxy War (1973), and the Japanese sections of the superb Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970). One of the giants of Japanese crime cinema, Fukasaku was animated by an intense dislike of the 'old guard' and adults in general stemming from his forced enlistment in the Japanese army at the age of 15. Though a trifle rough around the edges, Blackmail Is My Life is a film as angry as it is stylish.

The film opens with the cocky but na�ve Muraki springing from bed and throwing the curtains back to reveal a floor-to-ceiling window in front of which he stands completely naked instantly establishing him as arrogant but vulnerable. Muraki then hops in his sports car and dashes off to meet with his actress girlfriend. Lying back on her bed, he reminisces the events that brought him to this point. The flashbacks are frequently in black and white and made up of stills as well as moving images. Muraki is a blackmailer, and a seemingly successful one at that. Once a waster, content with living off his girlfriend, Muraki was kicked out onto the street, forcing him to take a job cleaning lavatories in a nightclub. One night, he over-hears a gangster and a club owner talking about how they are selling counterfeit hooch but rather than accept a pay-off, Muraki admits that he intends to use the information. After a brutal beating, Muraki and his friends set out to get revenge, eventually filming a gangster shagging a prostitute and then, having blackmailed him selling the film on as a blue movie.

Up until this point, the film is shot in a campy decidedly 1960s' style. Combining voiceovers with hip music and grinning performances, the film has a heady sense of period excess, of arrogance and optimism. But despite this clear desire to emulate the stylings of the 'swinging' west, the aura of glamour never completely fits. The characters wear dapper clothes and laugh at their victims who beg for mercy after being outwitted but the world around them is actually surprisingly grim; while the film features nightclubs and swimming pools it seems to always be shooting them from alleyways, parking garages and fire escapes. The message is clearly that for all of their arrogance and optimism, the blackmailers have been carved out of the Japanese economic miracle and they are merely competing for table scraps.

As the film shifts from flashbacks to real-time, the tone darkens. The music disappears, as do the campy performances. Flush with success, the blackmailers are stunned when some drug dealers murder the father of one of the gang. So they cook up an elaborate scheme to steal their money but for all their posturing, the caper boils down to laying an ambush for the drug dealers and chucking Molotov cocktails at them until they're all dead. Despite watching 400 million yen go up in smoke, the group call this a disaster a success and move on to bigger prey.

Their next caper involves an attempt to secure documentation proving that a political party financed their electoral campaign using underworld money. The group learn about this from a group of sleazy journalists, eager to use the young rule breakers as a means of breaking the story. In order to get this documentation, the group have to outwit an experienced blackmailer but, again, their wits fail them and they wind up pulling a knife on them. A tactic they justify as being those of street punks because that's all they are. However, when they try to blackmail the government, they find out that the old guard have the power because they are more cunning and ruthless than any of the young turks who would take their places.

Blackmail Is My Life is a film with a strong message. It states that the old guard are utterly corrupt and that they owe their power to this corruption. They will also protect this power using any means possible. So, for all the talk of a new era for postwar Japan, the truth is that a gang of ruthless bastards who are all on the make runs the country. Any members of the younger generation who think they will change the world or even carve out a small part of it for themselves are utterly mistaken.

The bleakness of this message is strangely at odds with a lot of Japanese crime cinema that can tend to romanticise criminals as noble honourable outlaws who exist on the outside of a repressive society. Indeed, this is very much the vision of the yakuza you get in films such as Shishido's Branded To Kill, as well as Suzuki's Tokyo Drifter, and Kanto Wanderer (1963). Fukasaku's warts-and-all vision of criminality and society as a whole is actually much more in tune with that of the western police procedural and the noir or hard-boiled fiction that is associated with it (the film's ending is particularly noir). Interestingly, this vision also proved hugely influential upon later generations of Japanese filmmakers including Takeshi Kitano, whose wonderfully absurdist Sonatine (1993), was clearly inspired by Fukasaku's Sympathy For The Underdog (1971).

Blackmail Is My Life is an intelligently shot, impeccably stylish and socially aware film. However, despite clearly being full of ideas and hugely ambitious, it does not completely come together, hence the 7 out of 10 score. Because it is so heavily stylised and shifts so noticeably from one style to another, the film feels weirdly episodic and little attempt is made to tie the film's different sections together. Clearly this is because Fukasaku considers his audience grown up enough to read between the lines but upon first viewing the film feels anarchic and disjointed. This disjointedness is not helped by the fact that the film's single unifying element - the gang - are underwritten and even when they do get things to do it is mostly melodramatic and full of weeping and gnashing of teeth. Indeed, Kitano's replacement of melodrama with emotional entropy and coldness pays rich dividends and can definitely be seen as an improvement upon Fukasaku's original formula. The only well-rounded character is Muraki himself and even this piece of characterisation relies upon the audience assembling the pieces post-hoc.

In many ways, Blackmail Is My Life is a critic's film. It relentlessly punishes passive viewing and yields its treasures only to the viewer that is willingly to ask questions of the text. Amateur hermeneutics fans will rightly adore this clever if experimental film but I can picture quite a few scratched heads and wrinkled brows in the wake of this depressingly unadorned DVD release.
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