From The Deuce
- Released in 1967
- Running Time: 97 Min.
- Directed by Toshio Masuda
- Written by Kaneo Ikegami, Toshio Masuda
- Starring Tetsuya Watari, Ruriko Asaoka, Kayo Matsuo, Tatsuya Fuji, Jo Shishido
Velvet Hustler is the story of a yakuza hitman named Goro, not an unusual subject for a Nikkatsu film, who is a bit to cavalier about his job. He accidentally kills a man he is only supposed to wound and as a result is exiled from his home in metropolitan Tokyo to more industrial Kobe. This upsets him to no end and he proceeds to try and drink, fuck, and steal his way to some kind of happiness. Soon there is another hitman hot on his trail sent by, he suspects, the family of the man he killed. Amidst all this he begins falling for a woman engaged to a man his family murdered. Things get hot, the cops are looking to shut him down, the hitman kills his friend, and ultimately he decides to leave the country. Will we make it? Will she go with him? Spicy wasabi drama.
Actually this movie is not spicy at all. It’s actually rather bland and almost completely unwatchable. Granted, this is a Japanese film, so there are going to be a whole mess of people who find it boring just on that basis. But the writing was especially dry and stale and even those who appreciate Japanese cinema will be bored. Like some other Nikkatsu films I have seen since Fantastic Fest this film suffers from a bookend disorder wherein the beginning and end of the movie are pretty cool and the middle sucks the wind right the fuck out of the sails.
The trend with Nikkatsu gangster flicks is that when they tell a yakuza’s story, they tell the story of his last days or him having to claw his way back from annihilation. While this may seem like a commonality in all gangster cinema, the difference with Nikkatsu is that they will recount every single moment and every event in that character’s life until that point. See Nikkatsu was heavily influenced by French New Wave, a movement in film that I actively despise, so there is a lot of singing, dancing, frustratingly cyclical discussions about love, and bar hopping. The best Nikkatsu films are those that find a way to incorporate these items without bogging the movie down to the point of zero entertainment value. I have had to state this before but let me reiterate that I am not a mindless, heartless brute. I can appreciate good subtext and character development, but this is honestly too much and it feels like pretentious filler.
There were some things to like about this movie. Tetsuya’s Goro is fantastic. He’s as cool as the other side of Humphrey Bogart’s pillow. He says some things that are just so callous and obstinate that you have to laugh. I also loved the way he used his hat like a cowboy; pulling it over his eyes to constantly disconnect himself from the world. He also whistled as if he had no care in the world even when shit was falling down around him. He has this real exterior “fuck the world” attitude but we still catch glimpses of a deep longing within him. He wants to go back to Tokyo so badly. There is a great moment when he refers to a toll booth ticket from his trip from Tokyo as his good luck charm because it’s “still good”. In that one instant, we are privy to an entirely separate layer to his character and it is so striking.
I also would be remiss if I didn’t point out that the other hitman is played by Mr. Shishido himself. Jo is my favorite because he is so completely unassuming and yet gets the fucking job done. He’s like the Duke in that way. Check him out in Branded to Kill or Youth of the Beast (both criterions). The ending is also very good. Though the girl’s motivation for what she does to set it up (being vague to avoid spoilers) is murky at best. I love the stand that Goro makes and the fuck you he gives police. The last shot of him sums up his whole essence.
All in all, not the greatest Nikkatsu film and not one you will readily find at your local video store. It does not exist on DVD so you will have to hope that your video store is as fan-fucking-tastic as Vulcan Video here in Austin, TX.
Review by Casper Von Sidecar - 5/18/09