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Retaliation Review

May 11, 2015

In the past, I have denounced films on this blog for not having an engaging enough narrative to back up their action sequences or having action sequences that had too much shaky cam, both of which removed my ability to engage in the action as it was shown. However, I’m about to praise the film Retaliation from 1968 for having both these issues. How is that fair? Does anything separate it from any number of Luc Besson produced wannabes?

Let’s bounce back for a minute. Retaliation is a Japanese film from the Nikkatsu in the 1960s. The crime films made by the studio were generally b-films that directors such as Yasuharu Hasebe or Seijun Suzuki could churn out quickly. Suzuki himself would casually quickly spew out four or so a year, but what made his so special was a matter of peppering the simple plots with all the energy, pace and strangeness you could desire on a tight budget. Suzuki’s Branded to Kill features men who become turned on by the smell of rice and feature women with dead birds hanging from their rear-view mirrors.They borrowed from James Bond films: gangsters, machoness and noir cool to create a delerious cocktail that made them unique creations. Suzuki has already earned his cult status with fans like John Woo,Jim Jarmusch and John Zorn. Seeing Suzuki’s films makes you wonder what the other films are like from Nikkatsu. Are they useless derivative junk with Suzuki being their only real diamond in the rough?

Outside Suzuki, Nikkatsu’s action films have been more written about about then watched. Retaliation is directed by Yasuharu Hasebe in 1968 and has recently been released on blu-ray and DVD by Arrow Video. It’s been screened on rare occasions at some Asian film festivals, but has only received an English-subbed home video release in 2015. The film, as of writing, this has less than 50 votes on IMDb. I hope this changes, as this film, when approached with the knowledge of Nikkatsu’s history, is quite a firecracker.

Japanse film poster Retaliation (1968)
Film poster for Retaliation

Retaliation was made quickly, with scripts written as the film was in the middle of shooting. This could lead to some messy narrative confusion, but actually allows the filmmakers freedom to go as far as they want when it comes to camera angles and pure cinematic staging. This film is about a gangster named Jiro Sagae (Akira Kobayashi), who is released from prison and finds himself lent out to another Yakuza clan, who are interested in purchasing land to increase their own grasp of the area. This makes the film’s original title I Own Your Turf! more apt. He meets with Jo Shisido’s character, Hino, who is forced to work with him – an act he cannot really sink his teeth into as Jiro had killed his relatives several years in the past. Shootouts between gang members and double-crosses ensue!

The film’s plot is a bit crude, with perhaps one too many characters. The fact that Jo Shishido’s character is more interesting than Kobayashi’s is an issue, as he has a motive for revenge while Kobayashi’s role is limited to his relationship with Meiko Kaji’s character and his old gangster leader who returns to the story towards the end. What shapes this film into something more interesting is how it’s shot. There is lots of hand-held camera work and the crew is quite playful when trying to illustrate the action. Take the opening scene, where we have a quick duel between Jo and Akira.

retaliation-train-fight

Normally, I’d leap at the chance at the point out scenes so obviously constructed to hide what’s going on, but peeking through the bushes and spying between train carts gave me this “you are there” feeling that I feel like shaky-cam developers like Paul Greengrass are trying to pull off in his Bourne series. It works here, I believe, because I can still see follow the action by seeing who’s attacking who and what they are attempting to do, but am given this in a new perspective of the “not having the best seat in the house” type camera. This type of camera trickery isn’t set strictly to the action scenes either and is often deployed in bizarre fashion such as a dinner meeting between gangsters where an argument erupts from a bird’s eye point of view. I’m not going to spoil any other scenes, but let’s say they involve spot light lit battles and one surprisingly brutal bathroom brawl.

If there’s sour parts, it’s the obligatory scenes of nudity and rape that began coming up in the 1970s. These scenes feel tossed in and only suggest that those bad guys we saw earlier are, guess what, bad! I know this is coming from a man who later directed films with titles as explicit as Raping!. What could that one be about. . .

I’m getting far off topic, but I’d suggest that if you like your films with the cool vibe of the John Woo and Johnnie To and just want to be swept into unique and kinetic camerawork and violent action scenes, please seek out Retaliation. For those requiring a new narrative or political importance in your crime sagas, I’m sure there are some Jean-Pierre Melville films you haven’t seen yet.

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