Jo Shishido and the Red Cherry Blossom Wanderer – DVDs for the Week
Detective Bureau 2-3: Go to Hell Bastards! (Kino)
It may not be the best film of the week but this early Seijun Suzuki yakuza potboiler certainly sports the greatest title I’ve seen flash across my flatscreen all year: Detective Bureau 2-3: Go To Hell Bastards! The film, starring a cocky and cool Jo Shishido as a private detective (with a side job publishing a scandal rag) who hires himself out as an undercover agent to infiltrate a new gang in town for the local cops, is pure B-movie silliness and Suzuki knows it, plays with it, flaunts it. From the pre-credits sequence, where a gun sale (with weapons sold right off an American army base) turns into guns-a-blasting ambush by a rival gang that launches their assault from a Pepsi-Cola delivery truck that barrels through the swap like a tank, to the return engagement gang war that ends the film, this is all about turning a junky crime script into a blast of energy set against a backdrop of candy-colored sets and kitschy nightclub numbers and set to a score of growling pop music.
With his greased-back hair, dark glasses and pock-marked chubby cheeks, Jo Shishido hardly looks like a matinee idol but he pulls it off with sheer bravado. Shishido’s flippant attitude never falters, whether he’s talking his way into a job for the cops or ingratiating himself with a suspicious mob boss. When a nightclub singer almost blows his cover, he jumps into a duet to play for time. When his backstory (thrown together is rush of improvising) finally unravels, he doesn’t even flinch. He just offers a new service: playing double agent for the mysterious big boss. Suzuki directs it all with tongue-in-cheek attitude, not so much making fun of it as making it fun, playing out the by-the-number twists with bright, bubbly enthusiasm and devil may care energy. His later gangster movie parodies take on a genuinely genre-busting stylistic insanity. Here he’s content to just play up the conventions with a cheery self-awareness and the energy of a New Wave genre celebration. Kino’s widescreen disc preserves all that color with a bright, crisp clarity.
Wandering Ginza Butterfly (Synapse)
Before Meiko Kaji was the fearsome Female Prisoner Scorpion and the lovely and deadly Lady Snowblood, she was a fixture in Toei’s colorful juvenile delinquent quickies and low-budget gangster movies. She takes the lead in Wandering Ginza Butterfly as Nami, a one-time girl gang leader who comes out of prison a reformed woman. Nami calls herself the Red Cherry Blossom Wanderer and she returns to the crime-filled streets of Tokyo’s Ginza district to make amends, taking a job as bar girl for a trusting nightclub owner (she returns the favor by collecting the tabs of recalcitrant customers) and giving up her salary to a single mother in a nearby apartment. The lovely Kaji provides a serene center to the familiar story of a nasty gang trying to muscle their way into the nightclub business and a local Robin Hood of a con man who watches her back when she takes on the sneering crime boss (and his junkie of a pool champion) in a winner-take-all game of billiards. It’s a minor but fun piece of seventies genre cinema filled with loud suits, melodramatic complications and a camera that zooms in to hardened faces at dramatically predictable moments. It’s a fine looking disc. And be sure to check out the 37-minute video interview with director KazuhikoYamaguchi, who discusses not just the film but his entire career in the Toei genre mill.
Supplemental notes: Fast Company (Blue Underground)
As a piece of auteur cinema, Fast Company (1979) isn’t exactly classic David Cronenberg. A car nut and racing fan, Cronenberg made this tribute to the sport between Rabid and The Brood and it remains his least characteristic film of his forty-year career. (“Most people donâ€™t know where this film fits in my career and consider it an anomaly,” Cronenberg observes in his accompanying commentary. “But Fast Company is, to me, business as usual. It is an expression of something I was passionate about and remain passionate aboutâ€¦”) But Blue Underground’s release of the film, first on DVD and this week on Blu-ray, also offers supplements that alone are worth the price: two rare pieces of early Cronenberg cinema, a pair of short features each running just over an hour. Stereo (1969), shot in B&W without sound and structured to look like a film document of a scientific study, plays like a first draft of the themes that would dominate films like Shivers, The Brood and Scanners. Eight volunteer test subjects undergo surgery to induce telepathy (some of them even have their speech centers removed) and move into a modernist concrete and glass building while a doctor attempts to observe the formation of a telepathic collective. Pseudo-scientific narration frames the footage, explaining that “the telepathic experience is essentially omni-sexual in nature.” It’s intellectually and conceptually sophisticated but decidedly non-commercial, a quasi-experimental underground film that has yet to find a narrative form. Cronenberg fine tunes his thematic obsessions with Crimes of the Future (1970), a more visually assured but equally detached production that creates a futuristic ghost-town with his eerily empty public spaces and the alienated halls of the “House of Skin” (the physical location is the same as Stereo but the addition of color and the more pronounced atmosphere of human absence makes it even more effective). The mutations and diseases discovered by our detached narrator, radical dermatologist Adrian Tripod, are quintessential Cronenberg inventions, from â€œcreative cancerâ€ (which develops new organs in one patient’s body) to â€œMetaphysical Import Export.â€ Both films were shot without synch sound, and the antiseptic soundtrack, dominated by a dry narrator, only makes the films more unsettling. These are essential to Cronenberg fans, dispassionate portraits of fictional experiments in the mutation of mankind in the near future.
For more DVD releases, see my picks for the week at my blog and my DVD column at MSN.