Cruel Gun Story director Takumi Furukawa appears to have been neither all that prolific or acclaimed, but he is nonetheless an important figure in the history of Nikkatsu. It was Furukawa who directed the venerable Japanese studio’s first major hit after its return to film production in the mid ’50s and, in the process, launched the career of possibly its most iconic star of the period, Yujiro Ishihara. The film in question was 1956’s Season of the Sun, the first of the wave of popular youth-in-rebellion dramas –- known as the Sun Tribe films –- that came to be among the studio’s biggest earners during the late 50s and early 60s.
Ironically, the success of the Sun Tribe films seems to have contributed somewhat to Furukawa’s undoing as far as his relationship with Nikkatsu, as the powers that be eventually decided that Ishihara’s films should only be put in the hands of younger directors more in tune with the youthful concerns of their target audience. By 1967, with the fading popularity of Nikkatsu’s trademark brand of action cinema steering the studio toward financial rough waters, Furukawa had followed the path of other Nikkatsu directors like Umetsugu Inoue and Ko Nakahira to Hong Kong’s Shaw Brothers studio, where, under the name Tai Kao-mei, he helmed such films as The Black Falcon, an espionage thriller that was a close remake of Sergio Sollima’s Eurospy effort Passport to Hell. Based on the few, sketchy filmographies for Furukawa that I can find on the web, Cruel Gun Story appears to have been his last film for Nikkatsu. If that is indeed the case, it is a fitting final note to that chapter in his career, as it is a crime thriller so resolutely nihilistic that at its end — and, by the way: SPOILER — not a single one of its characters is left standing. If you, like me, have ever jokingly tried to spoil the end of a movie for a friend by telling him or her that “everybody dies”, this is the movie that you were actually talking about.
Cruel Gun Story is — like Nikkatsu’s Youth of the Beast, Detective Bureau 2-3: Go to Hell Bastards! and 3 Seconds Before Explosion before it — based on a book by hardboiled crime novelist Haruhiko Oyabu. It tells the story of Togawa, a con who is sprung from prison early via the machinations of a mysterious underworld kingpin who communicates with him through an emissary, a former mob lawyer named Ito. Ito and his boss want Togawa to carry out a robbery that they’ve planned, involving an armored car shipment of racetrack receipts worth 120 million yen, and have hand selected a crew of four men to assist him in the task. They also seem to know an awful lot about Togawa, including the fact that he has a younger sister who was disabled in an accident that Togawa feels at least partially responsible for — a fact which makes the cash-strapped felon that much more likely to take them up on their offer.
Togawa is played by Joe Shishido, a young actor who had been raised into the ranks of Nikkatsu’s so-called “Diamond Line” of top male stars four years previously, in 1960. Soon after that, the profile of Shishido, who is instantly recognizable for his bizarre-looking, surgically enlarged cheeks, was boosted even further as a result of the accidental death of fellow diamond liner Keiichiro Akagi and the sidelining of Yujiro Ishihara after a skiing injury. The subsequent need for Shishido to pick up the slack resulted in him starring in an exhaustive slate of program pictures, many of which featured him playing the type of flamboyant killer roles that he is today best known for. Later, once Ishihara had returned to work and other young stars had been promoted to fill the talent gap, Shishido continued at the same pace, with the result that, at the time of his leaving Nikkatsu in the late 60s, he had appeared in a staggering total of 170 pictures for the studio, 52 of those in starring roles.
Despite Shishido starring in a respectable share of hits while at Nikkatsu, he is most known in the West for one of his resounding box office failures, a film that not only played to near-empty houses when it first opened in Japan in 1967, but also put a full stop to the controversy-laden career of its director, Seijun Suzuki. Of course, anyone who has seen Suzuki’s lysergic Branded to Kill and witnessed Shishido’s ferocious performance as its neurotic, rice-fetishizing professional assassin will understand why the film has come to define the actor for so many. At the same time, those who expect to see in Cruel Gun Story a performance that matches the manic intensity of Shishido’s turns in the films he made with Suzuki –- which include, in addition to Branded, Gate of Flesh and the previously mentioned Youth of the Beast –- may be a bit disappointed, as, with the exception of the film’s operatic conclusion, the actor here exhibits a brooding quality more appropriate to the doomed, haunted character that he portrays.
As you may have already gathered, Cruel Gun Story is a classic heist-gone-wrong tale in the same mold as Kubrick’s The Killing, before it, and Reservoir Dogs after. And characterizing it as such does not, like my earlier reveal of the movie’s high-body-count ending, constitute a spoiler, as the film does little to conceal the fact that its central endeavor is one bound for failure from the very start. For one thing, the flaws in Ito and his boss’s allegedly meticulously constructed plan are immediately and all too apparent. It’s hard to imagine, for instance, that any real world criminal brain trust of this type would elect to move forward with a scheme that depended so highly upon the armored car’s drivers making the completely counterintuitive choice, once their police escorts have been mowed down, of stepping out into the line of fire when they could instead stay safely within the cab’s bullet-proof-glass-lined confines and wait for help to arrive. On top of that, there is the inclusion in Togawa’s crew of Teramoto, a heavily mob-indebted junkie with a twitchy demeanor that signals trouble ahead more clearly than any siren or flashing red light.
But even more than these plot-based warning signs, there is the leaden sense of defeat that hangs over the whole of Cruel Gun Story like a heavy fog. To a great extent, this is communicated through the many visual references to the ubiquitous U.S. military presence in the film’s Yokohama setting, from the jets constantly shown –- and heard –- flying overhead to the African-American soldiers lining the bar at the saloon run by Togawa’s friend, Takizawa (Tamio Kawaji). Once the robbery plan has gone afoul and the gang is forced to seek shelter, they do so in a portion of a disused American military base that seems to have been intended as a recreation in miniature of the red light district in the average U.S. city, the soldiers who once frequented the place still making their presence felt by way of the decrepit state they reduced the place to during their drunken revels. The overall feeling –- contrary, perhaps, to the outside world’s image of Japan and its people at this time in its history –- is of a past that refuses to release its hold on the present, thus making impossible the prospect of escaping from its shadow. Just as Hollywood’s film noirs of the fifties exposed a dark underbelly lying beneath the chipper facade of Eisenhower-era America, Cruel Gun Story presents us with a tragic version of Japan sitting uneasily alongside the success story of the post-war economic miracle.
When the gang’s robbery plan finally begins its inevitable unraveling, starting with the very sensible and predictable decision by the drivers of the hijacked car to stay put just where they are, Cruel Gun Story charts its collapse from an ironic remove that takes the episode into the territory of bleak comedy. After displaying their collective frustration by wildly raining bullets upon the car’s already known-to-be-bullet-proof windshield, the group then decides to winch the car into the back of their waiting truck and take it back to their hideout, drivers and all. At this point begins the laborious, trial-and-error process of extricating the car’s occupants, which is ultimately accomplished by means of gassing them out with piped-in exhaust fumes, though not before one of the guards manages to mortally wound Togawa’s friend Shirai (Yuji Odaka), the one man on the crew whom Togawa handpicked himself.
Soon after this, Keiko (Minako Kozuki), an enigmatic, unfalteringly deadpan young woman who was previously thought by all to be Teramoto’s girlfriend, shows up unexpectedly at the hideout, where she reveals to Togawa that she, also, is working for Ito and his boss, a mobster by the name of Matsumoto. Somehow, a hasty and ill-scripted love connection is made between her and Togawa, a development that –- like Togawa’s earlier assurances to his sister that his luck ”is about to change” and that they will be able to start “a new life” –- in the world of Cruel Gun Story, only makes us that much more certain of the bitter fate that awaits them. And sure enough, as soon as Keiko and Togawa have left the hideout for a meeting with Ito and Matsumoto, leaving the wounded Shirai in charge, the already weak bonds between the remaining members of the gang begin to crumble.
Meanwhile, Togawa discovers that a key part of his employers’ plan involves them not letting him survive to collect his share of the loot. After barely escaping from an ambush staged by Matsumoto’s men, he leaves Keiko in the care of his friend Takizawa and returns to the hideout, only to find Teramoto and fellow goon Okada drawing down upon Shirai. A small army of Matsumoto’s men arrives on the scene soon thereafter and effectively takes down what members remain of the group who haven’t already done each other in – with the exception of Togawa, who is forced to leave the loot behind as he makes a narrow escape through the sewer system. Upon reaching the relative safety of Takizawa’s bar, he begins devising a plan by which he can both exact payback against Matsumoto and reclaim the money, at which point a previously unmentioned underworld rival of Matsumoto’s fortuitously makes his presence known, stepping up out of nowhere to offer his assistance.
From this point on, Cruel Gun Story goes about the business of intently killing the remainder of its major characters, with the narrative gears fairly visible as screenwriter Hisataka Kai labors to get each of them into position to be picked off. For whatever reason, this is no random killing spree on the part of the filmmakers, but rather a methodical cleaning of the slate. Togawa’s fate is saved for last, of course, and it’s suitably apocalyptic, involving him going up in a blazing inferno while clutching a cross medallion given him by his sister earlier in the film. I’m used to seeing Christian iconography angrily bandied about by Japanese genre filmmakers in this manner, but, in this case, I honestly couldn’t determine whether it was a rare instance of it being in earnest, or just an example of the practice at its most bitterly sardonic. In any case, the wages of sin, indeed. (Togawa’s doe-eyed innocent of a sister, by the way, is the only one spared –- but one gets the sense that, if Kai and Oyabu had managed to come up with a way to get a heat-packing hitman into the convent hospital where she is convalescing, things would have been otherwise.)
Like Seijun Suzuki’s previously reviewed Underworld Beauty, Cruel Gun Story benefits aesthetically from the same hindsight that served later Hollywood noirs like Touch of Evil and Kiss Me Deadly, with the result that it presents a distillation of the noir style that borders on pastiche. It’s combination of looming nocturnal cityscapes, expressionistic framing and rich black and white cinematography makes for sumptuous viewing, and is a testament to the surprising level of technical excellence that could be achieved by Nikkatsu even within the confines of its factory-style production methods.
However, while the film’s seamless look gives little indication of the haste and economy with which it was likely accomplished, Cruel Gun Story’s script is another matter. Joe Shishido has said that, at the peak of his Nikkatsu output, he sometimes worked on movies that were essentially made up by the filmmakers as they went along, leaving him to begin shooting with no sense whatsoever of what the basic story was, or who his character was supposed to be. While this is clearly not the case with Cruel Gun Story, there is still evidence within it of a story composed somewhat on the fly, with all of the awkward shortcuts and corner cutting that that implies. Among these I would count the hasty, “because it’s in the script” establishment of a romantic connection between Togawa and Meiko, the all-too-obvious holes in the robbery scheme, and the eleventh hour introduction of Matsumoto’s mob rival to enable Togawa’s revenge plot (which, incidentally, ends up detouring into a kidnapping subplot so hurriedly squeezed into the film’s final minutes that you have to wonder why they bothered).
None of these problems manage to turn Cruel Gun Story into a bad film, mind you. But they still serve to diminish it, especially in light of the comparisons it inevitably begs to The Killing, a film whose script –- written by Stanley Kubrick with the great pulp crime novelist Jim Thompson –- is about as tight and punch-packing as you could ask for.
Still, as a dark mood piece and sure-handed exercise in noir style, Cruel Gun Story is completely successful. While it might have been better served by a more thought-out script –- or the hand of an audacious stylist like Suzuki or Yasuharu Hasebe –- as it is, it stands as an example of the type of stylish, energetic filmmaking that Nikkatsu could produce even when they were perhaps just somewhat distractedly churning the wheels of their movie-making machine. As such, it’s certainly not one to pass up. Especially if you enjoy a film that ties up all of its loose ends in the most violent manner possible.