Blackmail is My Life & If You Were Young: Rage

Year: 1968. Running time: 89 minutes. Color. Directed by Kinji Fukasaku. Starring Hiroki Matsukata. Aspect ratio: 2.35:1. In Japanese with optional English subtitles. Mono. DVD release by Home Vision Entertainment.

Year: 1970. Running time: 89 minutes. Color. Directed by Kinji Fukasaku. Aspect ratio: 2.35:1. In Japanese with optional English subtitles. Mono. DVD release by Home Vision Entertainment.

Review by Derek Hill

When the Japanese film director Kinji Fukasaku died in 2003, he left a body of work -- much of it unseen outside of his native country -- that is sure to puzzle new fans as much as it will reward the adventurous. Regardless of genre (and Fukasaku dabbled in and mastered many genres), his films, which brim with stylistic experimentation and pointed social commentary, are magnificent bursts of violent energy, and most of all, his films are always entertaining.

Largely forgotten or deliberately ignored by mainstream critics in this country -- if they mention him at all it's only for his delirious camp fest Black Lizard or for his co-directing work in Tora! Tora! Tora! -- Fukasaku's films have thankfully seen an upshot in exposure the last few years on the art house circuit, no doubt due to the controversy and box-office success of his rabid Lord of the Flies-on-crystal-meth science-fiction shocker Battle Royale (2000), which is a brilliant teenage daydream played out as a bloodbath, and even more amazing is the knowledge that Battle Royale was made by a 70-year-old man. But these films represent only the tip of the samurai blade in regards to the numerous excellent productions that Fukasaku made over his five decades of filmmaking.

Home Vision Entertainment has recently released two of Fukasaku's more obscure films (at least for those of us in the West) on DVD, and oh, what a treat they are.

First up is Blackmail Is My Life (1968), a wild and bitterly ironic crime tale about a low-life criminal, Shun (Hiroki Matsukata), who harbors big dreams of rising up through the ranks of the underworld so that he can do what any other healthy ambitious young punk dreams of doing -- shagging, eating, and drinking the nights away. With his two misfit cohorts, Shun begins to blackmail respectable (and some not-so-respectable) men with compromising photos in an attempt to make big bucks. But when Shun and company run afoul of the local Yakuza bosses, their low-impact thievery takes on rather dire consequences for all involved.

Although Blackmail is not as frenetic or savagely hard-boiled as many of his 1970s-era crime masterpieces, the film is nevertheless a great place to start for someone unsure of exactly where to begin. At times, the film's cinematic playfulness is reminiscent of the French New Wave films from the 1960s, as we watch this ragtag band of criminals attempt to make something of themselves amongst a stagnant sea of corporate salarymen and Yakuza sharks. But the film also contains the requisite melancholy, anarchic melodrama, and caustic wit that we eagerly crave from the director's best films, adding an emotional weight that is hard to shake off. A fine place to start indeed.

If You Were Young: Rage is a stranger film to pin down. It is largely considered Fukasaku's most obscure film, and as Japanese film scholar Tom Mes mentions in his excellent liner notes for this DVD, Rage was thought to have been lost forever until a print was discovered in the late 1990s, gathering dust in a Shochiku studio vault. Atypical of his major work, Rage is nevertheless a splendid account of five displaced country youths attempting to make it in the big city. Filled with enough energy, ambition, and drive to make their lives meaningful and financially secure, the young men collectively purchase a dump truck and begin working as independent drivers hauling loads between construction sites. But their newfound dreams of prosperity and independence come at a cost far higher than any of them could imagine.

Rage is a brave film in many respects, especially in its critical examination of the then-blossoming Japanese economy. Played like a candy-colored neo-realist film, Fukasaku only slips up in the last third when his more melodramatic tendencies come rushing out, disturbing the delicate equilibrium of this more mature and vital work. It's not a big distraction, but it does unbalance the earnest power that comes earlier in the film. Luckily, what came before is so amazing and dynamic that such criticisms can be largely ignored. Perhaps with time, this peculiar entry in Fukasaku's long career will break free from the shadow of the more crowd-pleasing Yakuza films and take its place among the director's finest.

Two of the director's classic Yakuza films, Graveyard of Honor (absolutely one of the strangest and most unforgettable of all Fukasaku's films) and the groundbreaking Street Mobster, are also set to be released from HVE later this year.

Blackmail is My Life and If You Were Young: Rage are now available on DVD from Home Vision Entertainment in new high-definition digital transfers (2.35:1 aspect ratio) that have been enhanced for 16x9 televisions. Special features: interview with director Kukasaku and director filmography. Suggested retail price: $29.95. For more information, check out the Home Vision Web site.