8 June 2008 | chaos-rampant
Fukasaku fires on all cylinders
Two years after Japanese Organized Crime Boss, the great Japanese director teams up Koji Tsuruta and Tomisaburo Wakayama once again for one more stab (pun intended) at the yakuza genre.
Apart from the collaboration of these two great actors, Sympathy for the Underdog shares many similarities in terms of themes and plot points with their earlier 1969 picture, so much so that Sympathy could be interpreted as a reimagining of the same story.
Koji Tsuruta is the cool underboss of a Yokohama family that gets out of prison after doing a 10 year stint for killing the boss of a rival family in retribution. The family he left behind has now scattered and their earlier allies are now running the show. Realizing there's no more room for them in Yokohama, they'll travel down south to Okinawa to set up their turf, much to the dismay of the local yakuzas.
As one would expect from a Fukasaku picture, it's packed with more bloody action, fistfights and shootouts in seedy bars and back-alleys than you could shake a stick at. But it also has an emotional core by using the familiar genre distinction of traditional old yakuzas that have no place in the new emerging world of new yakuza families that operate much like corporations and who put profit above loyalties and bonds. It's also important to notice that certain things that pass off as novelty these days are anything but. The roots of Guy Ritchie's style for example can be traced back to pictures like this one. Flashbacks that end with freeze frames, voice-over played over montages, it's all part of Fukasaku's visual arsenal and part of what makes him such an influential director.
Like I said above, Sympathy is very similar (at times identical) to the themes and plot points of Japanese Organized Crime Boss. From Tsuruta getting out of prison to find his family in shambles to Tomisaburo Wakayama's character starting out as the antagonist only to join Tsuruta and his gang out of respect for him to the ending, it's all very familiar. It might not win any accolades in terms of novelty, but it's still a fine picture and damn entertaining to boot. Lone Wolf and Cub fans in particular will get a kick out of the character Wakayama plays: Yonabal, the one-hand giant. He's a different kind of badass than Ogami Itto, but he and his band of hooligans are just as likely to raise hell and take no prisoners in the process.
Good cinematography, although sometimes the camera-work got in my nerves what with the cranky 180 degrees shots and overuse of the zoom lens, although that's to be expected from a 70's b-movie. The score is suitably jazzy, in occasion funky or eerie and compliments the action just as well. The opening shot of Tsuruta getting out of prison has a particular "cool" air to it.
All in all a must-see for Fukasaku and yakuza fans and a good entry point for newcomes. All the staples of a successful genre picture are here.