18 December 2004 | FilmFlaneur
Average Fukasaku is better than none..
Sure Death Revenge is actually the fourth of five film spin-offs from the Hissatu TV series - which explains some of the confusion for a western viewer. A Japanese audience would probably come to the picture with a recollection of past sequels, the background of various characters and an appreciation of the various in-jokes on offer while everyone else will take a while to find their bearings.
Fukasaku's profile in the west has rocketed since his last film Battle Royale (its sequel was completed to less effect by his son, after the director's death). Royale capped a long and successful career in which he worked across a variety of genres, including science fiction, *jidai-geki* or costume drama, as well as most notably the gangster film, with a long and well-regarded contribution to yakuza drama. Fukasaku's films often give the impression of being made quickly, exhibiting little of the coolness and restraint of classic Japanese cinema (one late exception being his Geisha House), but nevertheless with a high degree of professional competence and involvement. There's frequently wider social resonance too: his yakuza saga movies provide an informal commentary on post war Japanese society.
Sure Death Revenge offers none of these wider implications, although the fracturing and confusion between various social groups will be familiar to those knowing the director's other films. There is political plotting at the heart of the film, but it is hard to find in it any contemporary relevance, save perhaps reflecting a typical Japanese ambivalence as to their place in the world. Sure Death's society is a uneven one, with corrupt magistrates, an ill shogun and all the problems brought by weak central values. It opens with a physical representation of this: a magistrate is pursued and killed by an outraged briber whose suit has been neglected. These moments of public turmoil, interrupted by the ironic recollections of Mondo Nakamura (Makoto Fujita) the film's central character, are amongst the film's best. Fukasaku often shines during moments of darkly ironic humour of which Sure Death Revenge has its fair share. One especially cherishes the two coffins - one for the body and a smaller one for the decapitated head - in which one of the assassin's early victims is contained, or Nakamura's browbeating at home.
Away from his own hearth, Nakamura is ostensibly a loyal if bumbling samurai. However, after the magistrate is murdered, he is criticised for failing to save the situation, given reduced wages, the lord then replaced by the young and handsome Okuda - a man with a much more sinister agenda. Immediately after the introduction of the new official, a group of the Shogun's retainers create havoc on horseback in Nakamura's village, during which an elder is killed saving a child. The samurai soon realises that Okuda has something to hide, as the magistrate quashes any further investigation. During a meeting of assassins - at which it becomes apparent that Nakamura is in reality a member of the killer brethren - a bounty is offered for the death of the murderers. Most decline, save for a mysterious samurai Bunshichi (Sonny Chiba) who clearly has an agenda of his own. A lot of the narrative is now taken up with Bunshichi as he mercilessly carries out his job while Nakamura searches for him with the aid of the assassin's estranged daughter. At the same time, Okuda is trying to get rid of Nakamura, who is doing some annoying investigating of his own.
Fukasaku's film may be somewhat confusing in execution, but there is no denying the achievement of the art direction. Artsmagic's anamorphic transfer brings out the sharp colours (notably so in the case of the flamboyantly dressed, noisome retainers of the Shogun) and, in this UK edition at least, is presented to the correct ratio. Less successful is the music, veering from vaguely Spanish up-tempo music through more suspenseful elements, odd cribs from Stravinsky and the end credits in which there plays a forgettable Jap-rock song. At the center of the film is the professional rivalry and relationship between Nakamura and Bunshichi. One only wishes that this had been dwelt upon more, providing an anchor for the rest of events. Mondo's real profession is unknown to his wife and mother in law (who at one point amusingly upbraids him for returning from a scene of death without an umbrella) and lives reasonably comfortable, if under their thumb, also enjoying an un-sated relationship elsewhere. In contrast Bunshichi is more of a nomad, both geographically and emotionally, constantly rejecting the ministrations of his adopted daughter. As played by the cult actor Chiba, Bunshichi makes a reasonable enough impact, but it is Nakamura who emerges as the most rounded individual. Actor Fujita, who had last appeared in the previous installment, the obscurely named Sure Death! Brown, You Bounder! (aka: Hissatsu! Baraun-kan no kaibutsutachi, 1985) creates a believable human being with few of the amazing skills common to cinematic assassins.
As a film Sure Death Revenge would make more sense if issued at once as part of a set featuring all the Hissatu films (a treatment helpfully accorded the original Zatoichi as well as the Babycart series). As it is, apart from Sadanga's less satisfactory Hissatu! (1984), which also stars Fujita, the series is incomplete in the UK - though perhaps Warrior still has plans to rectify matters. In the meantime, fans of the director will no doubt still want to see the present film, although better examples of what Fukasaku is capable of can be found elsewhere - notably in the highly recommended yakuza boxsets that are around, such as that generously including Graveyard Of Honour, Cops Vs. Thugs, and Japan Organised Crime Boss.