Gun and Sword: An Encyclopedia of Japanese Gangster Films 1955-1980

picture: Gun and Sword: An Encyclopedia of Japanese Gangster Films 1955-1980
21 December 2013


A glance at the long list of books on Japanese cinema by Western authors may make it a stretch to posit, as some have done lately, that auteurism as an approach to film study is increasingly losing favour. It certainly is true, though, that, where Japan is concerned at least, focusing too strictly on individual directors leaves sizeable gaps in our understanding of the nation’s rich cinematic legacy.

From the earliest days when Japanese cinema could be considered an industry, the 1920s, rival studios Nikkatsu and Shochiku had their creative talent adhere to recognizable house styles, which were actively marketed in distinguishing a studio’s output from that of its competitors. Shochiku’s releases at the time proudly sported the signature tagline "A bright and cheerful Shochiku film!" as centrepiece to their publicity campaigns – and the directors under the studio’s employ duly delivered.

Auteurism, certainly in its original French guise, has always acknowledged that such objects of its attention and affection as Hitchcock and Hawks operated within (and were subject to) an industrial production model. However, as Daisuke Miyao details in his remarkable study The Aesthetics of Shadow (recently published by Duke University Press), the catalysts of stylistic and creative turning points in film history weren’t always the directors.

While we may argue the merits of certain individual directors and their bodies of work (surely Seijun Suzuki and Kinji Fukasaku are long overdue their own English-language monographs), any auteurist effort will leave as many gaps as it fills without providing a proper grasp of the context of the industry they sprang from and that largely dictated what films they made, how they made them and who with. Industrial filmmaking comes with clear parameters, not only for budget and schedule, but also for the ingredients that make a film project commercially viable – and in the vast majority of cases it is the film’s star or the genre rather than the director that pulls in the punters.

The most anyone in the West knew about Seijun Suzuki’s working environment was that Nikkatsu fired him for making "incomprehensible" films, which fuelled his reputation as a maverick auteur crafting anarchic little action movies. It wasn’t until Mark Schilling’s No Borders, No Limits: Nikkatsu Action Cinema, the book and the traveling film series, that we began to realize that, far from being anarchic, there were many such pictures being made at the studio at the time, all intended as vehicles for such stars as Akira Kobayashi and Joe Shishido.

One can convincingly argue that Kinji Fukasaku changed the way gangster films were made with Street Mobster and Battles Without Honour and Humanity, but no sooner had these proven their box office potential or the suits at Toei made the jitsuroku or ‘true account’ film corporate policy, ordering their directors to copy the Fukasaku style and their scriptwriters to find inspiration in newspapers. (Incidentally, those who believe Fukasaku invented this chaotic style of recording human cowardice and violence would do well to refresh their memories of Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon, whose various accounts of the central murder case include one that is filmed in strikingly similar ways, a full ten years before Fukasaku even made his directorial debut.)

In spite of the industry that surrounded them, Suzuki and Fukasaku were indeed singular artists, and they are candidates for individual monographs not for only their voluminous output and their towering presence in Japanese film history – or even for the potential readership for such tomes – but also because the terrain was already prepared by the likes of Schilling (see also his Yakuza Movie Book) and by Chris D., whose latest opus Gun and Sword: An Encyclopedia of Japanese Gangster Films 1955-1980 covers the heyday of one Japanese cinema’s most enduring genres.

Long in the works, D.’s epic 820-page labour of love went through as many guises as potential publishers before the author finally released it through his own Poison Fang imprint. The book’s preface provides a blow-by-blow account of this process that will probably put a good many would-be writers off the idea of investing the inordinate amount of time and effort needed to not only write a good book on Japanese film, but to see it through production, onto store shelves and into readers’ hands – and to hopefully see some modest financial return at the end of it all.

As its title indicates, the book is a comprehensive compendium of capsule reviews with credits, alternative titles and star rating for hundreds upon hundreds of post-war yakuza films. The sheer volume of entries gives new definition to the term diligence, but it could well have proven the book’s undoing had the author not decided to forego the more obvious alphabetical listing – which in the case of this many entirely unknown titles would have made it severely unwieldy – and instead divide his tome into sections by studio (with an additional section for films made, to varying degrees, outside the studio system, such as those produced by the Art Theatre Guild). This not only makes it obvious even at a casual browse that Toei was the main purveyor of yakuza fare (the genre’s two most representative forms, the chivalrous ninkyo eiga and the gritty jitsuroku mono, formed the studio’s signature output in the 1960s and 70s, respectively), and that even studios like Shochiku that have a reputation for catering to more genteel tastes churned out enough gangster titles to fill several dozen pages.

While the entries range in length from a page long to providing only title and main credits with no review or description of content, there is little to find fault with in terms of data, while anyone familiar with the author’s previous writings will be aware that D. knows his stuff. Also, as my colleague Jasper Sharp observed in his review of Clements and McCarthy’s comparable Anime Encyclopedia, the big advantage of a reference book of this kind – even in the one-click-away internet age – is that it offers all the information in one handy volume – with the added advantage that any browsing inevitably turns up a wealth of information the reader wasn’t even initially looking for, but could well steer them into new directions.

Context is provided in the form of historical introductions that open each of the studio sections, plus an introductory essay on the history, styles and characteristics of yakuza films, the people who made them and the social and historical events that influenced them. If anything, the author has a tendency to prioritize his personal preferences as criteria for selection. This was also noticeable from his previous foray into the field with Outlaw Masters of Japanese Film, though here it hampers the historical essay more than it does the actual bulk of the book, which goes so far above and beyond what anyone might have reasonable expected that it’s doubtful another writer will ever come along to improve upon Gun and Sword. The glossary of related terminology is handy if you wish to know what such oft-recurring terms as gurentai and kumicho actually mean, but could have greatly benefited from the inclusion of the actual kanji characters for the words; Chris D. claims that his Japanese is limited to reading the titles, taglines and credits on movie posters, so adding a kanji glossary would have allowed many of his readers to achieve the same level of enjoyment during their searches for rare posters, tapes and merchandising.

Such minor gripes aside, anyone with an interest in the genre – and that goes from the amateur DVD collector to the dyed-in-the-wool researcher – should start thinking about clearing enough space on their bookshelf to house this mammoth tome.