By a Man’s Face Shall You Know Him
- Original title
- Otoko no Kao wa Rirekisho
- Japanese title
- Running time
- 89 minutes
- 18 January 2008
by Jasper Sharp
Western distributors may not have tapped into his oeuvre yet, but Tai Kato is held in lofty enough regard by the local film establishment to make him worthy of a far closer inspection. He is mostly known for his dramatic gangster movies for Toei in the 60s, though like stablemate Kinji Fukasaku, he also directed several works at Shochiku's Ofuna studios. His style is characterised by action sequences shot from incredible low angles, almost ankle-level, and vibrant colour cinematography, full of scarlet splashes of blood. Perhaps his best known titles are his entries in the Red Peony Gambler (Hibotan Bakuto) series, starring Junko Fuji.
Staged across three distinct time periods with the bulk of the story unfolding in the post-war disorder of 1948, By a Man's Face Shall You Know Him is an early attempt at dramatising tensions between Japanese and zainichi Korean residents sharing an uneasy existence within the same living space. The film opens 8 years after the main action, introducing the character of Amamiya (Ando), a doctor at a rundown hospital who has just served an 8-year sentence for murder. When a man (Nakatani) is brought into the hospital fatally wounded after being hit by a car, Amamiya initially refuses to operate, seeing the case as hopeless. But after he sees the victim, whose given name is Sai, and recognises him as a private who fought under him under the Japanese name of Shibata in Okinawa during the war, he has a change of heart.
Amamiya and Sai, however, have a deeper history. During the subsequent occupation period, the town marketplace for which Amamiya acts in the capacity of a landlord sees itself falling prey to the demands of a powerful group of Korean mobsters. With the Japanese locals weary and debilitated after their defeat, the gangsters cause regular havoc and threaten to take over this heart of the community. Amamiya initially remains unwilling to get involved in this local struggle, having seen too much bloodshed during the war. But when his hot-headed brother Shunji (Itami, later the director of such internationally popular hits as Tampopo and A Taxing Woman) courts danger in the form of a young Japanese-born Korean girl Li Keishun (Mari), he finds himself unable to remain detached indefinitely.
Despite the conciliatory note of the coda, and the acknowledgement that resident Koreans have been subjected to a great deal of discrimination by the Japanese over the years, some might find the portrayal of the Korean characters (all played by Japanese actors in Korean dress) as violent, unruly hoodlums ("Now its time to destroy Japan like they destroyed us!" one of the gang members screams) as problematic. But politics aside, By a Man's Face Shall You Know Him is in most other respects a remarkable example of just how well-crafted Japanese studio films were in the 1960s. It is highly compelling, dramatic and wonderful looking, and an interesting early attempt at addressing conflicts that so often get swept under the carpet.