Genre: Demise of a Yakuza Schmuck
review in one breath
When Takeo is released from prison for attacking Handa, a rival yakuza lord, the last thing on his mind is taking over the position of his recently deceased father, boss of the Asahina clan. As he and his older brother Aikawa contemplate their options, they soon entertain the idea of falling in love with maidens and leaving the yakuza life altogether. But their exit proves more difficult than planned when their rival clan steps in to exact a little revenge.
I just finished reviewing the wholly remarkable 1969 film Blind Beast by Masumura Yasuzo, a director renowned for his personal indulgence in cinematic philosophical exploration. With this reputation in mind, I sat down to watch the film under review here, his 1960 Afraid to Die, but ended up quite baffled by the disparity in depth and quality between the two films.
Afraid to Die is a rather formulaic yakuza tale with a few interesting tidbits which may or may not make it worth your (personal) while.
The first (possibly) noteworthy aspect is the film's theme which is explicitly spelled out in the title "Afraid to Die". This is a tale about the heir of a yakuza clan who is literally "afraid to die". This fear emerges in several ways yet seems recognizable to all the street-wizened characters. While I am not a pro in the yakuza genre, I have certainly seen my share of yakuza films, none of which depicted a squeamish yakuza lord. (No non-comedic film, that is.)
One of the film's screenwriters is Kikushima Ryuzo whose other work you have undoubtedly heard of; it includes Throne of Blood (1957), The Hidden Fortress (1958), The Bad Sleep Well (1960), Yojimbo (1961), Sanjuro (1962), and on and on. Thus there is indeed something to this film's narrative and storyline which under better circumstances could have been wholly substantial.
And that brings us to the second interesting element of the film, the fact that the rather infamous Yukio Mishima stars in the lead role as Asahina Takeo.
In many respects, Mishima has become a nearly legendary character for his eccentricities in both life and death. For Western audiences his life is dramatically depicted in the 1985 film Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters by director Paul Schrader. Without going into detail, he is most well-known for his obsession with physical austerity and his death by sepukku in (belated) protest over the post-War weakening of the Emperor.
He is also known, however, for his closet homosexuality, a facet of his life which this role seems to bring clearly into the foreground.
In a way, he may have been an excellent choice for the role of a sissy yakuza, but as the history of this film belies, he was far from "wanted" by director Masumura. Rather, Mishima's personal relations with the film company's executives resulted in Masumura's being forced to cast Mishima in the role. This, we are told, despite the fact that Mishima was a "tremendous headache" for the entire cast due to his personal demands and his complete lack of acting ability. Thus keen eyed viewers will undoubtedly see a slightly effeminate and wholly poseur Mishima attempting to act the role of a yakuza boss's heir.
But the best part of this story is the reason WHY Mishima sought this particular role in Masumura's otherwise (potentially) good film. Film history has it that Mishima didn't care whose film or what film he appeared in as long as the following three criteria were met:
- He could wear a leather jacket
- He could play a yakuza
- His death would be captured onscreen.
Ha! 1960 Japanese GLAMFEST!
Well, there's this yakuza sissy who... ahh. Never mind.
This is a good one for cult fans, like those of you who have actually seen (and got a kick out of) Black Lizard (also starring Mishima) and such.
But if you are solely a Masumura fan and are seeking greater insight into his directorial abilities, this may not be for you since it is OBVIOUS that Mishima's limp-wrist approach wholly cobbles this potentially excellent enterprise. (Instead, check out Masumura's 1958 Giants and Toys or his 1969 Blind Beast.)
I have no doubt that this material by this director could have been wholly memorable with a different lead actor, but alas for you and I, my friend, we have here only a mediocre and rather tepid yakuza tale (with a couple interesting elements).
Version reviewed: Region 1 DVD available via mainstream US venues.
|Directed by philosophical Masumura, written by the renowned Kikushima, and starring Yukio Mishima in the lead role.||Some implied violence (off screen) none of which I can currently recall.||Holy Cow! I got a Bonaner just listening to the BANANA SONG!!||This will definitely be fun for a certain cult-nostalgic audience who admire sissy yakuza and wind-up dancing monkeys.|