Nikkatsu, Japan's oldest film company, put together this collection of six films beginning in 1968 and all wrapped up in 1969. The initial film in the series is directed by Toshio Masuda and all six films star Tetsuya Watari as Goro Fujikawa, a character based upon former Japanese gangster Goro Fujita. The fine folks at Arrow Video have crafted a nicely packaged collection of all six films into a limited edition box set with only 3,000 copies made.
The films in the Outlaw series include Gangster VIP, Gangster VIP 2, Heartless, Goro the Assassin, Black Dagger, and Kill! The grittiness of the films is likely to be expected given that they are basaed upon Fujita's own writings. After the initial success of Gangster VIP, Masuda's original was followed in quick order by the other five films. The films were known not only for their gritty realism, but for their relatively sympathetic portrayal of the protagonist, a troubled young man having difficulty escaping from his life of crime and ultimately seeking redemption.
Given that we're talking about a six-film collection here, the extras assembled for each film aren't quite as extensive as we're used to seeing with Arrow collections. This is not to say it's in any way weak. The truth is that Arrow Video continues to turn out some of the finest packaging for indie cult, horror and alternative cinema.
If there's a problem with the Outlaw Gangster VIP collection, it's likely the same problem facing any number of cinematic collections. I mean, seriously, have you ever sat down and watched the Hunger Games films back-to-back? It gets awfully repetitive. The same occasionally happens here and it's particularly noticeable in the first two films of the series, though if you sit down and watch all six films back-to-back, as I did, you'll notice repetitive scenes and actors showing up in different films playing different roles. It's a little odd, though it's also a relatively minor quibble.
Of the five films after Masuda's Gangster VIP, Keiichi Ozawa directed three of them with Mio Ezaki showing up to helm Outlaw: Heartless and Kihachi Okamoto for Kill!. The film's all run right about 90 minutes in length and are a terrific vehicle for the charismatic Watari, who is able to convey Goro's gripping violence and surprising vulnerability with equal ease. In the first film, which really sets the tone for everything that is going to unfold including the complexity of Goro's character.
The second film, perhaps the most repetitive in the series, finds Goro trying to go straight but struggling to make ends meet. He meets two women who exist outside the yakuza scene and ultimately gets drawn back. There's a memorable appearance by Meiko Kaji, but Gangster VIP 2 feels less inspired and is definitely less entertaining.
Heartless picks up the action and feels a little more inspired than its predecessor. Given the relative originality of this film, I find it somewhat interesting that the series left Ezaki behind in favor of turning over the directorial helm to Ozawa again. That said, it would end up being a sound decision once everything unfolded.
In Goro the Assassin, Goro is sent to prison for killing another crime boss but ends up paroled after a few months. Determined, once again, to change is ways, Goro tries again to work straight but is drawn into strip clubs and dealing with up-and-coming gangs. Goro the Assassin features some of the most hardcore violence in the series, though it's worth noting that what was hardcore in the late 60's would be considered moderately tame by today's standards.
Black Dagger continues the whole "trying to go straight, but mostly failing" theme. As always seems to be true in this series, Goro finds himself attracted to a relative innocent, in this case a nurse who looks like a lost love, but we've learned in every film that getting involved in Goro's life isn't the best way to continue your own.
Kihachi Okamoto's Kill! wraps things up rather sloppily with a story that seems to be a rehash of everything that has unfolded up to this point, though credit must be given to Ozawa for at least presenting it stylishly.
The extras, while not as comprehensive, are still intelligent and involving. Arrow once again uses the work of Jasper Sharp to explore this world more fully while the narratives provided are refreshingly honest in pointing out both the strengths and the challenges of the series.
If you're a fan of Japanese cinema, you'll love this collection and it's not likely you're going to get all six films again in a collection of this high quality. For more information on the collection, visit the Arrow Video website linked to in the credits.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic