Kinji Fukasaku’s Street Mobster focuses on the short, fast life of Isamu Okita (Bunta Sugawara), a chinpira or low–level street punk with no firm gang allegiance, trying to carve out a criminal life in an unknown Japanese city sometime after World War Two. His mother was a prostitute who drowned while drunk, his father unknown. As Okita’s narration over a photo montage at the beginning tells us, the date of his birth, August 15, 1945, the day Japan formally surrendered, is considered unlucky.
Okita doesn’t care, he makes his own luck, pimping, brawling and extorting his way through life with his gang of fellow chinpira, until their activities come to the attention of the local yakuza, the Takigawa, who want their cut of the takings. His refusal to pay homage results in a severe beating, which Okita pays back by charging into a sauna and slashing several yakuza goons with a butcher’s knife. Upon his release from prison many years later, Okita finds the world has changed. The streets are full of “straight people” enjoying the prosperity of Japan’s economic boom in the sixties. The yakuza, meanwhile have retired to their glass and concrete office towers to manage their illegal activities.
It’s not long before Okita has formed another gang of chinpira. He’s more than happy to eke out a living on the margins of criminality. Not so veteran gangster, Kizaki (Asao Koike), who suggests to Okita he use his troops to carve out a larger operation at the expense of the now complacent Takigawa. On the condition he’s boss, Okita agrees to Kizaki’s proposal and unleashes his street punks on a rampage of Takigawa owned bars and cafes, beating up the clan’s thugs with impunity. Takigawa men finally succeed in cornering Okita and his gang but are prevented from finishing them off by the boss of the rival Yato gang, onto whose turf the two warring sides have unwittingly stumbled. Soon after Okita is shot and, badly wounded, Takigawa soldiers surround him and his men. Just as it appears that once again the street punks are finished, Yato intervenes and proposes a merger between his insurgent forces and Okita’s gang. At Kizaki’s urging Okita agrees to join forces with Yato, but it’s not long before tensions between the Takigawa and Yato/Okita gangs boil over with explosive results.
Street Mobster was the last of a series of films by Fukasaku that focused on the lives of the low-level criminals who were part of what he saw as a lost generation in Japan, wandering, almost shell-shocked, through the economically and socially devastated post-war landscape with no other way to make a living than through violence and crime. The movie brought him to the attention of producer Koji Sundo, who was so impressed he hired Fukasaku to direct Battles Without Honor and Humanity (1973), also starring Sugawara. A further four films in the series were made, all directed by Fukasaku.
Sugawara plays Okita as a leering maniac, similar in some ways to De Niro’s Johnny Boy from Mean Streets (released a year after Street Mobster), but without the clownish outlook. A rapist and murderer, Okita has only survived as long as he has because he takes whatever violence is dished out to him and then returns it ten fold. The only character in Street Mobster who is anywhere near as unhinged as he is his off-again, on-again girlfriend Kinuyo (Mayumi Nagasi). She meets Okita soon after his release from prison and instantly recognises him as one of the men who abused and traumatised her many years ago. Although Okita tries to make a go of the formal alliance with Yato, violence and chaos is all he knows. Okita’s also disgusted by the hypocrisy of the formal Yakuza clans, epitomised by boss Yato, who act more like businessmen than criminals, and he mocks their elaborate rituals. The first chance he has, Okita provokes a confrontation to destroy the partnership and bring his and Yato’s forces into direct conflict with the Takigawa gang.
Fukasaku made it part of his life’s work to demolish any notion of the organised criminal as somehow being a chivalrous character. He depicted them instead as violent, brutal and corrupt gangsters. Although in Street Mobster, Fukasaku had not yet honed this critique to quite the razor edge it had in the Battle series and later efforts such as Yakuza Graveyard (1976), he was well on his way. The details of who is fighting whom in Street Mobster, the machinations of the various gangs and clans, are largely irrelevant. The use of voice overs, close ups and freezing the film at particular moments, is not only effective in conveying pace and mood, but makes it feel as through there is no end to the fighting. The violence is all the more visceral and over the top because Fukasaku does not give it a moral centre. To emphasise this, there’s hardly a cop in sight for the entire film. The criminals are, literally, left to devour each other unhindered by the state.
Andrew Nette is a writer and film buff based in Melbourne, Australia. He blog, Pulp Curry, focuses on crime fiction and film from Asia and Australia.