Yasuharu Hasebe – best known for the Stray Cat Rock series – was obviously channelling Kurosawa when he made Retaliation (1968). It starts out as a rerun of the classic Yojimbo ploy. Ex-con Jiro (Akira Kobayashi) is tasked by the powerful Hazama family to take a small crew and set up shop in the boom town of Takagawa, with the particular aim of buying up some farmland that’s ripe for development. However, first he must deal with the two rival gangs already installed in town – the nasty, rapey, sadistic Aoba clan and the not-so-bad-really-but-they’ve-still-got-to-go Tono family – and that involves setting them at each other’s throats.
Later, on, though, the film veers away from that tried and tested template and instead becomes an ironic updating of Seven Samurai, with Jiro siding with the farmers against those modern bandits, the gangsters and property developments. It’s a segue that works well, complicating what is at first a straightforward team caper movie into something more thoughtful and serious-minded. Issues to do with the changing face of the yakuza and the close connection between gangs and big business (very much a thing at the time) are given a long hard look, as well as ecological themes about the raping of Japan’s scarce natural resources for a quick buck. But it’s not all about worthy social commentary – there’s also a element of kink, a foreshadowing of a grimy roman porno vibe, in some of its scenes.
As the gang’s cool, unruffled mastermind, Akira Kobayashi (one of Nikkatsu’s biggest stars) gives a nicely underplayed performance, while the reliable Jo Shishido is relegated to a supporting role as a loutish member of the crew who has a grudge against Jiro for killing his brother. It’s all shot in a lively, inventive manner in brightly lit Japanese colour ‘Scope, with gritty exteriors of an urbanized Japan contrasting with claustrophobic interiors that make great play with screens, sliding doorways and bead curtains. It’s studded with memorable set-pieces – a shadowy punch-up with Kurosawa-style whip-pans, a murder at knife-point limned in the wobbly beam of a flashlight, and a great, moiling scrummage of a sword fight in a swanky bathroom with a massive gush of arterial blood splashed across a shower door. More substantial and less formulaic than Hasebe’s Massacre Gun (also recently released by Arrow), it’s a worthy addition to any collection of Japanese cult movies. 8/10
No grain, plenty of detail and rich earthy hues. The sequence in the Aoba gang’s gambling den, with its stark high key lighting, comes up particularly sharply, and the scenes in the farmers’ village have a lovely lushness. If you bought the Blu-ray release a few months back of Seijun Suzuki’s Youth of the Beast – another ’60s film in colour ‘Scope – then this is a notch up in quality. 8/10
Like Massacre Gun, Retaliation comes with a lengthy (31-min) talking head peace with Asian cinema expert Tony Rayns. As well as serving up bios of Kobayashi, Hasebe and Shishido, he paints a vivid picture of what it was like making quota quickies for Nikkatsu, and also reveals that Shishido released a couple of LPs – don’t all rush at once to add them to your playlists. ~ 13-min interview with Jo Shishido – he lists his favourite directors and talks, among other things, about how he and the other actors would try to liven up cooker-cutter storylines by using different weapons in the fight scenes. 7/10