Retaliation (1969)

From Japan to Jekyll, You Can Find Exploitation in All Its Glory

These DVD/Blu-ray combo packs from Arrow Films offer the best presentations of films never on disc before.

Retaliation is a Japanese yakuza action movie with style and attitude. When the hulking Jiro (Akira Kobayashi) gets out of prison after eight years, he’s recruited to play two gangs against each other in a real-estate deal (getting farmers to sell their land for a factory) on behalf of a third gang that’s supporting his old fourth gang that now consists of himself, a blood brother, and their ailing godfather. Hanging around Jiro all the time, while remaining aloof and cynical, is the brother (Jo Shishido of the pouchy cheeks) of the man he killed eight years ago, who vows to kill him when all this bothersome business is over.

Playing with the typical tropes of honor, loyalty, sacrifice, betrayal, and revenge, the story emerges as a Rorschach blot of cynical, complex movements that allegedly say something about contemporary Japan, the decline in civility and honor as “even yakuza move with the times,” and the collusion or confusion between crime and business — which is why all the flurry centers on the industrializing country’s development instead of traditional territorial claims. In one scene, the head of a corporation “fires” the yakuza gang who’s been buying and reselling the land to them. As the last line of dialogue confirms, the film is a deconstruction of the loyalty thing, as all the gangs are interchangeable and their members expendable. Future butt-kicking babe Meiko Kaji has a supporting role as a sweet, innocent, and therefore doomed farmgirl.

Yasuharu Hasebe’s direction eschews classical framing. He seems to seek out the least direct line of sight, shooting from behind various objects that frame the actors into rectangles or with anything at all — grass, plants, goldfish bowls — obstructing a clear view of the action. The most frenetic scenes tease and play with our desire to see what’s going on, as if Stan Brakhage were making an action movie. One scene advances upon a man in a white kimono, slashing his sword ineffectively as he’s caught in a swaying flashlight’s beam. Another shot follows people rushing behind cluttered wooden stairs into an alley where we never quite get a handle on what’s going on. And decades before it came into fashion (thanks to small cameras), Hasebe shows a jittery nervous handheld style. He only breaks this for one (literally) heart-stopping scene of violence near the end, when he suddenly employs repetitive editing and slow-motion against a white background.

This widescreen color print looks great on Arrow’s Blu-ray. Extras are a background lecture by critic Tony Rayns, who points out the oddly foregrounded homo-erotic bonding between Kobayashi’s and Shishido’s characters (“It’s the first time I’ve ever fallen for a guy,” says the latter wryly), and a brief interview with now octagenarian Shishido.

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne (1981)

There’s all kinds of erotic bonding and breaking going on in Walerian Borowczyk’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne (onscreen title: Dr. Jekyll et les femmes or Dr. Jekyll and the Women), which is less an adaption of Robert Louis Stevenson’s story than a feverish dream or fantasia inspired by its themes and characters. A surreal symphony in shades of brown and red, scored in a throbbing headache-y style by Bernard Parmegiani, the film’s action takes place in one night inside the claustrophobic house of Jekyll (Udo Kier). A drug addict with vampiric contact lenses (reminiscent of Kier’s role in Blood for Dracula), Jekyll can’t resist the lure of turning into the brutal Hyde — played by a different actor, Gérard Zalcberg, who looks like Nosferatu crossed with a rodent.

The first scene does take place outside, as Hyde chases down a little girl and clubs her near death with his cane, apparently intending further depredation. This renders more ghastly the book’s incident in which a child is merely clubbed in passing because she happens to be in the way. The whole movie is overtly sexualized; Hyde alternately rapes, kills, or rapes and kills many guests in his house with a puncturing, sword-like phallus. Everyone seems drugged, either with morphine or by sexual instincts catalyzed by Hyde’s presence. In this reinvention, he meets his match in the hot-blooded and seemingly un-Victorian Fannie Osbourne (Marina Pierro), Jekyll’s fiancee (named for Stevenson’s wife, and not a character in the novel), who triggers a frenzied, cruel, destructive exhilaration.

DVD: The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne

Film: The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne

Director: Walerian Borowczyk

Cast: Udo Kier, Marina Pierro

Year: 1981

Rating: Not rated

USDVD release date: 2015-05-12

Distributor: Arrow Films

Rating: 7

Extras rating: 5

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/news_art/j/jekyllosbourne_brart350.jpg

Borowczyk’s vision combines the earthy and arty. He likes static shots of doors (and people passing through them), classically framed architectures mixed with off-center stagings and a jarring flow of edits, the elegant mixed with the disorienting. He gives Miss Osbourne a privileged voyeuristic climax, with the dusty light framing her hungry eyes as she witnesses her betrothed transforming via bath salts in the movie’s most famous long-held shot. Howard Vernon plays the skeptical Dr. Lanyon, while Patrick Magee is on hand as a perverse authority figure who helps convey the social context in which Jekyll/Hyde/Osbourne’s rebellion feels both subversive and yet not. If this is a movie that makes sense only as psychoanalysis, at least it does that in fierce, visceral, disturbing ways.

The disc offers the option of the English dubbed track (with Magee’s own voice but nobody else’s) or the French track (perhaps better and slightly different in a few details). A commentary is assembled from interviews with several people, including a recording of the late director. There’s a short bonus film by Borowczyk (an animated spoof of 19th Century visual devices) and an avant-garde homage by Pierro.

RATING 5 / 10