Violent Streets, Hideo Gosha
Courtesy of Film Movement Classics

Dare to Compare Hideo Gosha’s ‘Violent Streets’ with Today’s Spandex Superheroes and John Wick

The Japanese-ness of the yakuza cycle in films like Violent Streets connects with the era’s newly violent, high-octane gangster movies functioning as national parables.

Violent Streets (Bôryoku gai)
Hideo Gosha
Film Movement Classics
16 May 2023

Violent Streets (Bôryoku gai) adopts no false title. Hideo Gosha’s contribution to Japan’s 1970s yakuza genre is as violent and nihilistic as its bleakest colleagues and decorates its frame in plenty of highly stylized compositions. Its raison d’etre is this plastic surface of nearly abstract mayhem, which illustrates its thesis on economic power. Film Movement Classics offers the film on Region 1 Blu-ray for the first time, shortly after they unveiled Gosha’s Samurai Wolf diptych.

There’s little point in discussing the plot of Violent Streets, which shuttles many characters through contrived triple-crosses amid a universal fog of deceit and misunderstanding. By my count, and this is no spoiler, only four characters survive the story, and three of them are seen only briefly. This choice implies that real power can be found behind the scenes or at the far edges of the main stage, not among the anguished puppets at the center.

The idea of being entertained is a key theme. Gosha worked in television and knew the milieu intimately. One of the early majestic images in Violent Streets is the square bank of floodlights turning on in a television studio and descending gracefully from the ceiling. The studio is the space where a rising female singer is kidnapped for ransom. Later, characters will enjoy a stage show about a traditional “lady gambler” who fights a cadre of men, and one viewer will say how much he needs this kind of entertainment to relax.

Another stylized highlight will be a kaleidoscopic overhead shot of a rotating circular stage, continually changing its colored spotlights, upon which two kimono-clad women perform lesbian pseudo-sexual calisthenics. When they retire backstage, we’ll recognize one of them as the dangerous razor-wielding assassin from a previous scene. Then she’ll speak in a bass voice (possibly dubbed) and disrobe to reveal the chest of a male cross-dresser, played by someone called Madame Joy. That’s the kind of disorienting film this is.

In the first reel of Violent Streets, pop singer Minami (Minami Nakutsagawa) is abducted from the studio. One of the kidnappers commits a cardinal foul-up that literally triggers the cascade of violent scenes occupying the next 90 minutes. The guiding point is that two rival “ex-yakuza” groups have now gone into legitimate business, and the group who owns the singer’s contract jumps to the false conclusion that the rival group is responsible. In reality, a rogue third faction of out-in-the-cold ex-members is responsible, and our chief anti-hero will be drawn into the crossfire.

That anti-hero is Egawa, a scar-faced and paroled ex-yakuza played by Noboru Ando, a scar-faced and paroled ex-yakuza who went into cinema. Taciturn as a stone carving, Egawa presides over a flamenco club, the Madrid (because the European is exotic), where the floor show is a male guitarist, a female singer-dancer, and a female hand-clapper. I wish I knew who they were; the man resembles guitarist Paco de Lucía, but I won’t swear to that in court. The fact that Gosha is just as interested in their act, cross-cutting it with Egawa’s laconic badass-itude over unruly customers, tells all you need to know.

Gosha’s film often feature tough women doing what they must to survive, and they don’t do very well in Violent Streets. Egawa’s bitter squeeze is Akiko (Maki Kawamura), who apparently likes it rough and self-loathing. She’s among the survivors, and one of the last things Edawa tells her is she would be a good woman if she gave up alcohol. The woman he loves is an old girlfriend (Miyoko Akaza) who married the boss, and she has no illusions about her husband.

Prussian General Carl von Clausewitz gets credit for saying something to the effect that war is diplomacy by other means. If Violent Streets demonstrates a philosophy, it’s that “legitimate” corporations and economic power are merely criminal thuggeries by other means.

While proclaiming their new respectability, the rival “companies” are conglomerating more power, contracting out the dirty work, and remaining safely above it all. The attitude among their sidelined ex-convicts is that they’ve been seduced and abandoned. Out of these elements, Gosha orchestrates a world in which capitalism, television, pop music, gangsters, and carnage are all the same thing.

This cynicism and nihilism are very “1970s Japan”, an era marked by student unrest, the official end of US military occupation, Yukio Mishima‘s suicide, United Red Army terrorism, natural and man-made disasters connected to transportation and consumerism, the world’s economic and energy crises, blowback from Vietnam and Nixon, yakuza activity, and the wholesale conversion of classic film studios to exploitation and softcore porn. In general, Japanese cinema would never be so downbeat again.

The Japanese-ness of the yakuza cycle connects with the era’s world cinema, which saw an efflorescence of newly violent, high-octane gangster films that also function as national parables. Examples range from William Friedkin’s The French Connection and Don Siegel’s Dirty Harry – both released in 1971 – and Francis Ford Coppola’s 1972 classic, The Godfather, to Italy’s poliziottesco cycle. All these influences fed each other, creating a cinematic world in which everyone’s a criminal, a fascist vigilante, or both.

If Gosha’s Samurai Wolf showed the influence of Akira Kurosawa’s 1961 film, Yojimbo and 1962’s SanjuroViolent Streets is made in the shadow of Kinji Fukasaku’s Battle Without Honor or Humanity (Jingi Naki Tatakai, 1973-74), a five-film epic that made a star of tall, handsome, brooding Bunta Sugawara. He has a major cameo in the middle of Violent Streets and is last seen striding away from the camera, flexing his shoulders like Sanjuro.

Also co-starring in Violent Streets is another star from Fukasaku’s series, Akira Kobayashi as Egawa’s weary but well-dressed old comrade, pining for the good old days. Rounding out the Big Four, as they were advertised in the promotional material, is a brief appearance by Tetsuro Tanba, one of the iconic tough guys of Japanese cinema. His filmography is astounding, but Westerners know him best as James Bond villain Tiger Tanaka in Lewis Gilbert’s 1967 thriller, You Only Live Twice.

Actors like these carry the weight of their own personas, which is largely how viewers can tell the players in a plot so elliptical and tail-biting that its only real function is to foreground an array of in-your-face visual ideas. In a video essay, film scholar Patrick Macias observes that Gosha’s visual and narrative touches channel a surrealism that wouldn’t be out of place in the films of Seijun Suzuki, who famously got fired from Nikkatsu for making films the studio couldn’t understand.

As critics remark in the disc’s extras and liner notes, none of this firepower or pizzazz helped Violent Streets at the box office, although its reputation has grown in later decades. And now, dear connoisseurs of kinetic mayhem, it’s served up on Blu-ray for your delectation, the better to compare with today’s noisy spandex superheroes and the world of John Wick.