Brawl at Cape Shiretoko


Director: Yasuo Furihata

Reviewed by Paghat the Ratgirl

Shin abashiri bangaichi: Arashi-o yobu shiretoko misaki (Brawl at Cape Shiretoko; aka, Storm on Cape Shiretoko; aka, Inviting the Storm to Shiretoko Key, Toei, 1971) is one of the later episodes of the New Abashiri Prison series.

Ken Takakura plays Katsu Suehiro, a socially inept fellow just released from Abashira Prison. His yakuza gang has disbanded & Katsu is inclined to reform for his sweet sister's sake, & for the sake of his dead mother's memory.

During his three years in prison, Japan has left the 60s & entered the 70s, with more changes than such a short time away caused him to expect. Katsu is shocked by mini-skirts, hot-pants, beer advertisements, Coke machines, & even the flashy red jacket his well-meaning sister sent him to wear on his way out of prison.

In many yakuza films this contrast for men with affection for old Japan not being able to make it in the new Japan, though the changes aren't usually such comic ones. This inability to adapt to an increasingly plastic & superficial world structures such characters as actually more rather than less noble, as the new world is unworthy of adaptation & only unworthy people can do it.

But this time out, Takakura is not necessarily playing his best, brooding, intense hero with traditional values in a tragically advancing world. In Brawl at Cape Shiretoko he & the yakuza world he stands for are seen as somewhat bumbling, the old ways being at best nostalgic but also bumbling & foolish.

He ends up working on a modern horse ranch, falling for the boss's daughter Masako. He tells her, "You remind me of my mother," for the common yakukza theme is that any "good" gambler is at least three-fourth's a momma's boy even if she's dead. Thus brother gamblers in Blood Will Tell (Furui yatsude gozansu: Kizudarake no jinsei, Toei, 1971) are extremely devoted to their dead mother, & in Red Peony Gambler: The Hanafuda Game (Hobotan bakuto: Hanafuda shoubu, Toei, 1969) the hero tells Red peony that the touch of her hand "is like the touch of my mother's hand." This may be sexier in Japan than it is America, I can't say; but it plays into the subliminal homoeroticism of such outcast characters, & whether odd or not even for women that certainly can be sexy.

The ranch has a prize race hors4e, which a rival ranch family wants to purchase -- or kill if the sale is refused. These bad guys are typical straw dogs for such films, cardboard bad guys compared to the good ranch family. One dresses like a cliche Italian mafiosa, another picks his teeth, they're obnoxious, ugly, disgusting sunzabitches waiting to get killed cuz they deserve it. That's one of the weaknesses of the otherwise very interesting genre of chivalrous gambler films, that it takes straw dogs who're cyphers for evil to reassure the viewer that the hero really is chivalrous rather than just another psycho waiting to kill a shitload of people all in one swell foop.

These nasty fellows in all their boring wickedness haven't even pathetic excuses for themselves, as if we knew they were just trying to get even with a world that bullied them when they were little children, we might think twice about the goodness of slaughtering all of them.

Occasionally such a film looks more deeply into this attitude, but none of the Abashiri Prison films do so; it's always white hats & black hats without gradation. But hey, I'm a sucker for it, & I'm totally willing to believe, for the duration of a film, that if someone as gorgeous as Ken Takakura does eventually decide to commit mass murder, he's got the principle of the thing on his side

The bad guys have accepted into their gambler's ranch a famous yakuza called Dagger Masa (hyper-cool Noburo Ando, an actual gang boss before he was a movie star). They use his menacing hip presence as a threat against the owners of the prized race horse.

Masa is amazingly suave in comparison to the comparatively clutsy (though strong & good) Takakura character Katsu. dagger Masa's yakuza gang has also been dissolved & he's become a wanderer. This is an uncommon theme in chivalrous yakuza-eiga, that the yakuza world is fading away along with other things of "old" Japan, but the film occurs late enough in the cycle of the genre's greater popularity in the 1960s, & was about to be transformed by directors like Kenji Fukasaki into something merely sociopathic, so as a film myth at least, this world wherein chivalry was possible was indeed fading away, & men already outcast were becoming increasingly so.

Masa has a grudge against Katsu & several fights are narrowly forstalled. The film audience is made to wait for a classic clash between two super fighting actors, but in this film it never happens, as the other possibility that keeps convention yakuza films from being too predictable is that male-bonding is always a possibility for charismatic guys with gorgeous eyes fluttering at one another.

An old retired gambler working at the same ranch as Katsu gives a moving sermon to Masa about the uselessness of revenge & the daily fear in a gambler's life. Masa is influenced by the old man & eventually decides to give up his grudge. This is a nice touch to the story, but unfortunately it leaves Masa with no worthy opponent. The climactic duel against all those uninteresting creeps is weakened by the lack of any clash between equals.

The final raid is further weakened by being insufficiently fitted into the plot. It happens solely because in yakuza films clamactic duels happen. Not once during the whole film did we see that anyone owned a gawdamn sword. Eventually Katsu leaps on his horse & rides to the ranch to take revenge for Nao, the wise retired gambler; for Masa, killed trying to protect Nao; for the good ranch boss, killed in a rigged car crash. When he arrives, everybody on the evil ranch is concidentally sitting around cleaning their swords when Katsu unexpectedly arrives.

After initial gunplay (Katsu brought a rifle to the sword fight) the bullets run out & its time to grab a sword for protracted swordplay, with a few truly wicked farm impelements thrown in for good measure. One evil brother gets pitchforked. The other provides a pretty good encounter for Takakura's character, sword agianst scythe.

The killing is forocious, yet it's hard to forget that the swords sort of came out of the woodwork without the least pretense of logic.

In common with most yakuza pictures of the time, the bulk of the film deals with dramatic development rather than action. The drama may be cliche, but it does dominate more than the inevitable carnage of the last reel. The story includes a child character -- the boss's son Tadao -- who is supposed to give this film a family-orientation. For the teenagers in the audience, the film offers a hippy-biker sort of guy who stars out being one of the villains but gives his life for a noble cause along the way. There's also a heavy dose of comedy.

As a supposedly family-oriented film, some American parents may find the final reel's no-holds-barred slayings totally unacceptable for children & youths. But the comparison would be the all-out sleezy sex including rape & torture with partial nudity, plus the buckets-of-blood start to finish instead of as a climactic release, as seen in all too many exploitation films (which kids are watching & enjoying whether or not they're supposed to). Ken Takakura yakuza films when compared to much else shows why he was called "The Japanese Ken" precisely for playing roles of this kind, & everyone of all ages admired him as the dream-epitome of Japanese spirit. And I'm a sucker for that one too.

See also the article about the first four Abashiri Prison movies. And see the review of New Abashiri Prison: The Great Escape.

copyright by Paghat the Ratgirl

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