Guns, Swords, and Chris D.
May 10, 2013
I’d known Chris D. for several years when one day he made arrangements to drop off some Japanese movies a friend of his in Tokyo had taped off cable TV there. When I casually mentioned the appointment to my then-girlfriend, she couldn’t believe it. “YOU know Chris D.?!”
“Yeah,” I said, bemused. “What of it?” I had zero awareness of Chris’s “other life,” as a punk and deathrock pioneer, as the founder, lead singer, and songwriter of The Flesh Eaters (and later The Divine Horsemen), nor did I know then that Chris was also a poet, that he wrote for Slash, that he was an aspiring filmmaker.
No, I knew Chris only through our shared passion for Japanese movies. Each of us admired the classics of Kurosawa, Inagaki, and whatnot, but where my interests and specialties veered toward Japanese fantasy films, comedies, and musicals, he developed an obsession for Japanese gangster and chanbara films. Over time, he amassed a one-of-a-kind personal archive of these movies, most in Japanese only and without English subtitles, maybe second-to-none among private collectors in America.
Initially he wrote about these films in Asian Trash Cinema and Cult Movies magazine, but eventually he received an Artist Fellowship from the Japan Foundation to expand this writing into a full-fledged book, Gun and Sword – An Encyclopedia of Japanese Gangster Films, 1955-1980.
Around this time Chris also began programming films, often with like-minded colleague Dennis Bartok, for the American Cinematheque in Hollywood. At their old screening space at Raleigh Studios and later at the restored Egyptian Theater on Hollywood Boulevard, rarely would six months go by without a major retrospective of Japanese movies barely or never before exhibited in the United States. Instead of familiar classics like Tokyo Story or Ugetsu, Chris introduced American audiences to movies like Black Tight Killers, Go! Go! Second-Time Virgin, and Female Convict Scorpion – Jailhouse 41. He held Raizo Ichikawa festivals and Hideo Gosha retrospectives. On rare occasions, directors like Kinji Fukasaku – who penned the warm forward to Chris’s book not long before he died – flew over from Japan to receive an ecstatic reception to movies a few years before no one in the west but Chris had ever heard of, or movies those aware of them had been dying to see for years.
And so as soon as Chris’s big brick of a book that is Gun and Sword – An Encyclopedia of Japanese Gangster Films arrived at my doorstep, I knew we had to talk about it as well as catch up:
Stuart: What was the specific allure of Japanese gangster movies that made you want to devote so much time and energy researching and writing about them versus other kinds of movies?
Chris D.: I kind of fell into the whole thing by accident from my interest in Japanese film in general but especially genres such as samurai/chanbara and kaidan (ghost/horror story) films. I went to some Little Tokyo video stores in the late 1980s – 1989 or so – and could not find what I was looking for, movies like the Lone Wolf and Cub (Kozure Okami) series that were not out in America on video at all at that time. But these stores had tons of unsubtitled yakuza films from the 1960s-1970s for rent and I was very intrigued by the great VHS box art (that was mostly taken from posters) and I got hooked renting them. One of the first ones I saw was Kinji Fukasaku’s Graveyard of Honor (Jingi no hakaba) with Tetsuya Watari, which is one of the most over-the-top. Incredible acting, directing, cinematography, music…really a 4-star movie. Then I saw stuff like a couple of the Tales of the Last Showa Yakuza (Showa zan kyoden) series, Seijun Suzuki’s Branded To Kill (Koroshi no rakuin), Battles Without Honor and Humanity (Jinginaki tatakai), the original uncut Tattooed Hitman with Bunta Sugawara. It was addictive, the experience of watching the films. I had already been into Hong Kong action crime films but the Japanese had what seemed a little bit deeper take on the characters, both the ninkyo type and the jitsuroku type. The tattoos, the swords. Even without subtitles I got the subtext of existential angst running through the films. No matter how much I loved film noir or American, British, French and Italian gangster films (which is a lot), they didn’t have quite the same mystique. Maybe the French (like Melville) come the closest.
Stuart: Unlike me you were in L.A. during the last years of Japanese movie theaters like the Toho La Brea, the Shochiku Kokusai, the Toei Linda Lea, etc., yes? What was it like experiencing some of the movies covered in this book, in those venues?
Chris D.: I totally blew it. I was aware of those theaters but had no idea how much great stuff was passing me by. I just was not connecting with that at the time. I was much more social then and also doing music and I never went when those theaters were still open! I have virtually no regrets in my life, despite some of the funky things that have happened, but being in ignorance of those theaters and what they were showing is definitely one.
Stuart: I contend that your writing on this subject, combined with programming you did in conjunction with the American Cinematheque, was no less than partly and in some cases solely responsible for introducing to Western world audiences some of these amazing films and filmmakers. Is there one film or filmmaker you’re particularly proud of helping bring to the attention of American filmgoers?
Chris D.: The Female Convict Scorpion (Joshuu Sasori) movies I am probably most proud of bringing to people’s attention. Pale Flower, Black Tight Killers, Okamoto’s Kill! (Kiru) but also some of Kenji Misumi’s early 60s films with Raizo Ichikawa (Destiny’s Son, also called Kiru), Sword Devil (Kenki), etc. neither of which have gotten a legitimate DVD release in English speaking countries yet – shameful. Plus of course the Fukasaku films, especially Graveyard of Honor and Battles without Honor and Humanity. Dennis Bartok and I really started the ball rolling, I think, programming those.
Stuart: Of those movies you helped introduce to American audiences, were there any you thought audiences might not take to but which they embraced as much as you did?
Chris D.: There were a few non-yakuza movies that people either loved or hated: Blind Beast, School of the Holy Beasts, Wakamatsu’s Go! Go! Second-Time Virgin. For some people they were too extreme. The same probably goes for later things we showed, too, more recent pictures like Miike’s Audition and Ichi The Killer. People either loved them or hated them.
Stuart: …and were there any you particularly loved that American audiences didn’t respond to at all?
Chris D.: I was a bit disappointed when we showed Masumura’s Hoodlum Soldier and Kon Ichikawa’s The Wanderers (Matatabi). Very small crowds for two movies that are masterpieces. I was also bit disappointed that there wasn’t a more enthusiastic reaction when we showed Pale Flower and Stray Cat Rock-Sex Hunter.
Stuart: You mentioned that Japanese gangster films struck you as a bit weightier than similar Hong Kong films. How so? Are they stylized and cinematically similar but simply have more depth in terms of characterization, do you think?
Chris D.: To be frank, a lot of the Hong Kong crime films from the 1980s, despite their spectacular action quotient and entertainment value, I always found them a bit sloppy and ragged around the edges. Too over the top all the way through, even in lower key scenes. But that sounds like I’m putting them down. I love a lot of them, especially early ones by Johnny To, John Woo, Ringo Lam and Tsui Hark.
Stuart: What kind of relationship did real Japanese gangsters have with the movies being made about them? Do you think even the most cynical ones also romanticized their profession?
Chris D.: It’s hard to say, but I think they undoubtedly were huge fans. I think there was a bit of rational disconnect about any kind of real self-conscious distinction in them between morality vs. “duty”, between what constituted so-called “good” and “bad” yakuza.
Stuart: And were the lines blurred, particularly at Toei, between the management and filmmakers at some of the studios, and organized crime, in the same way Las Vegas once was?
Chris D.: How much is hard to say. Although it was never a secret that executive producer Koji Shundo, who was one of Toei’s heads (and who was Red Peony Gambler star Junko Fuji’s father), was a “former” yakuza. But I just don’t know enough about the day-to-day atmosphere there on the sets and offices if there were more active gang guys hanging around.
Stuart: You mentioned Tai Kato as one of the shamefully unavailable. Why is it that many of the films of some directors, Kinji Fukasaku and Seijun Suzuki, for instance, are widely available while others (Susumu Hani is another that comes to mind) are almost completely ignored?
Chris D.: Well, I think part of it is because Fukasaku’s and Suzuki’s movies are almost completely set in contemporary time whereas Kato’s yakuza films were almost all in-period, in the Taisho or early Showa eras. Other than that, I’m not sure. Kato’s movies have seen some DVD releases in France, so I don’t know. I think the French have a better grasp, better appreciation in some ways, on Japanese aesthetics in film and are just innately more romantic
Stuart: What would you say are the Top Three movies in your book still almost completely unknown in the West?
Chris D.: That is such a hard question as there are still so many. Kon Ichikawa’s Punishment Room (Shokei no heya), Seijun Suzuki’s Everything Goes Wrong (Subete ga kurutteru), Senkichi Taniguchi’s Car 33 Doesn’t Answer, Eizo Sugawa’s original The Beast Must Die with Tatsuya Nakadai, Keisuke Kinoshita’s The Rose on His Arm, and there are at least 3 of Masahiro Shinoda’s early pictures (My Face Red In The Sunset, aka Killers on Parade, Tears on the Lion’s Mane, aka Flame at the Pier, and Youth in Fury, aka Dry Lake). Suzuki, too, has at least three other 1950s films that should be out subtitled (Satan’s Town, Clandestine Zero Line and Passport to Darkness). The Nikkatsu 6-film series Hoodlum (Burai aka Gangster VIP) with Tetsuya Watari and 10-film series A Man’s Crest (Otoko no monsho) with Hideki Takahashi are both criminally unknown here in the West. Also I might add there is so little available subtitled in English from Koji Wakamatsu, another master, who, despite some of the despised subgenres he worked in, created a significant number of masterpieces
Stuart: When you first started working on this book in 1989, the Internet was practically non-existent, there were no DVDs, no Blu-rays, and very little in English about Japanese gangster movies. Where and how did you acquire copies of the movies you wanted to see, and how did you go about researching them?
Chris D.: Renting unsubtitled VHS tapes from Japanese video stores in downtown L.A’s Little Tokyo and the Japanese neighborhoods in Gardena and West LA. Also, most importantly Yoshiki Hayashi, a Japanese journalist, editor and film buff who became a pen pal after he had read an article on samurai cinema I had written for the now-defunct Cult Movies magazine. His help was invaluable, for a number of years supplying me with impossible-to-see-on-VHS-or-DVD yakuza movies recorded off of Japanese cable and satellite television, sans subtitles, movies from all eras and subgenres. He was also an invaluable guide to poster and book shops, cinemas, lodgings, etc., as well as the prime instigator of my interviews with directors Kazuo Ikehiro and Teruo Ishii, when I spent my two months grant stay in Tokyo in the autumn of 1997.
Stuart: You and I have been doing this kind of writing and researching for more than two decades. When I look back on my earliest writing I cringe thinking, “If only I had access then to the kind of information so easily accessible today.” Has it become easier for you, too?
Chris D.: I wouldn’t say it was always easier, just different. Some ways have dried up and other gateways have opened
Stuart: Conversely, I think we were lucky to be able to do the kind of primary research where we could meet so many directors, actors, and other filmmakers who peaked during the ’50s through ’70s. Nowadays, so many people like Kinji Fukasaku, who wrote the forward for your book, have passed away. Does that connection to that era of filmmaking seem more distant to you now?
Chris D.: Yes, I was very lucky to get to talk to all those people when I did. About a third of them are gone now.
Stuart: Boutique DVD labels peaked about ten or twelve years ago, and they released deluxe editions (some featuring audio commentaries by you) of many of the films covered in this book as well as others you’ve championed through the years. Now the DVD market is in decline while some never-released-to-DVD Japanese movies are turning up on streaming services, notably Criterion offerings available via Hulu. Do you see more heretofore titles becoming available that way? Or are film retrospectives, mostly in New York and L.A., still the best chance to see these films?
Chris D.: Criterion has nine or ten Japanese genre films on Hulu Plus streaming I thought I’d never see subtitled. So yeah, but in some ways, things have just changed without necessarily getting easier.
Stuart: How is your Japanese? When you watch unsubtitled copies of these films, are you able to follow them adequately? And does gangster jargon and/or local dialects (e.g., Kobe-ben) complicate matters?
Chris D.: I am to follow them somehow but I have made little headway with my Japanese. I can read movie posters from the 1950s – early 1980s but that’s about it. My comprehension from spoken is still terrible. It’s a miracle of intuition (and the filmmakers’ visual talent) that I understand as much as I do.
Stuart: Are Japanese film companies helping or hindering the availability of their movies in the West?
Chris D.: Well, they’re not exactly helping but they are better than they used to be. One thing I cannot believe is that a smart Japanese movie studio hasn’t made their movie libraries (particularly their genre pix) available in subtitled form either streaming or on satellite in America by subscription.
Stuart: Is the Japanese film industry capable of making a great gangster film today, or has that time passed?
Chris D.: Takashi Miike made a couple of very good jitsuroku type gangster movies, Agitator and the remake of Graveyard of Honor (although I didn’t have any emotional connection with the characters unlike Fukasaku’s version). I also think Miike’s horror/yakuza pix, Ichi the Killer and Gozu are minor masterpieces.
Stuart: Is there a “Holy Grail” movie you’ve wanted to see for years but can’t for some reason, or a filmmaker or actor/actress you’ve wanted to interview that’s proved elusive?
Chris D.: [In addition to what I said earlier] I’d also add that not one of director Tai Kato’s masterpiece yakuza films have received a legitimate subtitled DVD release in the USA or UK (though they have in France). Shameful. He is one of the masters. Two other good directors, not really masters but good very underrated, unknown directors are both from sixties Nikkatsu, Keiichi Ozawa and Shugoro Nishimura.
Stuart: In what ways, if at all, has this genre influenced your own creative endeavors?
Chris D.: There is quite a bit of imagery in some of my songs from the Flesh Eaters’ albums Ashes of Time (1999) and Miss Muerte (2003).
Stuart: Are there wisps of these films in your music or novels?
Chris D.: No imagery in my novels so far though there is a screenplay I wrote set in 1990s Japan about an American heiress reduced to working in a Tokyo hostess bar because her late Japanese stepfather has lost his car dealership to the yakuza. I’m turning that into a novel called Tattooed Blood. It is heavily influenced by both Daiei’s Woman Gambling Expert (Onna tobakushi) and Toei’s Song of the Night (Yoru no uta) series.
Readers of this blog can click here to order Chris D.’s Gun and Sword – An Encyclopedia of Japanese Gangster Films, 1955-1980