"Cruel Gun Story", Dir: Takumi Furukawa, 1964
Updated: May 20
"Cruel Gun Story" added another title to Japanese Studio Nikkatsu's list of "Japanese Noir" set in the seedy and violent underworld of the "Yakuza" that flourished briefly as a popular genre in the late 50's and 60's, thanks in large part to the central performances of actors like Joe Sishido, who heads the cast of this film.
If the film had ever been released outside of Japan its title could have been "No One Wins" since this is a tale of desperate and violent men for whom death is an ever-present certainty and one that fosters a moral vacuum.
As it stands, "Cruel Gun Story" is an apt "what it says on the tin" title that sums up the film well.
The plot is pretty simple : Shishido's "Togawa", a hired gun and noted sharpshooter, is free after a stint in prison, and despite his intentions to go straight and help his sister who has been crippled following a road accident, he is drawn into a plot by a gang boss to raid a van carrying race winnings with a promise of a cut and he agrees to do it since it will mean funds to pay for his sister's care.
He is ordered to round up some suitable accomplices drawn from the gang boss' and his own connections and it is clear from the start that apart from one former associate of his, the rest are untrustworthy and there is a risk of being double-crossed and so he quickly establishes his dominance over the group by threatening violent consequences if they try and pull a fast one on him.
Togawa hatches a plan to hijack the van by setting up a diversion that will involve killing the two motorcycle cops escorting it with a rapid-firing rifle he acquires from one of his underworld connections. This is shown in a dramatised flash-forward before we see it unfold "for real" later on and where the hijack begins to go awry, despite the fact that Togawa has managed to outwit the police, who have been alerted to the disappearance of the security van.
Togawa discovers that he is merely an expendable pawn in a plot concocted by the gang boss and another rival boss that involves using him to get the loot and when their Yakuza goons track them down to a garage situated in a cluster of seedy bars abandoned by U.S occupying military, Togawa realises that the only way to keep the money and run is to engage in a shoot-out.
Being a crack marksman means that Togawa manages to single-handedly take out many of the Yakuza goons in spite of being heavily out-gunned and by deflecting sticks of dynamite before he and a wounded accomplice escape via a manhole cover that leads to the city sewage system.
Togawa hopes to escape to Brazil with the loot along with the former girlfriend of one of the gang but after killing one of the gang bosses, the remaining gang boss tracks him down to a seedy bar and lies in wait for him to turn up for a passport, killing the girlfriend in the process.
Togawa shoot and kills the gang boss when he returns to the bar but is mistaken for him by his wounded and dying accomplice, who shoots him before a petrol-can spills and its contents are ignited by an oil heater as the wounded Togawa staggers down some stairs toward the entrance to the bar with the heavy suitcases of loot.
The film ends with currency notes scattered around the mortally wounded Togawa as the bar goes up in flames around him.
Viewed in the context of the recent Buffalo N.Y racist shooting, this film could be considered a hard watch, especially with its high kill rate and fetishisation of guns but the fact that it's message is very clear regarding the consequences of a violent lifestyle redeems it to some extent, even if the violence is exaggerated to a high degree.
Overall, it lacks the finesse of, for example "Branded To Kill", which references "Spaghetti Westerns" for a stylistic template, but is interesting all the same and of course, Joe Shishido makes for a great conflicted central character who, unlike the characters of the milieu he inhabits, is tortured by feelings of guilt over the people he has killed, in the belief that his crippled sister is a kind of karmic payback for his sins, which is a very Japanese take informed by Shinto Buddhism.
There are some interesting details in the film that establish the period in which it is set in Japan's immediate post war history, such as the location of abandoned bars and clubs and African American extras playing G.I's, in bar scenes and who must have been an unusual sight for many Japanese at the time.
"Cruel Gun Story", Dir: Takumi Furukawa, 1964