“The way of the yakuza is to wear red clothes or white…”
If one were to make a clear distinction between the cinematic treatment of the American gangster and the Japanese yakuza it is that the American gangster story is centered on a rise and fall narrative structure whereas the protagonists in a yakuza film are torn between the very Japanese concepts of giri and ninjo. John Dillinger, Bonnie and Clyde, Tom Powers, and Tony Montana are characters defined by their greed, bloodlust, and eventual bloody demise. The American gangster is an entrepreneur fighting the status quo all in a bid to grab a piece of the American dream for themselves. The yakuza, on the other hand, is the perpetual loser of society. The term yakuza itself is derived from the losing hand in the card game Hanafuda. Be it a ninkyo-eiga or a jitsuroku-eiga the central conflict is always the same. A yakuza’s obligation to serve his oyabun will inevitably clash with there own innate humanity.
Pop Surrealist director Seijun Suzuki made a career of dissecting yakuza mythology in the 1960’s. Along with his main collaborator Takeo Kimura he reduced the parts of a yakuza-eiga into its base components and through the conscious use of artifice laid out for audiences the ludicrousness of the yakuza’s masculine code. Kanto Mushuku (Kanto Wanderer) was just one of a slew of ninkyo-eiga he directed during his creative prime in the 1960’s.
Adapted from a novel by Taiko Hirabayashi, Japan’s only female writer during the country’s proletarian movement in the 1920’s, there is an emotional sensitivity present throughout the film. Story-wise there is a heavy emphasis on romance and although the characters in the film are all still cut from the same yakuza cloth; unlike lesser films that pit a righteous hero against a despicable villain there really is no ethical high ground for any character to stand on. What you basically have in the story is Romeo and Juliet seen through the prism of a Japanese exploitation film.
Mitsuo Katsuta, played by heartthrob and singer Akira Kobayashi, is a rising member of the Izu gang. Like all true ninkyo-eiga protagonists he sincerely believes in the yakuza code. This knight-errant looks out for his boss’s daughter, cleans up the mess caused by sleazy gangster and friend Tetsu, and protects and defends his boss’s territory from the rival Yoshida gang. The only vice he allows himself is a passionate but chaste relationship with Tatsuko Iwata (Hiroko Ito), a gambler and sister to Diamond Fuyu of the Yoshida gang. Suzuki uses Katsuta’s relationship with Tatsuko to parallel Katsuta’s own blind devotion to Boss Izu and his gang. The film likens the oyabun-kobun relationship to that of a childish crush. Katsuta, Tetsu, and even Diamond Fuyu are all little boys who’ve fallen in love with the ideals of the yakuza code. It’s no coincidence that Suzuki opens his film not in the middle of a gambling hall or within the company of bakuto gamblers but with a group of young women.
These women, virginal Tokiko (Chieko Matsubara) and free-spirited Hanako (Sanae Nakahara), are completely oblivious to what the yakuza really are. Even Tokiko, whose father is the boss of the Izu gang, can seem utterly blind to what sortof organization her father is really running. Her innocence can seem laughable at times. And not only that but Tokiko’s schoolgirl crush on Katsuta is predicated mainly on a superficial attraction to his boyish good looks. And as for Hanako, problems at home with her father and new stepmother have led her to rebel against the traditional patriarchal society. Yet her ignorance has reduced her rebellion into a means to exploit her. Hanako’s naivete is clearly evident in the way she unquestionably follows Tetsu to a train station and is completly oblivious of his intentions to have her sexually proposition men for money.
By reducing the yakuza characters in the narrative to something akin to naïve post-adolescents Suzuki attacks the ingrained belief that the yakuza are some noble class of warriors. To Suzuki, the yakuza are nothing more than just wayward children attracted to the ideals of the yakuza code but are still far too immature to be able to comprehend what it means to truly live and die for those beliefs. In fact by illustrating the disparity in the way a yakuza’s personal relationships often clash with the masculine codes which govern how all yakuza must behave Suzuki shows us just how far from reality the yakuza code really is. Thus, although Kanto Mushuku (Kanto Wanderer) may seem at first like just one of the many run-of-the-mill ninkyo-eiga being churned out in the 1960’s it is only superficially so. Underneath all the genre machinations in the story the film is really a seething critique on Japan’s fascination with the yakuza.
Hanako’s eventual fate as a prostitute mirrors the predicament that Katsuta and Diamond Fuyu find themselves in the film. All three are in love with the “outsider status” that Japanese society places on both prostitutes and yakuza. Their association with either caste allows them a freedom that wouldn’t be possible if they had chosen to conform to social expectations. The main difference though between the three is that by the end of the film both Hanako and Katsuta have relinquished their childish notions of the heroic rebel yakuza whereas Diamond Fuyu still blindly clings to the myth. Although Katsuta, by film’s end, is being sent away to jail after killing a few rowdy gamblers for the Izu gang the real tragic figure in the story is Diamond Fuyu. Unlike Katsuta, Fuyu kills not for honor but to win Hanako’s heart. Fuyu is so delusional that even after Hanako spurns his affections for her he starts begging her to wait for him and bragging about how much of a man he is. For Diamond Fuyu, killing is the final step to manhood while Katsuta views it merely as the occasional price a yakuza must pay for membership into the organization. Katsuta’s newly formed self-awareness may mean that there is a possibility that he can move on from his old life.
When speaking of Seijun Suzuki’s artistic brilliance one cannot forget that the visual flourishes that people credit as the Seijun Suzuki style would not have been possible without the work of the production designer Takeo Kimura. As always, in a Suzuki film the limitations of budget and story expectations have never gotten in the way of creating scenes that visually pop out at you. In Stephen Teo’s brilliant paper Seijun Suzuki: Authority in Minority the author goes into detail about how Suzuki uses the interior confines of traditional Japanese houses “as compositional devices to frame his shots. These geometric elements serve not only to tie the organic shapes within them into visually satisfying wholes, they also assist the audience in the interpretation of the relationships between characters and thus help the story along.” Teo connects Suzuki’s use of color and light in Kanto Mushuku (Kanto Wanderer) as visual signifiers for the character’s emotions. Although rightfully labeled as a cinematic director, Teo categorizes Suzuki’s work in Kanto Mushuku (Kanto Wanderer) with that of a stage play director due to Suzuki opting for a more stylized visual presentation rather than a naturalistic one. Or as respected film scholar Tony Rayns beautifully put it: ““Realism” evaporates as the film enters its characters’ memories and obsessions”
Although not as infamous as his other yakuza films, Kanto Mushuku (Kanto Wanderer) still deserves respect as a unique work from a true visual artist. The film challenges established notions of masculinity and group devotion while at the same time utilizing a well-established genre to experiment with the pop art aesthetic. Suzuki would make much more daring films after Kanto Mushuku (Kanto Wanderer) but even while practicing restraint there is no denying Seijun Suzuki’s visual genius.