Thursday, April 19, 2007

Afraid to Die (1960)

Don't look for the quirky mod stylishness of Suzuki here. Afraid to Die is a straight forward noir story with a few remarkable twists, not the least of which is the choice of lead actor: Yukio Mishima, one of Japan's most famous novelists, best known for slicing his belly open in the Japanese Defense Force HQ in 1970. But in this film, he is afraid to die. He teams up with Japanese New Wave directing sensation, Yasuzo Masumura (Charlie Parsley has previously mentioned two of Masumura's other films: Blind Beast and Hanzo 2: The Snare.) to create this hard hitting depiction of the messed up yakuza underworld.

Takeo Asahina (Yukio Mishima) is torn up inside. He’s a gangster without a gang. Part of him wants to remain a wise guy because that was the way he was raised and it is all he knows, but a smaller nagging part of him wants to get out of the racket, go straight and all that business. It is bad enough that he can’t commit to either path, but what makes it worse is that he’s not a particularly effective gangster. He just spent three years in the pen for stabbing rival mob boss Sagara in a failed assassination attempt. He screwed that up, but hey, it happens sometimes, right? His problem is that he pretty much screws up everything. In short: Takeo is a screw up.

Yusaku Sagara (Jun Negami) is the rival crime boss with a gimp leg he got on account of Takeo. He’s dead set on seeing Takeo dead. Sagara tries to have Takeo whacked in prison, but that fails. He knows it is a matter of kill or be killed so he sends for the asthmatic killer from Hokkaido (see below) to take care of his problem. Beyond that his gang stole some bad cancer drugs from a pharmaceutical company so they can peddle it to unsuspecting pharmacists.

Gohei (Takashi Shimura) is Takeo’s uncle. He’s an old style gangster with the tattoos to prove it. He knows the ways of the code and winces when he sees his nephew dilly-dallying around, talking tough but not acting it. When Takeo says he wants to make some money so he can rebuild the gang and then go after Sagara, Gohei slaps him silly. “First you attack Sagara, then the rest will fall into place!” He then gives Takeo a pistol and tells him to kill Sagara that night.

Aikawa (Eiji Funakoshi) is Takeo’s brother and he’s got other ideas than Gohei. His dad sent him to law school so that he could escape the criminal life. He’s somewhat reticent to cut ties to the lifestyle, just as Takeo is, but pines for a normal life nonetheless. He’s in love with a geeky pharmacist gal who encourages him to leave Tokyo and relocate in Osaka. Takeo calls Aikawa “Brainwave” because of his education. He enjoys the mechanical monkey because it reminds him of himself.

Masako (Yoshie Mizutani) is Takeo’s squeeze who, ahem, waited for him while he was in prison. She’s a nightclub performer who sings a raunchy song about bananas, which, I think might be an accurate reflection of her worldview. She's not much of a singer and not particularly sexy, so it is a relief when Takeo, just out of prison, almost immediately dumps her. "Almost" meaning after sex, of course. He does it for her own good and his, knowing that Sagara might use her to get to him. Anyway, as it turns out, the fling she had been having since Takeo's incarceration, resulted soon after in her pregnancy.

Yoshie Koizumi (Ayako Wakao) is a good girl trying to support herself and her brother (no, she does not resort to prostitution). After Takeo breaks up with Masako, he falls in love with Yoshie. To express his affection he rapes her. Afterwards, he says: “Forgive me…it's just that I like you...” What a guy, that Takeo. She does have feelings for him and eventually bears his child. In case the audience is not already aware that Takeo is a giant ass, he spends a lot of screen time trying to convince (and later trick) Yoshie into having an abortion, fearing the baby might make them more vulnerable to enemy yakuza. He also slaps her around quite a bit. Yet, like a mobster’s wife, she accepts his abuse and remains steadfast in her pursuit to bring out the good in him.

Shoichi Koizumi (shown here in black and blue) is Yoshie’s brother. He’s a commie, but otherwise a decent fellow. He attends labor rallies and can't seem to stay out of trouble, even when he doesn't ask for it. He despises Takeo because of his yakuza lifestyle. Shoichi pays a heavy price for Takeo’s indecision.

Masa (Shigeru K├┤yama) is the highlight of the picture. He’s the asthmatic hitman called in from Hokkaido to whack Takeo. In this picture, he's buying some ephedrine, adrenaline and a 2cc hypodermic for his chronic cough. Although the most menacing of the characters, he’s still pretty funny and not a little pathetic. Viewers may remember Shigeru from such gems as Kill! and Samurai Rebellion. He's got a knack for playing worms. Masa goes through life maintaining an arrogant and sinister smirk in between coughs.

The yakuza comes across as looking pretty absurd in this picture, in a manner similar to the gang in Ghost Dog, which is to say that while maintaining some capacity for violence, they are still only shadows of their former selves, gangsters in decline. When Takashi Shimura’s character, Gohei, talks about yakuza life in his day, when the code guided things, the image is romantic. After watching Takeo operate, however, it becomes evident that if the romantic days ever existed, they are over now. That’s not to suggest that they are no longer rotten. They’ll sell poison for profit, beat and rape women, kidnap kids and, of course, try to whack each other out of existence.

A few other notes: Masumura is best known for such avante-garde classics as Giants and Toys (1958) and Blind Beast (1969), the latter being a pretty over the top bizarre surrealistic nightmare. He tones it down a few notches in Afraid To Die. He doesn’t shy away from awkward moments of ugliness, but he also doesn’t make a spectacle of them either. As mentioned before, Afraid To Die is directed in a straightforward manner with a few remarkable elements: besides Mishima, there's an audaciously bungled assassination attempt in the beginning and an excessive death scene on an escalator at the end that form unique bookends to an otherwise generic, though well told, story. The often cold sensibilities regarding some dispicable acts make Afraid To Die stand out in the mind.

Yukio Mishima may have been a great writer, but he was a third rate actor. I’m tempted to say he holds his own in Afraid to Die, but then, not being Japanese, I doubt I’m able to pick up on how awkward some of his mannerisms are. This was his first of four acting appearances, and there are times when it seems evident that he does not know where to set his eyes in relation to the camera. And some of his manners and body language come across and contrived. When he first meets Yoshie and amiably pats her on the shoulder, one can imagine about 80% of the Japanese women watching the film thinking “what the hell did he just do?” as such contact is rare in Japanese society. I suspect Mishima was more concerned portraying American icons like James Dean or Marlon Brando than portraying a troubled yakuza flunky. But who knows, perhaps that was called for in the script.

I liken Mishima’s presence in the film to Bob Dylan in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. On the one hand, Dylan is a major cultural icon that is certainly a box office curio, but on the other hand, he cannot act. There is something strangely magnetic about him when he is on screen, but part of that magnetism includes the train wreck factor. He’s a star, but not an actor star. And neither is Mishima. One can imagine that Mishima was a nuisance for Masumura to accommodate in the same way that Dylan was for Peckinpah, with the exception that, in Afraid To Die, Mishima was the lead.

Afraid To Die has some nice location shooting, showing a shopping district called Peace Market as well as landmarks like the (then new) Olympic Arena. It is not a big budget endeavor, but it is realistic. Masumura's depiction of Tokyo, like his depiction of the yakuza, is unapologetic. He's unafraid to show its filth and grime.


The stair can be treach. said...

I really really like this blog. What a strange, yet homey place. You guys ever review Forbidden Planet? Or, have you seen the Titan's Goblet, by Thomas Cole?

jeffrey said...

Haven't done those, treach. Forbidden Planet would offer some good screenshots. Management will think it over.