Japanese director Yasuharu Hasebe is best known for his “violent pink” movies, an odd sub-genre mixing blood and guts violence with eroticism. Softcore was never really his thing, and when the venerable Nikkatsu Studios asked him to break into the market, he did so without compromise. Earlier on in his career, the only things to be found in his films were a pile of bodies. One of his first features, Massacre Gun, a spiral of fatalistic gangland revenge, demonstrated this addiction in its purest form.
After serving the traditional Japanese studio apprenticeship period as an assistant director from the late 1950’s onwards, he broke out with Black Tight Killers in 1966. Massacre Gun followed a year later, depicting a struggle for supremacy between three brothers and the local crime lord. After being forced to kill his own lover, and having witnessed his youngest brother Saburô (Jirô Okazaki) receive a beating, calm and jaded Kuroda (Jô Shishido) turns on his boss. Working with his wild middle brother Eiji (Tatsuya Fuji) and trying to keep Saburô, an aspiring boxer until he had his hands destroyed, from joining in, they seize several local businesses and prompt a series of escalating acts of revenge.
Hasebe and co-writer Ryûzô Nakanishi sprinkle in plenty of narrative elements, most of which go unused. Kuroda has an early lover to off, a boss he viewed as a mentor, a best friend forced to turn on him, and a secret love who happens to be married to his best friend. Add in a few other murdered friends and a separate love interest for Saburô and there’s a heady mix that is never fully capitalised on.
Massacre Gun pays lip service to the crowded set-up before casting aside encumbrances and getting down to business. This is a tight-lipped, cynical experience. More than once, Kuroda resigns himself to death. He plays a calculated game, refusing to engage in early provocation as the family club is smashed up, but it’s clear he doesn’t really want to be living this life anymore. His only wish by the end is to save his youngest brother from following the same path.
Hasebe has plenty of fun toying with characters. His camera remains unobtrusive before indulging in a few sudden zooms to emphasise the limited degree of emotion allowed onto faces. There’s a well-staged shootout to close the story, a histrionic bullet riddled death earlier, the body twitching and twirling before finally falling, and a number of fistfights. For the most part though, all the more unexpected given the title and the big talk coming from many of the characters, time is spent quietly contemplating the next move.
Where the emotional core of the story has been largely ignored, Hasebe makes up for it by using these lulls to ramp up tension. Having sown the seeds of discord with the bleak opening scene in which Kuroda is ordered to kill his lover, it’s clear nothing is going to end well. That he manages to maintain this fatalistic mood while still delivering a series of bold and stylish set-pieces beautifully shot in black and white is a testament to his ability, and the enduring entertainment value of his early films.
Massacre Gun was released on Blu-ray and DVD on 6th April 2015. The disc includes interviews with lead actor Jô Shishido and critic Tony Rayns.
Director: Yasuharu Hasebe
Writers: Yasuharu Hasebe (as Takashi Fujii) , Ryûzô Nakanishi (as Ryuzo Nakanishi)
Stars: Tatsuya Fuji, Ryôji Hayama, Takashi Kanda
Runtime: 89 mins
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