Out of all the performers who transitioned from gang life to screen performances – e.g., Eddie Bunker in RESERVOIR DOGS, Felicia “Snoop” Pearson in THE WIRE, or Danny Trejo in DESPERADO – few of them were as prolific as yakuza-turned-actor Noboru Ando. Expelled from more than one school as a restless youth, he enlisted in the Japanese military in the run-up to World War II but was never deployed for combat. Later, in the postwar 1950s, as the tale goes, he led a yakuza gang of several hundred members in Tokyo. Following a prison stint for attempted murder related to a debt collection, Ando dissolved his gang and turned to acting not long after his release.1
After an early role for Shochiku Company in 1965’s BLOOD AND RULES (other translations include BLOOD AND LAW and BLOOD AND CODE), he left for Toei Studios and made more than 50 films over the course of three decades, including a triplet of films that cribbed loosely but directly from his gangster past. Filmmakers of the day were all too eager to incorporate the authenticity Ando brought to the film set, as director Eichii Kudo described in Chris Desjardins’s essential book, OUTLAW MASTERS OF JAPANESE FILM (2005), saying, “… for certain scenes I would ask Mr. Ando for his advice on how someone would act, because the other actors had never had any real contact with the underworld. To help make it credible.” And if you’ve never considered what Kinji Fukasaku’s pivotal BATTLES WITHOUT HONOR AND HUMANITY franchise might look like without its star, Bunta Sugawara, we might have Ando to thank for that too. He supposedly greased the wheels for Sugawara to join Toei after his own stint as a film actor at Shochiku.2
Around the same time that Ando was moving from prison to cinema, filmmaker Hideo Gosha released his first feature film for Shochiku, THREE OUTLAW SAMURAI, itself an offshoot of his television series by the same name. The success of both works made him a hot commodity, and he continued to make exceptional samurai films (“chanbara”) during a period that some might regard as a creative peak for the genre as a whole. After several tales where Gosha focused on wandering ronin rebelling against every code and norm society could throw their way, it may have seemed like a natural (or even necessary) pivot to gangster films as they increased in popularity with audiences. His pre-WWII yakuza film, THE WOLVES (1971) – which featured Ando as an imprisoned former gangster – was his first step in that direction.
For Gosha’s next film, just a few years later, the stars aligned for VIOLENT STREETS (aka VIOLENT CITY), where Ando was cast in the lead role, former Nikkatsu Company star Akira Kobayashi slid into a prominent supporting part, and Sugawara was featured in a small but scene-stealing turn. Despite the fact it was the only film collaboration between these four players and it featured a screenplay co-written by Toei’s go-to exploitation scribe, Masahiro Kakefuda (HORRORS OF MALFORMED MEN, SEX & FURY, and SCHOOL OF THE HOLY BEAST, to name a few), it remains a little obscure to this day, even within the yakuza film genre. That’s less a knock on the film itself and more likely a consequence of never getting a proper international video release.
Ando plays Egawa, a former yakuza underboss from the Togiku clan, who’s spending his post-gang sunset years as the manager of a flamenco-themed club called the Madrid (after years of misdeeds topped off with a prison bid, this club was his parting retirement gift). Former gang members like Hama (Isao Natsuyagi) hang around the bar and wax poetic about the old days with their former boss, and there’s a prevailing sentiment that none of the loyal soldiers who spent their salad days fighting in the streets is now enjoying the riches of Togiku’s expansion into legitimate business. Egawa downplays this and has tried to move on with his life (“I’m too old to be wild”) even as the alcoholic bar mistress with whom he sometimes beds never misses a chance to chide him for holding onto pieces of the past (specifically, Egawa still longs for the woman who left him while he was in prison and married Gohara, the current chairman of Togiku).
Compared to his turbulent past, his biggest work hazard now is a crowd of drunk or unruly customers – nothing that Egawa can’t stamp out by whacking a motherfucker in the forehead with a receipt spike – but the horizon changes when his friend and former comrade, Yazaki (Kobayashi), saunters in one night to initiate a transfer of the Madrid back to Togiku. Per Gohara’s order, the organization needs the club to establish a strategic foothold in the Ginza district of Tokyo and the competition for territory from rival factions, Western Japan Alliance of Kansai among them, is fierce.
Cool as ever, Egawa is unshaken by the saber-rattling of his former bosses, and with everything (and everyone) he lost through his years of service, he feels the Madrid rightfully belongs to him. He refuses to do any favors for Gohara. In parallel, a popular female television host (Minami Nakatsugawa), contracted to a Togiku-owned media company, is kidnapped from the set in the middle of a TV taping! The kidnappers, believed by Togiku to be soldiers of Western Japan Alliance, demand a hefty ransom of 100 million yen. Yazaki is the biggest voice for swift retaliation, but Gohara and upper management preach patience, reflecting a safe and “evolved” corporate attitude that the younger members privately loathe.
The kidnapping acts as a lit matchbook in a room full of dynamite and fuel vapor. A third party that orchestrated the offense gets the chaos it had hoped to sow between the two factions. With massive clans of yakuza at each other’s throats, the encircling violence threatens to not only cause further destruction and upend the current order, but to entangle Egawa all over again – early retirement be damned.
VIOLENT STREETS is a lean and mean yakuza exploitation picture that plays with a lot of genre tropes – e.g., rival groups, old ways versus young guns, etc. – all capped off by a deeply fatalistic streak. Gosha bookends the film with two key shots of barking, caged dogs. In this particular underworld, the players have room to be wild within their confines – snarling or even biting at those foolish enough to come close – but they’re never totally free. Whether imprisoned or not, the crime life is a trap.
To this point, the director, working in tandem with cinematographer Yoshikazu Yamasawa (THE GOLDEN BAT, DELINQUENT BOSS) and fight choreographer, Takashi Hio (FEMALE PRISONER 701: SCORPION, JAILHOUSE 41), also stages two key battles inside a cramped chicken shack. Neither scene would likely qualify as some technical marvel, but cinematic as they may be, I daresay these fights look like real fights! Instead of glossing up the energy of his various brawls with a fuzzed out funk track typical of Toei’s other 1970s output, Gosha makes the choice to leave the “natural” sounds of the struggle and the environment on their own. They’re bloody, tense as hell, and clumsy in the best way possible.
In other cases, Gosha takes the inverse approach and uses an unexpected soundtrack over the violence. During one scene where Yazaki’s guys are beating the crap out of a kidnapper inside an office, the camera is set up outside the building, our view slightly warped by the raindrops collecting on the glass. For nearly 20 uninterrupted seconds, our perspective is focused on Yazaki staring blankly out the window while smoking a cigarette, a raincoat draped over his shoulders. Behind him, his thugs are doing their worst. As they rain blows upon their victim with a golf club, we hear the heavy downpour outside, but none of the pummeling happening indoors.
Another pronounced creative flourish was the repeating visual trope of masks. During the kidnapping at the television studio, both the criminals and the victim exit through the backstage area while wearing surgical masks and dark sunglasses. In another scene, a character puts on a gorilla mask before committing a violent assault. Later, to blend in with a hustling pedestrian crowd after a money drop, another character dons the mask of Frankenstein’s Monster and wields a sign advertising a private club called the “House of Horrors,” while walking down the street . It’s not just Gosha playing around with familiar iconography for style’s sake (though I’m certain it plays a part) but the use of masks is also a signal that deception abounds among these characters, and we can’t take anything – who’s doing what, or why – at face value.
Perhaps the only relationship with some semblance of consistent authenticity is the alliance between Egawa and Tatsu, the go-with-the-flow gun dealer played by Bunta Sugawara. That Egawa seeks out his help so late in the story and just before the film’s bloody climax suggests a certain level of longstanding trust between them, and equal parts desperation from Egawa. Tatsu even comes along for the ride (literally) as Egawa drives a car through the front entrance of a Togiku cocktail party to stage his revolt against his former bosses. As screams and gunfire erupt all around them, Tatsu casually pokes his head up from the backseat every now and then to fire a shotgun at enemies while alternately napping, drinking a bottle of Coke, or eating (and wearing comically large headphones all the while and listening to who-the-hell-knows-what).
Of all these underworld characters – and there are a lot of them – few are more memorable than the pair of enforcers doing Gohara’s bidding in a string of assassinations. One is a straight-razor-wielding trans woman played by Madame Joy, the other is a menacing bald man with thin eyebrows and a colorful macaw perched on his shoulder (Shohei Yamamoto). This same pair of performers made another appearance as equally wild baddies in Toei’s wacky SISTER STREET FIGHTER: HANGING BY A THREAD, released the same year and also co-written by Kakefuda.
VIOLENT STREETS, for all its oddball style and enjoyable action, did not perform well at the box office when it was released 3, and Gosha took a break from filmmaking that lasted four years until 1978’s BANDITS VS. SAMURAI SQUAD. It’s probably not the best entry point for his work, it won’t show up on many “top-ten” yakuza film lists you’re likely to find, and it’s probably not even Gosha’s best yakuza film, but it’s a rare and rowdy collaboration between several of the genre’s greatest contributors.
- Fujiki, TDC, and Akemi Wegmuller. “Noboru Ando: From Gangster to Gang Star.” Tokyo Scope: The Japanese Cult Film Companion, by Patrick Macias, Cadence Books, 2001, pp. 114–125.
- Grimes, William. “Noboru Ando, Mobster Film Star in Japan, Dies at 89.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 24 Dec. 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/12/25/movies/noboru-ando-mobster-film-star-in-japan-dies-at-89.html.
- Gatto, Robin. “Hideo Gosha: The Manly Way.” Midnite Eye, Midnite Eye, 23 Sep. 2013, http:/www.midnighteye.com/features/hideo-gosha-the-manly-way/.
Bonus! I joined as a guest on THE GENTLEMENS GUIDE TO MIDNITE CINEMA to discuss this same film. We had an enjoyable and wide-ranging talk and I hope you enjoy our insights and banter (Note: if you want to skip over introductory pleasantries and recent watches, skip to 45:30 for the actual movie discussion).