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January 14, 2019

Movie Review: Brutal Tales of Chivalry (aka Shôwa zankyô-de, 1965)

Directed by Kiyoshi Saeki

Movie Review by Greg Goodsell

Following the end of World War II, the nation of Japan is in ruins. In order to survive, the civilian population of the Asakusa neighborhood in Tokyo must make do with illegal open air black markets for food, clothing and other necessities. But even in these squalid conditions, there is honor. The Kamizu, one of the nascent groups that would later become part of the dreaded Yakuza criminal gangs, attempts to bring fresh food and high quality goods to compete against Iwasa’s (Michitarô Mizushima) clan, which floods the market with cheap goods, violently threatening all forms of competition.

When the elderly leader of the Kamizu group is murdered, his role is assumed by returning soldier Seiji (Ken Tarukuru). In a strange twist, according to the leader’s dying wishes, he wants the Kamizu to continue their activities without any retaliation against Iwasa’s clan.

This is just the beginning of Seiji’s problems as the woman he has loved before the war has since married another man. While she continues to makes romantic overtures to him, he must refuse as a man of honor and integrity.

While Iwasa’s men tighten the screws among the populace with threats and sporadic acts of violence, Seiji’s men refuse to answer in kind and begin the process of politically winning over the local politicians. Seiji hits upon the idea of creating indoor shopping center, only to have Iwasa’s gang burn it to the ground while embarking on similar plans. Seiji’s strict moral codes are pressed to their limits – and the conclusion is expectedly drenched in blood.

Brutal Tales of Chivalry may be tough going for western viewers. It is wholly and unapologetically Japanese, unconcerned with compromises for foreign markets. It is important to remember that this film came at a time when the average Japanese went to the cinema in excess of three times a week in lieu of watching television. Many of these films are awash in history and customs only known to the Japanese. One stumbling block that many non-Japanese viewers will have is how saintly and bound by honor Seiji is, and how slow he is to turn the violent tactics used against him by the rival clan. It has been suggested by other reviewers that this is a somehow slanted view of history, as the early Yakuza, in the best of times, were never governed by altruism.

Coincidentally, lead actor Ken Takura would later become a major action star in Japan and internationally, lending his charisma to such diverse projects as The Yakuza (1974), Black Rain (1989) and Mr. Baseball (1992) with Tom Selleck.

The usual limited to 3,000 copies by Twilight Time has restored this film the best as they can, given its age and source materials. The sole extra – discounting the liner notes by Julie Kirgo, is the lengthy documentary “Brutal Tales of Filmmaking: Toei Producer Toru Yoshida,” a talking head interview about the film and the similarly themed films that followed afterwards.

Burdened with windy discourses on honor and integrity, the film is a bit too slow going, only erupting into gory violence towards the very end. Brutal Tales of Chivalry is best appreciated with those of knowledge and an understanding of postmodern Japanese history.

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