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By a Man's Face Shall You Know Him

By a Man's Face Shall You Know Him

Written by Richard Durrance on 20 Mar 2024

Distributor Radiance • Certificate 15 • Price £17.99

The release of Tai Kato’s I, the Executioner proved to be an unexpected gem. I think I said it felt like a rediscovered masterpiece and it’s easy sometimes to get a bit carried away and be the flagbearer for something less well known, but it was a film that got immediately under my skin, to the point where I was excited but also nervous to watch Radiance’s next release by Kato: By a Man's Face Shall You Know Him.

So it sat on the to-watch pile, in part if I am honest because I’d been feeling groggy, had been for weeks, and wanted to really be able to watch it fully, take in all that it might have to offer, and also let’s be honest, there’s that slight trepidation. Lightning cannot strike twice, can it?

Having returned from war, Dr Amimiya (Noboru Ando) is happy to to be a normal doctor, a respected member of the community and to be in a relationship with nurse Maki (Sanae Nakahara), who loves him in return. But a gang of zainichi Koreans lead by Yoo Seong-won (Ryuhei Uchida) want the local market for themselves. Amimiya owns that land but is not interested in gang violence or the lives of others until his brother, Shunji (director to be, Juzo Itami) arrives and starts to fight the Korean gang, and Amimiya finds his old army friend, Choi (Ishiro Nakatani) is himself a zainichi gang-member, and so Amimiya is brought into the conflict.

By a Man's Face Shall You Know Him, a bit like Radiance’s first Japanese release, Big Time Gambling Boss, could be easy to pigeon-hole as standard genre fare - certainly going by the general premise - but the end result is in many ways quite remarkable. The story is mainly rote, that is true, but how it is presented and often performed is anything but.  

While the first few seconds don’t strike you in the way that I, the Executioner did, this is because By a Man's Face Shall You Know Him is more of a of slow-burn, sweaty, under-the-skin film. It gets under our skin in the same way that the situation finally does our protagonist, Dr Amimiya, tension building to the point where you know something has to give. But to think of this as a yakuza film is to oversimplify.

The film opens with a plea for peace that brought to mind Shinya Tsukamoto’s description of how his current release, Shadow of Fire, which is a film that also pleads for the need for peace. Also, there is a social sophistication here, because the zainichi Koreans (and for more on this topic watching Third Window’s GO is a must, though that riffs more on North Koreans), are justified in their anger up to a point. They live in Japan, born and bred, have worn Japanese names that they have now shed and feel shame and fury at how Japan took their lands in the past. And now the Koreans, their gang named the Nine Heavens League, want to take back from the defeated Japanese what they see as having been taken from them – and it’s noticeable even the Yakuza seem powerless, their young dead in the war. So, Kato is placing his narrative in a complex emotional and social space, because it produces no simple "us versus them" narrative. This is reflected in many of the relationships, noticeably Amimya and Choi, and most affectingly, the first moment that Dr Amimiya’s brother, Shunji, sees Gye (Akemi Mari) - herself a Korean mistreated by the head of the Nine Heavens League – you can feel the intense attraction.  

Throughout there are moments of connection like this, and also moments of almost casual discrimination. Dr Amimiya clearly has affection for his old army friend Choi, though at first cannot use his Korean name, falling back on his Japanese appellation. Later in the film from a narrative perspective (the film roughly works through three time periods) Choi, in an accident, is dismissed by a Japanese  businessman as being just a low-Korean dog, barely worth his time though his car almost kills Choi. But as the film takes place over several timepoints it enables us to see moments of both unity and also the cycle of power ever turning. It seems intentional that the market desired by the Nine Heaven League is called the New Life market. Though it’s nothing more than a small black market, almost falling down, there is little in the way of a new life here, but for the zainichi it represents exactly that, an opportunity where they can build bars and exploit Japanese clients.  


You know it’s not going to end well. Especially as Dr Amimiya, played at times with almost icy detachment by real life yakuza turned actor, Noboru Ando (a true scarface), seems hard to move. Ironically, he has little interest in his land and he charges no rent. He wants to be a doctor and be able to sleep with nurse Maki. But there is an intensity to his performance and a depth to not only his but other characters too that is unusual, and in part what so elevates the film. Like I, the Executioner where many of the relationships could have been reduced to generic by the numbers connections, Kato manages to tap into something much more primal, the veins of passion that run under the surface, or in some cases explodes through surfaces, are palpable.

The exploration of the impact of war and defeat is clear in Itami as Shunji, the angry brother who wants his own war but cannot imagine how awful war is. Also, his attraction to Gye, and how Kato handles it feels remarkable for how with just mere expressions you genuinely feel their attraction, though they are barely on screen together for more than a moment. Where some films tell you something is the case, here Kato sucker punches you with visual, visceral emotion. How he does it is beyond me, really it is, but it strikes you deeply, just as the relationship between Dr Amimya and nurse Maki, who really love each other, even though their emotions are reflected differently to others. Almost all characters have such careful delineation, even those that barely enter into the story, like the elderly Yakuza boss, the apparently dying breed that will give way to those schemers and violent psyches we’d see in Kinji Fukasaku’s work – and on that note, there's a nice role for a young(ish) Bunta Sugawara as one of the more violent Koreans, and you can see in him a star in the making, he’s bursting at the seams of his role, taking all he can from it.  

And like Fukasaku’s films, there seems to be a realness to By a Man's Face Shall You Know Him, not that it is trying to be reflect reality. Much of it is shot on sets and it revels at times in this, and is extremely compelling visually, often in the framing and the small details, like training on Ando’s face while his surgery is invaded by the Nine Heaven League, and in his face you can sense all the roiling emotion.

Watching I, the Executioner and By a Man's Face Shall You Know Him it’s hard to fathom why Tai Kato’s films haven’t arrived on our shores sooner. There’s enough of the genre about them to attract those who love genre movies and have more than enough depth for those that want to scratch beyond the surface and delve into the more socially, character-driven mechanics. Both are wonderfully sculpted films, beautifully crafted, often superbly acted and watchable on so many levels. There is an intensity to them that feels unique to certain types of films, one where we feel our characters and our landscape nearly as if we are living in the film. Also,the film doesn’t always go down the obvious routes but even when it does, allowing the built-up pressure to finally release, it never feels rote or lazy. Quite the opposite.

The fact that the film has a message of hope, too, matters. Like Shadow of Fire, it doesn’t tell us all will be OK, but it can if we fight for it, and fight for the right people, and those people do not always look or speak or even find themselves named like us.  

I’ll be honest; with both of Kato’s films I’ve seen to date, there seems to be that irresistible but also nebulous something to them, that tone, the visual feel, that I cannot always put my finger on, but it resonates with me. That it remains elusive is important because most art is hard to pin down. Radiance have suggested we may see more Tai Kato this year, and so what was already a very exciting year could get even better.

Tai Kato's zainichi yakuza drama is another startling, unusually deep, stylish and intense thriller

Richard Durrance
About Richard Durrance

Long-time anime dilettante and general lover of cinema. Obsessive re-watcher of 'stuff'. Has issues with dubs. Will go off on tangents about other things that no one else cares about but is sadly passionate about. (Also, parentheses come as standard.) Looks curiously like Jo Shishido, hamster cheeks and all.


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