There are two distinct eras of yakuza movies in Japan - the “ninkyo eiga” strand of traditional, noble gangsters acting out of a sense of loyalty and honour and the “jitsuroku” approach exemplified by Kinji Fukasaku’s Battles Without Honour and Humanity series which sought to show yakuza life for what it was - short, bloody and ultimately pointless. The Outlaw series provides a perfect bridge between the two as it’s based on the true life memoirs of former yakuza Goro Fujita but opts for a genre hybrid by essentially reframing the popular youth movies of the day as gangster noir rather than the down and dirty naturalism of Fukasaku's mangum opus.
The Outlaw series consists of six films, though only the first two are in direct continuity with each other. Gangster VIP 1 & 2 begin the saga of noble-hearted gangster Goro, who was orphaned when his mother died of illness during the war leaving him to look after his younger sister who also later dies either of illness or malnutrition, becoming the first of the women Goro is unable to save. He ends up a street kid and is eventually sent to reform school from where he escapes with an older boy, Sugiyama, who later resurfaces as a member of a rival gang in Part 1. These two films also chronicle Goro’s ongoing romance with the innocent Yukiko who falls in love with him after he saves her from a gang of thugs.
However, after Gangster VIP 2 the series has little internal continuity and the saga of Goro and Yukiko falls silent. This is actually a little confusing as many of the actors from the other films in the series frequently turn up playing entirely different characters, not least Chieko Matsubara who plays Goro’s love interest in every film but is actually a similarly named yet entirely different woman each time even if she also has a very similar backstory to that of Yukiko in the very first film.
Each chapter follows the same basic pattern - Goro gets out of prison/moves/goes looking for someone and ends up getting into trouble with the local gangsters despite his intense desire to leave the yakuza world behind. The chance of salvation is always offered in the form of Chieko Matsubara, who plays exactly the same character each time even though she has different names and falls in love with Goro a little quicker with each passing frame. Goro is the noble-hearted wanderer, so he always opts to sacrifice his own potential happiness rather than get other people mixed up in his bloody and unpredictable gangster world.
The first few films in the series are more deeply rooted in the post-war past, with the major theme being the loss of family and the yakuza providing a home for those otherwise without hope. Having been orphaned and left to starve on the streets, cruelly ignored by passers-by and society at large, men like Goro were forced to form associations with each other for survival and to turn to crime through a lack of other options. Given the perilousness of their times, even the yakuza brotherhood is uncertain and these relationships are hollow and ever-changing - a far cry from the unconditional love and support supposedly offered by the traditional family unit.
Moving on slightly, the series grows up with Goro as he moves from lamenting his rootless nature to an inability to put down roots for himself as he knows that his dangerous lifestyle is not something he wants to bring a wife, and particularly children, into. Things never end well for the married yakuza in these films, who often see their wives or girlfriends kidnapped, raped or used against them in some other way - the overriding message is that love is both a weakness and an irresponsible indulgence for those who live or die by the sword.
The series features three different directors, with Red Pier director Toshio Masuda helming the first which is perhaps the most accomplished even if Masuda is often criticised for not having a distinctive style of his own. Keiichi Ozawa picks up for parts 2, 4, 5, and 6 which each more or less follow the style laid out by Masuda, though he does add in a few flourishes of his own including a very groovy showdown in a contemporary nightclub in the final film. Part three, Heartless, is directed by Mio Ezaki and is perhaps the weakest in the series, though it does at least break with the style and direction a little more than might be expected whilst adding a few thrills along the way.
The Outlaw series has perhaps not been fully appreciated outside Japan but now hopefully will be thanks to this excellently put together set from Arrow Films. The series as a whole feels a little safe at times and often pulls its punches where it had the opportunity to push for something with more bite, but its doom-laden tale of a noble gangster with a ruined heart is the kind of effortless, nihilistic cool that is hard to beat. Another excellent offering of Nikkatsu Noir mixed with existential youth movie and yakuza trappings, the Outlaw series is a long overdue addition to the world of Japanese action movies and one that every genre enthusiast will be eager to explore.