Arrow have been turning up some hidden gems and neglected classics as they trawl through the world of populist cinema from the Japanese golden age of the 1960s and 70s - they’ve already brought us the iconic Lady Snow Blood, the lesser known Blind Woman’s Curse, the anarchic Stray Cat Rock series and now, following on from their release of Seijun Suzuki’s famously crazy Branded to Kill they’ve turned their attention back to Nikkatsu Noir with Massacre Gun. The first of two releases from director Yasuhiro Hasebe, who also directed three films in the Stray Cat Rock series (Retaliation will follow next month), Massacre Gun has everything any genre fan could wish for - depressed hit men, warring gangs, jazz bars, boxing clubs, stylish monochrome photography and the melancholic ennui that permeates all the best noir movies. Perhaps not quite as impressive as the greatest hits of Nikkatsu Noir such as the aforementioned Branded to Kill or Nikkatsu's other offerings like A Colt is My Passport, Massacre Gun is nevertheless another impressive entry in the studio's short lived action output.
As the film begins, thoroughly dejected Kuroda has just been asked to carry out a hit on a woman who is in love with him - feelings which he may have reciprocated but, like any good lackey, Kuroda chose his boss over his heart and sent the lovesick girl into a lake with a bullet in her chest. When Kuroda’s two younger brothers find out they do not approve and hot-headed youngest brother Saburo, who trains at a yakuza run gym hoping to become a a pro-boxer, decides to have a word with Kuroda’s boss, Akazawa. As might be expected things don’t go Saburo’s way and he’s brutally beaten to the extent his hands are all but crushed, leaving him unlikely to box again. At this point, Kuroda wants out of the game - but for a yakuza hit man there is no out. His only option is to take down Akazawa’s empire and build one of his own.
Like most of Nikkatsu’s late '60s action output which would later retroactively become known as Nikkatsu Noir, Massacre Gun is heavily indebted to the American B-movie and particularly to film noir. Its settings are those of “low culture”; Western bars and cafes where people drink expensive whiskey and wear sharp suits and sunglasses. In fact, the Kuroda brothers’ side business involves running a jazz bar with a half-Japanese, half-African American jazz singer playing piano in the corner and a pair of Western dancers doing some sort of scantily clad, artistic ballroom dancing routine in the middle. Most importantly it’s full of the classic Film Noir feeling of spiritual emptiness and existential ennui, with the very depressed contract killer Kuroda at its centre.
A very male affair (perhaps the key missing element from a Film Noir is a femme fatale), the bulk of the film is the opposition between Kuroda on the one side and his former boss on the other. Other than the closeness with his two younger brothers and to a lesser extent the other workers at the club, Kuroda’s other most notable relationship is with his old friend Shirasaka who coincidentally married another woman Kuroda may have had feelings for. Though the two have enjoyed a close friendship up until now, Kuroda’s decision to leave Akazawa’s employ has meant Shirasaka has had to make a choice and he’s chosen Akazawa. The two are are now mortal enemies on opposing sides of a war - a fact which causes them both pain but which, nevertheless, cannot be otherwise.
Hasebe is best known for his striking use of colour, which makes Massacre Gun a notable entry in his filmography as it’s the only one he made in black and white. Other than the perverse habit of sticking colours into the names of his leading characters and locations (the “Kuro” in Kuroda means “black”, the “Shira” in Shirasaka means “white” and the “Aka” in “Akazawa” means red, making this one very complicated game of checkers), Hasebe still manages to make an oddly “colourful” film even in monochrome. Taking a cue from Suzuki, Hasebe has come up with a fair few arty and unusual compositions of his own, though not quite to Suzuki’s absurd extremities and neatly retaining the classic Nikkatsu Noir aesthetic in his superbly crisp black and white colour palate.
Coming as a late addition to the genre, Massacre Gun also takes a fairly unusual approach to violence, with a far more explicit representation than would be expected from this period. Simply put - lots of people die in this film, many of them in quite exciting ways. Blood is everywhere and there are so many bullets fired you start to wonder if someone in the yakuza equivalent of the administration department isn’t having some kind of heart attack behind the scenes. Massacre Gun might not be the best entry in the Nikkatsu Noir series, but it is perhaps one of the most typical. Edgy and arty, exquisitely framed and perfectly photographed it brings out the effortless cool that came to symbolise Nikkatsu’s late '60s output. Aside from all that - it’s just fun as most of these films are. Another welcome release from Arrow, who continue to root out these lesser known genre movies, Massacre Gun is a must see for fans of classic 1960s action movies.