Variable Zero

Blackmail Is My Business (1968) Movie Review

Being bombarded by nearly a week's worth of new films in no way diminishes the impact of this still-stunning, colorful early Kinji Fukasaku piece centering of the life of one ambitious, seemingly untouchable blackmail artist, and his small "family" of chinpira ("directionless punks") accomplices. Moving from mark to mark (and mostly small fry criminals), the quartet consisting of the charismatic leader, Shun (Hiroki Matsukata), his old buddy Seki (Hideo Murota), half-Japanese fighter, Zero (Akira Jo), and the alluring Otoki (played by Tomomi Sato), we catch up with their exploits through way of flashback early on which showcases Shun as a down on his luck clean-up guy at a local dive when he stumbles upon a bootlegging plot, and is eventually roughed up for not keeping quiet about it. Almost immediately, this spirals the toilet-cleaning nobody, and those nearby into a pact that steers them toward making new, and continuously more dangerous targets. From infiltrating secret pornography rings, to various other shady dealers throughout the city, it seems like Shun and company have found their place well on the outside of reconstruction era Japan. But when such reckless rebellion faces the corruption nestled deep within the nation's infrastructure, can anyone survive its wrath? 

Before redefining the yakuza drama, Kinji Fukasaku was playing wildly with the conventions of the crime dramas which were being made indelible at the time by trailblazers like Seijun Suzuki & others. But this deceptively simple tale of wayward youth bares some prophetically harsh teeth when the story gets dicey. True to what would become one of his trademarks, his anti-heroes often breathe in the promise of success by gaming a system they assume to understand, only to be systematically choked by unexpected truths within it. The techniques displayed here are fiercely experimental in places, and often come off as ahead of their time with his uses of freeze-frame, color control, and other touches that would eventually become signature. Creating something of a life document/testament to a growing feeling of apathy to the point of invincibility that perhaps Fukasaku saw in the world around him as a great mistake. The first half or so of the film almost seems to be glorifying the cool of his characters as if to lure the audience in, which is betrayed once Shun is revealed to be a womanizer of the worst kind when he questionably establishes a relationship with a popular film actress Natsuko Mizuhara (Yoko Mihara), and when he and his company discover potential glory in retrieving a memorandum capable of not only great wealth, but of exposing a swath of double-dealing at the very heart of the society they so seem hell bent on one-upping. Piece by piece, the film unveils the revelation that such aimless rebellion can only end in tragedy, and that what has been put in place since the beginning of the post-war period requires something a lot less naive.

The film's style and aggressiveness aside, the performance of Matsukata is possibly its most memorable legacy as it creates a terrific analogue to a certain sense of invulnerability that was likely very visible in Japanese youth at the time. After years of seeing movies portray the life of gamblers and thugs as something exciting and even honorable, with so much prosperity seemingly in abundance, it was likely very easy to get caught up in all of it, and Shun seems like a classic case of it. After not having found himself within more traditional means, this recently discovered talent of his seems like the gold mine that has eluded him for long enough. The feeling of being beyond what he considers beneath him, and unwilling to avoid flaunting his talents makes for a troubling, yet strangely sympathetic portrayal as it soon becomes clear what he is neglecting in the process. This is especially obvious when regarding his one-dimensional relationship with actress Mizuhara, which only seems tailor made for the movies(the artifice made clear as he helps her rehearse a scene while on a getaway trip), while the looks he exchanges with partner, Otoki, seem natural, flawed and ultimately real. He can briefly taste the life, but can only maintain the real with his little gang who have become something of a family unit.

So when Fukasaku tightens the screws on Shun and his gang, it almost waits until the final moments to truly deliver on the growing cloud of nihilism that has developed over the film's latter third. And when it explodes, it is a truly memorable delivery with nary a brass-knuckle hit pulled. It's quintessential Fukasaku, and it remains as potent now as likely as it ever has.