Cruel Gun Story, aka Kenjū zankoku monogatari (1964, Dir. Takumi Furukawa):
You’re 36 years old. Old enough that you should know what your future holds.
— Cruel Gun Story
At first we see supersonic jets soaring overhead with a high-decibel scream. We’re in Japan, modern and strutting and confident. Then we cut to ex-con Togawa (Jô Shishido), stuck on the ground and looking heavenward, his face pressed to a chain-link fence — caged, abandoned and adrift even in freedom. The rest of Takumi Furukawa’s explosive Cruel Gun Story follows through on that visual thesis statement. The Land of the Rising Sun may be on the upswing, but for a down-on-his-luck hood, life is just as miserable as it’s always been. For those who seek truth in advertising, rest assured that the movie’s title does not lie: Cruel Gun Story is plenty cruel, with guns aplenty.
Nikkatsu Studios was Japan’s A-number-one B-movie purveyor in the 50s and early 60s, and Cruel Gun Story is a late-period entry which finds the Nikkatsu machine still revving at full steam. Stealing its set-up from The Killing, the story is no-bones in its efficiency: Crooked lawyer Ito and his fat-cat boss Matsumoto (Hiroshi Nihonyanagi) arrange for Togawa to be released early from prison so they can hire him to pull off a daring robbery of an armored car flush with 127 million yen in racetrack money. Cue the assembling of a desperate gang of crooks, the formulation of a plan, the tension-loaded heist, and the aftermath in which everything (surprise, surprise) goes to pot.
So far, so expected, but what sets Cruel Gun Story apart from most potboilers is its doomy atmosphere. Shot in a bombed-out Yokohama in the wake of U.S. military occupation, the setting is a nightmare carnival of abandoned warehouses, desolate bars, and English signage. While Togawa and his confederates have big-time dreams, their milieu is strictly small-time — more than once the characters huddle around a single kerosene heater to warm themselves, and even when they’re acting up and punching each other out, there’s barely room to maneuver in their cramped little hideaways. Among their ranks is drug-addled, greedy gambler Teramoto, former boxer Okada (Shôbun Inoue) who’s now a brain-damaged hulk (“I’m a champion!” he bleats), and Teramoto’s clingy girlfriend Kei (Minako Kazuki), whose motives shift seemingly on a whim. In such an environment, betrayal and greed are ubiquitous, like the air. “I’m a businessman, not a gambler,” purrs Ito, and it turns out that neither businessman nor gambler can be trusted: Ito and Matsumoto plot the gang’s destruction from on high, and Teramoto looks to sabotage the group from within. Although Okada and his trustworthy pal Shirai (Yuji Odaka) seem rock-solid in comparison to the rest of these low-lifes, they might be the biggest losers of them all, for what’s the use of scruples and loyalty when you’re playing with a bunch of cheaters? Battles Without Honor and Humanity would be the name of a yakuza movie series in the ’70s, but the title applies just as well here.
While Tokada may be deluded, any character played by Jô Shishido isn’t going down without a fight. An established tough-guy presence on par with Clint Eastwood at this stage in his career, his surgically enhanced cheeks puffed out like tiny explosions, Shishido achieves a Zen stillness even when he’s in the midst of losing his shit. One minute he chomps on a cigarette like no one’s business as he slaps an underling around (“I’m the one who makes jokes and gives orders!”), and in the next he broods it up, struck with the realization that he’s on the road to nowheresville. Oh sure, he ostensibly has decent motives — he plans to spend his ill-gotten gains on his paralyzed sister Rie (Chieko Matsubara, her face stuck in a rictus grin of saintliness throughout) — but don’t think for a moment that she’s a ray of sunshine in his life. As Rie’s doctor reminds Tokada, no operation will improve her condition, rendering the success of the robbery moot from the get-go. But at least Rie isn’t brain-damaged; “Something to thank God for,” the doctor says. Tokada’s rejoinder: “To hell with God!”
And hell is where Cruel Gun Story goes. The burglary of the truck sets off a chain reaction of double and triple-crosses, and before long guns are blazing in all directions. It’s a bit frantic, but director Takumi Furukawa propels everything forward with B-movie vigor. Down the stretch we rocket from one set-piece to the next: Tokada hunted through the sewers like a wounded animal, in a nod to Carol Reed’s The Third Man, followed by the cold Yojimbo-like irony of Tokada allying himself with a rival gang (only to sacrifice them without warning in his quest for revenge), capped with an unforgettable shot of Tokada getting the drop on his prey, impregnable behind his sunglasses, cigarette jutting from his mouth like a spear. This is the kind of world in which it’s better to let your boss’s kidnapped son die than lose a chance to get your hands on money, and although Togawa isn’t so much a stray dog as a rabid wolf, he at least retains a figment of loyalty, if only to the job at hand. It all concludes in an existential hail of gunfire, with no bad guy, not-quite-good guy, or innocent spared. In Cruel Gun Story‘s final cruel twist, it doesn’t really matter whose side you’re own — in post-war, money-hungry Japan, everyone receives a bullet, whether you like it or not.