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Gangster VIP
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by Jay Seaver

"A yakuza in his early days."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2008 FANTASIA FESTIVAL: Director Toshio Masuda describes "Gangster VIP" not as a gangster film, but a youth film taking place against a yakuza backdrop. I suspect that the other five films that follow it in the series, which is based on the life of real-life yakuza Goro Fujita, become more gangster and less coming-of-age, but this one is a nice combination of both.

Goro Fujikawa (Tetsuya Watari) was practically raised by the Aniki gang, and has just spent three years in prison for stabbing a member of a rival gang. Right after his release, he rescues Yukiko (Chieko Matsubara), a girl from the country, from a pair of muggers, and has plans to get back with his girlfriend and go straight. Sakeo, however, has married another man while he was away, and the need for money eventually sends him drifting back to his old associates. Things get complicated, though - though the people in his crew, Takeo Tsujikawa (Mitsuo Hamada) and a big lug named Suzuki, are pretty decent, he runs afoul of the Ueto gang again - including Takeo's brother Isamu (Tamio Kawaji), who turns out to be far more honorable than the leaders of his gang... and Goro's, for that matter.

Though Gangster VIP (or Burai yori daikanbu; the series is the "Burai" series) is primarily one of Nikkatsu Studio's popular youth-oriented movies, it is a crime film, sort of a transitional step between the "honorable yakuza" movies that preceeded it and the more cutthroat presentation that was to come. This is reflected not just in the tone of the movie, but also its story - the Aniki gang which offered assistance to the orphaned Goro is clearly on the way down as the movie starts. When the Uetos double-cross them after Goro attempts to settle their differences honorably, the Anikis abandon him with little more than a token payment to leave town. Goro's world is changing, and he must learn to recognize who his friends really are.

So a lot is on Tetsuya Watari's shoulders, and he does a good job of bearing it. Watari was one of Nikkatsu's signature young stars, and he invests Goro with a balanced mix of cool and ignorance: Goro is young but still able to speak with authority to those even less experienced than himself, but still manages to be believably shocked when things do not go as the elder brothers always told him they should. There's a nice combination of stoicism and heartbreak when he realizes that Sakeo is likely better off without him and lets her go.

The rest of the cast does an able job of supporting him. Chieko Matsubara is a charming pixie of a girl, ignorant of the dangers of the city and yakuza, but still determined to make things work with Goro. Mitsuo Hamada does nice portraying Takeo as basically Goro four years earlier - clearly smitten with a girl at the local noodle shop, feeling like he owes the gang his life and loyalty - though maybe not quite so well-equipped to handle the violence of the lifestyle.

Compared to a lot of the other films in the Nikkatsu Action series that toured this year, "Gangster VIP" is fairly conventional; it's got the traditional trappings of youth and yakuza films, and even the combination of the two is relatively familiar. Masuda and Watari are good matches for this sort of story, though, and the end result is a cut above many others.

link directly to this review at http://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=17602&reviewer=371
originally posted: 09/12/08 09:46:56
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2008 Fantasia Film Festiva For more in the 2008 Fantasia Film Festival series, click here.

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