Armchair Cinephile

Warner Brothers has just released a fantastic Gangster Collection that has the film-buff world abuzz (watch for a review here soon), but they were beaten to the punch by Home Vision, which recently delivered a lavish look at gang warfare, Japanese-style.

The six-disc The Yakuza Papers collects a five-film series from the '70s that not only has a blunt violence that trumps the '30s Warner titles, but has a scope that makes America's favorite mob epic, The Godfather, look like a short story.

Directed by Kinji Fukasaku (a cult hero here thanks to Battle Royale and Quentin Tarantino), the Yakuza series depicts a crime world birthed by the Bomb: Opening after World War II, with American troops still patroling a shell-shocked Japan, it shows a culture in disarray, where newly born crime families step in to provide one kind of order.

We meet the major players when they're nobodies and follow their careers over a quarter-century. It isn't a story for casual viewers: Imagine being asked to keep up not only with the Corleones but with their competing familias, and doing it in a foreign language with none of the comfortable touchstones of mafia cinema.

Then imagine that street war depicted not with Coppola's romanticism, but like military history: X schemes against Y, whose lieutenants mount a counterstrike; Z switches sides, eventually teaming with W to start his own family, and so on. Even if we weren't watching actors through decades of changing fashions, most of us would need the character flow chart that this box set thoughtfully provides.

The set is grand, as lovely as any made to house America's mob masterpieces: A metal slipcase holds five film discs and one disc of bonus features, along with a pair of short essays. More importantly, the image and sound are as vibrant as fans could possibly hope. This is garish color for startling violence - rape, self-mutilation, and a mushroom cloud greet us before the first film's halfway point - but the tale being told is deathly serious.

Speaking of wild color, Fukasaku's countryman Seijun Suzuki is known stateside mostly for candy-colored crime films that bordered on (or dove into) camp. The Criterion Collection delves into his earlier work with two releases that precede the Yakuza epic, the black-and-white Fighting Elegy and the early take on yakuza life, Youth of the Beast.

Criterion and Home Vision are sister companies, and at the moment it seems there's some sibling rivalry going on: No sooner did the Suzuki films arrive than HV delivered two more Fukasaku titles. In Sympathy for the Underdog, old ways clash with new as an aging gangster emerges from prison to learn that the modern yakuza has no use for his quaint honor code. And in case fans decide Fukasaku dealt only in crime and gore, Fall Guy showcases his comedic skills - and won five Japanese film awards to boot.

Criterion and Home Vision aren't the only Japan-ophiles out there. With the success of recent remakes such as The Ring and The Grudge, studios are rushing to issue the most popular Japanese horror titles. Ju-On (Lions Gate) is one of the latest, but thrill-seeking teenyboppers be warned: These are horror films of a very peculiar sort, long on atmosphere and short on scares. More often than not, they boil down to two or three haunting images, fleshed out by a lot of portentous plot.

Recent releases also include Ghost in the Shell: Special Edition (Manga), a two-disc presentation of the much-admired anime, which comes just in time for the release of Innocence (Universal), the sequel that actually surpassed the original in rave reviews (It took the Golden Palm at Cannes, among other honors).

Heading inland, we're sorry to report that the explosion of creativity in Korean film hasn't yet resulted in a slew of titles hitting U.S. theaters. Until Old Boy arrives and hopefully changes that, fans of Asian film are encouraged to seek out the new Tae Guk Gi (Sony), which has set the Internet-geek village abuzz. A Korean War tale about two brothers forced to join the Army, it was deemed the best film of 2004 by Ain't-It-Coolster Harry Knowles, who has done much to open American eyes to the weird and glorious world of Korean film.

John DeFore on DVD


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