My introduction to the Yakuza in cinema was from the 1989 Ridley Scott film, Black Rain. The film, probably having been born from the obsession of everything Japanese in the 80’s, was my first interaction with this organized crime group and the legendary Ken Takakura. Years later, after coming into contact with Kinji Fukusaku’s filmography, I was able to get my hands on many of the classic Yakuza movies from Japan that have made impressions around the world, like Battles Without Honor and Humanity, Branded to Kill, and Sympathy for the Underdog. After seeing many Yakuza films from classic studios like Nikkatsu and Toei, the genre hasn’t had many offerings now than it did back in the 60’s and 70’s, until now. Gu Su-Yeon’s Hard Romanticker is one of the best Yakuza films I’ve seen in a long time and is another wonderful film that Artsploitation Films have added to their catalog and should be seen by Yakuza aficionado’s and anyone that loves this genre as much as I do.
Based on the director’s autobiographical novel, Hard Romanticker follows Gu as a Korean-Japanese hoodlum living in Tokyo. A local gang starts to look for him relentlessly, after one of his best friends accidentally kills the gang leaders grandmother. He tries to flee Tokyo, going off to Shimonoseki for awhile, but gets harassed by other gang members, the local police and even his own grandmother. Along the way, heads get busted and Gu finds himself in all kinds of trouble and confronts people with his fists and a lead pipe that does all the talking. Full of violence, bad asses and an incredible amount of nihilism, Hard Romanticker manages to breathe new life into the Yakuza genre, something that I didn’t think possible.
One of the more interesting aspects about the production into the movie, is the life experience that Gu-Su-Yeon brings to the film that gives it’s violence and messages the intensity and immediacy that has been missing from the latest genre offerings. The youth in the film are lost, not being able to find their way in the world and with each other. The physical confrontations with one another, including the violent and disturbing abuse of women of the film showcase how they communicate, how its their form of expression. At the climax of the film, a girl that Gu has liked, because of her honest, girl next door image, gets outed as a young prostitute. Once he realizes this, he ends up raping her. While I very much don’t agree in his actions, I understand them, because I understand that violence is the only form of communication that both Gu and other delinquents know in the world of Hard Romanticker. Gu can’t find the normal means of saying how disappointed or angry he is with her, because he just doesn’t know how. That’s how most of the best Yakuza protagonists are, where all of their passion and expression are explored through them by their environment, experiences and interactions with others, that craft these explosions of violence. These are horrible actions within normal society are wrong, but in the Yakuza world, the bigger and badder you are, you’ll find yourself on top of the food chain.
While there is tons of violence in the film, there’s also plenty of laughs to go around. Atsuro Watabe and Shido Nakamura inject plenty of laughs into their bit roles and are an absolute delight when they’re on screen. Many of the situations that Gu finds himself also lend themselves to being absurd and help balance all of the violent aspects of the film and can make you burst into laughs in an instant. Another playful element is the brilliant score done by Kaoru Wada, with its classy and catchy jazz tunes. It really gives the film an upbeat vibe and links it to the jazz scores of classic Yakuza films from the 60’s and 70’s.
Hard Romanticker comes in a DVD case, with a reversible cover and a 11 page booklet containing an essay by film critic Travis Crawford and an incredible history of the Yakuza genre and Toei Studio’s history by writer and Editor-in-Chief, Patrick Macias. For anyone that loves a good gangster film and loves the Yakuza genre, you’ll be pleasantly rewarded with this offering from Gu-Su-Yeon and Artsploitiation Films. Highly Recommended!