The yakuza thriller has been a prominent genre in Japanese cinema since the silent era when soon to be celebrated directors like Yasujiro Ozu dabbled in gangster melodramas like Walk Cheerfully (1930) and Dragnet Girl (1933). Once conceived as B-movies with low-budgets and rushed production schedules, the yakuza film graduated to A-picture productions in the 1970s but the genre really hit its stride in the 1960s with such stellar examples as Masahiro Shinoda’s Pale Flower (1964), Seijun Suzuki’s Tokyo Drifter (1966) and his more wildly stylized follow-up, Branded to Kill (1967). Still, there are so many superb yakuza films from this period waiting to be discovered by American audiences and one of my favorites is A Certain Killer (1967, Japanese title: Aru Koroshi Ya) from director Kazuo Mori.
The film occasionally surfaces at Japanese film retrospective series at venues like The Japan Society in New York City but it is surprising that A Certain Killer has not been brought to the attention of film buffs by Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino and other tastemakers of our celluloid culture. What makes it stand out from the crowd is Raizo Ichikawa in the main role of Shiozawa, a professional hit man who operates a small restaurant/bar out of his home where he serves as the sushi chef.
You would never know by looking at Shiozawa that he is a contract killer. He comes across like a mild-mannered accountant or some nondescript Japanese businessman. He doesn’t look like a thug or have the menacing presence of someone like Tatsuya Nakadai in Cash Calls Hell (1966) or Bunta Sugawara in Street Mobster (1972) but he projects the blank quality of a total sociopath. He has a steely resolve that never flags under pressure and murders without emotion or remorse. Nor will he be deterred from his goal, regardless of the odds. “Come rain or wind, I don’t change my plans. That is my policy,” he firmly states at one point.
There is a zen-like beauty to Shiozawa’s modus operandi which should be troubling for its amorality yet there are suggestions along the way that he is driven by a deeper sense of moral purpose. This emerges in a few fleeting references to his experiences in WWII via a recurring snapshot of Shiozawa with two army buddies. (In the original novel by Shinji Fujiwara, he was a former kamikaze pilot). “All my friends died with trust in their country and for the good of the nation. They were all pure and young,” he says in an accusatory tone that obviously places the blame on Japan. The fact that A Certain Killer is set in a society dominated by yakuza bosses, black market profiteers, prostitutes and petty thieves seems to confirm that the country is rife with corruption and a strong argument for Shiozawa’s allegiance to no one but himself.
Unlike the cunning, emotionless assassins in Irving Lerner’s Murder by Contract (1958), Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samourai (1967) and other hit men noirs, Shiozawa could be a precursor to Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry, a lone wolf carrying out his own version of law and order by removing underworld scum from his world. This is supported by his statement, “They’re not worthy of this world, they’re just like cockroaches.”
The opening sequence in A Certain Killer immediately draws you into the film’s taut narrative and establishes Shiozawa as a mysterious and enigmatic figure. He hails a cab and is deposited at a bleak, industrial site. With briefcase in hand, he wanders along a polluted port, dons an eye patch and checks out a seedy boarding house located next to an abandoned, weed-covered graveyard. He rents a room with no furnishings and begins to plan his next job. He is soon joined by two accomplices, Keiko (Yumiko Nogawa) and Maeda (Mikio Narita), whose true identities are slowly revealed through episodic flashbacks throughout the film. We know that neither Keiko or Maeda are trustworthy partners but Shiozawa also recognizes that from the get-go and uses their treacherous natures to his advantage.
[Spoiler Alert] The first half of A Certain Killer follows Shiozawa as he accepts and executes a contract job from Kimura, a yakuza boss, who wants revenge for a business deal gone bad with the Oowada gang. The twist is that Kimura plans to have Shiozawa eliminated after the job so there is no connection to the crime. Of course, Shiozawa suspects this from the beginning and has an alternate plan, which unfolds in the second half of the movie and involves a major heist of money and cocaine from drug smugglers working for Kimura.
A Certain Killer is a film full of indelible moments. The key murder scene in which Shiozawa infiltrates a party unnoticed and kills his victim by thrusting a long needle-like blade deep into the back of his neck is a virtuoso display of precision and surprise. Equally impressive is a moment when we first witness Shiozawa’s daunting self-defense skills. As Keiko’s pimp/partner in crime tries to shake down Shiozawa for money and pulls a knife on him, the assailant promptly has his arm broken (nice bone-crunching sound effects!) and is left moaning in pain. Best of all is the climax with Shiozawa taking on Kimura’s entire gang with help from Keiko and Maeda and none of them are armed with guns with the exception of the yakuza chieftain. Instead, it becomes a battle of fists, feet and knives.
As an actor, Raizo Ichikawa is quite the chameleon and seems to change his appearance from film to film. Compare his buttoned-up businessman/sushi chef facade in A Certain Killer to his portrayal of Nemuri Kyoshiro, a notorious ronin famous for his full moon cut technique, in the ten-film chanbara [sword fighting] series, Sleep Eyes of Death. He could be a stolid military leader battling a supernatural entity in The Demon of Mount Oe (1960), a charming, kid-friendly hero with a hair bun in the Shane-inspired The Gambler’s Code (1961) or a socially awkward apprentice monk who destroys a national treasure in Kon Ichikawa’s Conflagration aka Enjo (1958), an adaptation of Yukio Mishima’s The Temple of the Golden Pavilion. The latter film won Ichikawa the New Cinema Award as Best Actor at the Venice Film Festival. Unfortunately, Ichikawa was struck down in his prime and died at age 37 from liver cancer only two years after he appeared in A Certain Killer.
For Japanese film buffs, Yumiko Nogawa should be a familiar face. She made an unforgettable impression in her debut film as an innocent new recruit to a Tokyo brothal in Seijun Suzuki’s Gate of Flesh (1964). She is even more impressive as the debased, tormented heroine of Suzuki’s Story of a Prostitute (1965). Other career highlights include her deceptive gangster moll character in Nagisa Oshima’s Pleasures of the Flesh (1965) and Killer’s Mission (1969), in which she plays a deadly female spy, but her later career saw her subjugated to supporting roles in films and TV series.
In the role of the double-crossing Madea, Mikio Narita made a career of playing despicable villains and shares some facial similarities to American actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt. His impressive career of over 100 films plus TV credits include a wide range of Japanese cinema cult favorites such as the period spy adventure Shadow Hunters (1972), Kinji Fukasaku’s yakuza thriller Graveyard of Honor (1975) and the sci-fi fantasy Message from Space (1978) but his role in the 5-part yakuza epic from director Kinji Fukasaku, Battles Without Honor and Humanity (1973), might be his most iconic role, even if he is a supporting player.
As for Kazuo Mori, he was considered as little more than an efficient journeyman director within the Japanese film industry but his genre efforts are comparable with the work of American counterparts like Phil Karlson (Kansas City Confidential) and Joseph H. Lewis (Gun Crazy) and he deserves to be better known. He helmed the third entry in the popular Shinobi No Mono film franchise Resurrection (1963) featuring Raizo Ichikawa as a rogue ninja during the Feudal era and he was responsible for three of the most entertaining, action-packed episodes in the 25-film Zatoichi series starring Shintaro Katsu as the blind masseur/swordsman hero – The Tale of Zatoichi Continues (1962), Zatoichi and the Doomed Man (1965) and Zatoichi at Large (1972).
Mori’s A Certain Killer was a box office hit in Japan and the director made a semi-sequel the same year entitled A Killer’s Key but this time Raizo Ichikawa’s hit man hero poses as a dance instructor while operating as a contract killer. The film was even more stripped down and austere than the first one and invited comparisons to the look and style of Robert Bresson as in A Man Escaped (1956). Yet, for some reason, neither film has earned the sort of cult reputation that Seijun Suzuki and Kinji Fukasaku enjoy with their yakuza thrillers. It also doesn’t help that A Certain Killer was unfavorably compared to Melville’s Le Samourai by the reviewer for The Overlook Film Encyclopedia: The Gangster Film who wrote, “…Mori was too much of an action director…he adopted far too fast a pace and only fitfully does he approximate the smouldering intensity of the French film.”
Some final comments about A Certain Killer: The film score by Hajime Kaburagi is extremely sparse but effectively utilized in a few key scenes. The music cues in the opening credits remind me of Roy Budd’s theme song for Get Carter (1971). More importantly the movie was shot by legendary cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa who lensed such Japanese masterworks as Rashomon, Ugetsu, Yojimbo, Sansho the Bailiff, Odd Obsession and Yasujiro Ozu’s 1959 color remake of Floating Weeds.
A Certain Killer is not available in any format in the U.S. via a legitimate distributor. You might be able to find the Japanese import Blu-ray double feature of A Certain Killer and A Killer’s Key from Kadokawa Entertainment from an online source but it does not have English subtitles and you will need an all-region Blu-ray player to view it. There are also DVD-R copies of it available through the gray market and sources like European Trash Cinema.
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