Kuroda (Jo Shishido) is a mid-level yakuza enforcer who has been ordered to kill his own lover. While he goes through with the murder, he tells gang boss Akazawa (Takashi Kanda) that he is leaving his employ. Akazawa, however, is not so easily turned down, and his efforts to pressure Kuroda drag in both of Kuroda’s brothers: fellow yakuza Eiji (Tatsuya Fuji) and aspiring boxer Saburo (Jiro Okazaki).
Massacre Gun is a 1967 crime thriller produced by Nikkatsu, the Japanese studio whose output during the 1960s was dominated by similarly violent action films and thrillers. Generally speaking the films all run along similar themes and styles. They are pretty violent, brutal affairs for their time, and are shot in wonderfully stylish ways that exploit both stark black and white photography and a Cinemascope aspect ratio (2.35:1) that gives even the smallest of budgeted films a beautiful widescreen grandeur. Massacre Gun broadly falls into the overall Nikkatsu type, but with a few distinctive changes that help to make it stand out from the crowd.
For one thing it nicely sidesteps the stereotypical ‘one rogue against the system’ narrative by giving Kuroda two brothers. As a trio of renegades there are more opportunities for the story as well as a much more varied approach in terms of character. Kuroda is a classic level-headed professional with a sparse use of words and a carefully thought-out plan of attack. By contrast Eiji is a hot-headed rebel, desperate to strike back as Akazawa’s men apply violent pressure to force Kuroda back into place. As the youngest brother, Saburo stands apart from his siblings. When Kuroda turns his back on Akazawa, the crime boss has his men crush Saburo’s hands – ending his nascent boxing career. Saburo fights with his brothers the best that he can, but he is not a yakuza. Unlike his brothers he is not a criminal, and they both seem keen to keep it that way. With three different angles on the story Massacre Gun can be a little more nuanced than the typical Nikkatsu crime film.
Jo Shishido anchors the film well as Kuroda. It is a much more pressed-down, cold performance than his usual work, but it is tremendously effective. It also allows both Fuji and Okazaki to be a bit broader and more emotive without overloading the film. One other highlight, albeit a rather unexpected one, is Ken Sanders as Chico. The Kuroda brothers own and operate a nightclub, and Chico is their house pianist. The film cuts regularly from a scene of violence or intimidation to a scene of Chico performing a melancholic blues number in the piano. It is an unusual but deeply effective touch, and complements the typically jazzy Naozumi Yamamoto score very well.
Yasuhara Hasebe shoots the film with a strong visual eye; unsurprising given his pre-directorial career assisting legendary filmmaker Seijun Suzuki. While the bulk of the film looks pretty conventional, there seems to be a striking image or composition every few minutes to jolt the viewer and ramp up the film’s atmosphere and tension. The action is comparatively stylised. Characters die in a storm of bullets, yet we rarely see a bullet hit a body. Instead the actors flail and stumble around until they fall, at which point a cut reveals their blood-soaked corpses. While such a style exists partly for budgetary reasons, it gives many of the action sequences a slightly surreal, unearthly look. It further distinguishes the film from its contemporaries.
Events build to a marvellously bleak and uncompromising finale, as Kuroda takes on about ten of Akazawa’s men in one futile final stand. It is a great climax, showcasing the very best of Nikkatsu’s house style. To its credit it also knows when to end the film, without wasting excessive time on heartfelt denouements.
There is definitely a strong house style to Nikkatsu’s crime films, and to a large extent Massacre Gun operates within those boundaries. It remains a fine example of the genre, and with a few distinctive touches and moments it even manages to rise up to represent the studio at its best.