Sympathy for the Underdog Review: One of the best Japanese Gangster films
Sympathy for the Underdog (Bakuto gaijin butai) is about guts, brashness, and courage. It’s a wrenching gangster flick directed by Kinji Fukasaku whose Yakuza Papers was one of my favorite series of all time. His visual flare and his stylistic edits (accompanied by blaring music) make for some of the most memorable filmmaking I’ve seen, though that would all mean nothing without his cool characters. By that, I mean chillingly cool, more than Joe Chill from Get Shorty (who I loved)- guys who’d eat bullets for dessert. They’re rounded out by some of the funniest and unlikeliest gangsters in cinema, guys brimming with frailties, fears, greed, desire, and a whole lot of dumb bravado that ends up getting them killed. Sympathy stars Koji Tsuruta as Gunji, a gangster who just got out of jail after the Daitokai organization betrayed him and his Yakuza brothers almost a decade ago. The first thing he does is confront their leader and request five million yen for funeral expenses (though that’s just a front so they can get enough money to start up a new racket). You can see the astonishment in the faces of the Daitokai, though the boss applauds Gunji on his boldness and agrees to the sum. Gunji gathers what’s left of his gang and aims to set up shop in Okinawa. We see over and over again, though they are outgunned and vastly outnumbered, their ‘guts’ helps them to pervade. Courage goes a long way, especially when the odds are overwhelmingly against them. We have to remind ourselves of the context of the film, coming only a few decades after the end of WWII, the Yakuza scrambling to carve out a piece for themselves by whatever means they can. This results in a symbolic clash of the individual (Gunji and his gang) versus the huge organization (Daitokai).
The acting is top notch and one glance from the ensemble cast connotes more than most of the dialogue in other films. The friendship between former rivals Gunji and Shark (played by Noburo Ando who was a real life Yakuza boss and even got a knife scar from a fight with a Korean gangster) is a subtle exchange of gestures in which almost nothing is spoken and yet everything is. Yonabal the one-armed giant is a worthy rival in contrast to the foreigner thugs that act as brainless muscle. There are little things about Gunji I like; say the throb on his cheeks as he’s contemplating his next move, or the fact that he almost always has his sunglasses on (one time when he makes love, his glasses are off, but as soon as he’s done, he puts them on even though the rest of him is stark naked). A visual feast awaits, as in one of the night club scenes with a nude Black dancer or a Japanese Kadessa dance representing the subjugation of the some of the local Okinawa thugs to the Daitokai. It’s incredible how Fukasaku garners sympathy for Gunji and his gang to the point that we hope that they’ll actually pull off the impossible, even know we know they don’t have any chance.
It was said Fukasaku was influenced by American Westerns and the Battle of Algiers in making this film. While that may be the case, what he’s created here is something uniquely his own. This and the first two Yakuza Papers are probably my favorite gangster flicks of all time and I don’t just mean Japanese gangster films. Did I mention the music is fantastic?