I’ve finally gotten around to watching「恐喝こそわが人生」– Blackmail Is My Life. An early work of one of my favorite directors, Kinji Fukusaku, ‘Blackmail’ [as I shall refer to it] was made in 1968 and stands out from its contemporaries.
The opening sequence is classic 60s noir. At this point, the main character, in a voiceover that introduces the characters and basic plot setup, has gotten the ball rolling. The main character, Shun, is one of my favorite parts of this film. Japanese directors seem to shy away from overusing character types; as a result, there are plenty of crime films and each of them has a unique anti-hero. Shun isn’t like a Kurosawa thug or a Suzuki yakuza — he’s good-natured and a little green. He clearly enjoys his job.
His job, as you probably guessed from the title of the film, is blackmailing. Fukusaku makes a statement about Japan’s miraculous 60s economy as a crucible for criminal activity such as extortion. Shun and his pals are almost overworked trying to blackmail all the wealthy executives stupid enough to show obvious weaknesses. This isn’t Tokyo Drifter or Drunken Angel. It’s a great time to be a criminal.
Shun has a history like any other criminal. Unlike some more dramatic leading men in Japanese cinema, he hasn’t lead a violent life. Rather, he was down on his luck, cleaning bathrooms and waiting tables in clubs. Fukusaku uses black and white sequences that transition gradually to color to differentiate the past narrative from the present. Now that he’s become a wealthy blackmailer, Shun is dating an actress who takes up more and more of his time.
It becomes apparent to the viewer after awhile that Shun is dividing his attention between his work [dark, criminal activity] and his girlfriend [a cushier, relaxed lifestyle]. In a blatantly obvious plot device, Shun’s friend Otoki ‘reminds’ him of his criminal duties and commitment to their group of blackmailers by whistling a tune several times throughout the film. It’s the theme song from Tokyo Drifter that Tetsu whistles throughout that film. That the filmmakers assume you know the tune and understand that it represents a criminal lifestyle is key; had I never seen Tokyo Drifter, I probably wouldn’t have gotten this theme of ‘Blackmail’. I love that Fukusaku chose to incorporate a song from a masterpiece yakuza film that was released only two years earlier. In doing so, he ensured that ‘Blackmail’ was firmly entrenched in the yakuza film literature. Making use of the repertoire was an excellent play. Having her whistle it was even better.
I haven’t revealed any plot, really. The main story here is about the blackmail and the people who do it. The film is noticeably lighter than most other yakuza films. Unlike a Sukuzi film, or even other Fukusaku films [Battles Without Honor or Humanity, etc], ‘Blackmail’ goes by quickly and easily. After all, it’s only 90 minutes long. It manages to incorporate suspense, comedy, drama and even a little action.
I won’t put this on the level of Tokyo Drifter. But it does belong in the same group. Fukusaku demonstrates with ‘Blackmail’ that he can make a first-rate yakuza film — that is to say, a yakuza film that says something about society and doesn’t rely on gore to get you through to the end. This movie is carried by excellent writing, great acting and a main character you can identify with.
Unfortunately, the works of Kinji Fukusaku weren’t widely recognized internationally until the release of Battle Royale in 2000, so this movie is hard to come by. Unless you plan on buying it on Amazon, it’s unlikely you’ll come across it in a video store. You can find it streaming on Netflix, though! It’s not too long, so it’s worth a watch.