Monday, April 16, 2012

REVIEW: Sympathy for the Underdog

Sympathy for the Underdog
Director: Kinji Fukasaku
Year 1971

Sympathy for the Underdog, AKA Gamblers in Okinawa, is an epic yakuza tale about treachery, lost love, and revenge. Directed by the legendary Japanese filmmaker Kinji Fukasaku, the film is stark with blood and violence as it depicts the harsh life of a fallen yakuza gang that must brutally claim a new piece of territory for themselves or never see their betrayal avenged. With an outstanding visual style and a penchant for dramatic detail, Sympathy for the Underdog is truly a brutal masterpiece.

This bloody tale follows a yakuza member named Gunji, who has just been released from prison after a ten year long sentence. The life that Gunji has come back to is a shadow of its former self. After his arrest, the gang was disbanded and their territory was taken over by a rival gang, the same one that set up their downfall. Instead of directly seeking out revenge, Gunji plans to reunite the surviving members of his defunct gang and start over in Okinawa, steadily regaining their status and eventually taking down those responsible for his ten year stay in the slammer. With the odds against them and their numbers few, can they retake those old glory days or will their end be met by a bloody massacre? Perhaps both outcomes will be met?

Koji Tsuruta plays the role of Gunji, the sunglasses wearing bad ass with a heavy heart of gold. His reintroduction into the world, after his prison stay, is somewhat of a shock and Tsuruta pours on the sulk for everything its worth. You can see the wear and tear from having to carry the burden of this gang on his broad shoulders, and the reflective moments when he looks back on what has occurred in the past and onto the events that are sure to unfold in the future, he does this in a mesmerizing and contemplative way. His character is an interesting specimen, because he never loses his cool or shows any kind of emotion aside from his cold thought-provoking stare.
What’s most compelling about this character is that he is a violent man, but Tsuruta plays him with restraint, only bringing out his viscous side when it is absolutely necessary. This semi-pacifist approach is engaging, helping us side with the kinder side of the character, while allowing the viewer to understand the need for violence later on when Gunji is given no other choice. I also enjoyed how Tsuruta took on the sorrow of Gunji’s long lost love. He allowed the feelings that his character had for her, to infect itself into his performance, giving him the mournful appearance of a hallow man lost to the past. Tsuruta gives an outstanding performance in general, leaving the trademarks of an accomplished actor in his wake while gifting the audience with a lasting impression of his brilliance.

The style of Sympathy for the Underdog is also quite remarkable, allowing for the violence and bloodletting to be expressively splashed across its kinetic frame. A great example of this technique comes into play during the final blood soaked moments of the film. A large scale battle takes place, with Gunji and his small crew going up against a powerful yakuza gang. The camera tilts back and forth as it struggles to keep up with the action, swaying here and there as if mimicking the struggle of the fight. It’s a furious exchange of movement and pace and the director captures the chaotic anarchy of it all. The same detailed technique can be seen in the more tender moments of the film also, where the color and the placement of the actors are more intimate and static. We get a number of these instances, but most prominently it is more than prevalent in the low key moments between Gunji and the prostitute that resembles his long lost love. In these scenes, the pace of the film slows down to appreciate the tenderness of the moment, while at the same time making for a stark contrast to the more blood filled moments that surround it.
Speaking of the blood filled moments, this movie has plenty of that. Throughout the course of the film, we are witness to gory car accidents, nasty knife slashes, viscous shotgun blasts, crimson splattering gun shot wounds, and a plethora of stabbings that never seem to end. The movie is a smorgasbord of cruelty and it looks absolutely beautiful. The visceral nature of the picture illustrates perfectly the violent nature of this criminal world and no one does it better then Kinji Fukasaku. With this entry in the yakuza genre of films and his amazing Yakuza Papers series of movies, Fukasaku really made his mark on gritty violent stories during this age of cinema. Sympathy for the Underdog is just one of his many bloody calling cards that stated his effectiveness as a director of the brutal side of life.

Sympathy for the Underdog is a highly enjoyable showcase on the brutal world of the yakuza. Its visceral approach and heightened sense of reality, is at its core, top notch and highly engaging. Koji Tsuruta is mesmerizing as the leader of the underdog crew of fallen yakuza and his portrayal of the hardened and cool Gunji is inspirational.
With the film’s frantic depictions of gang wars and the tolls that they take on their participants, you’re presented with a stark recreation of brutal violence that never really lets up. Finding a film this genuine is a rare breed indeed and you definitely won’t find a more desperate and intimate portrayal of a dog-eat-dog lifestyle then you will with Sympathy for the Underdog. Kinji Fukasaku gives us a……

Gunji has one hell of a poker face.

No one likes it when the old man farts. No one.

What's the matter boys? Never seen one this big?

This is the shit that's supposed to knock my socks off?

We're about to put a hurting on this fool. You want in?

Waiter... there's a dead man in my soup.

I know you're making faces behind me.

They said your uni-brow looks stupid.

Try not to looks so guilty guys.

Gunji takes a little porno break.

You insult my uni-brow, i bring the posse.

This is my happy face.

I think he's dead guys. Ever hear of overkill?

The pool party was a bust after everyone forgot to bring their swimsuits.

This is my sad face.

Hello! Is anyone there?!?!?!

Get the fuck out of the way cameraman!

Looks like someone found a snuggle buddy.

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