Japanese cinema has always been a rich and unique culture that has fascinated me. It is filled with monster movies, art house favorites, and steamy film noir. These film noir are what fascinate me the most, because directors from this country seem to inject something that is missing from most American film noir. The jaded protagonists seem to be a little bit more jaded than normal. The situations are just a little bit more intense and rife with tension. The settings are just a little bit more stark. And the stars of this genre are just a little bit more demented. Jo Shishido is the ultimate example of the demented protagonist. Cruel Gun Story is just another entry in the legacy of Shishido and his many brooding protagonists.
Shishido plays Togawa, a convict released early by a mob boss so he can pull off a complicated heist. The heist involves boosting an armored truck filled with a day’s revenue from a popular race track. He hatches a plan and whips his assigned crew into shape. He establishes himself as top dog, but some people resent his top dog status and harsh demeanor. Of course behind this brash nature and tough talking demeanor is a caring brother who carries around a heavy conscious after being the reason his virginal sister gets crippled. His love for her is what motivates him to pull off this heist he doesn’t want to do. The money earned from the job would ensure her safety and well-being. This caring along with several missteps in the heist contribute to his downfall.
In many ways this is a typical heist movie that anyone who has watched a Nicholas Cage movie would be familiar with. But it has this edge to it that is hard to explain. The men of the story are rough characters, each one burned by the mob boss and forced to do a deed they don’t really want to do but need to do. They beat each other up, are quick to back stab one person in favor of someone else, and wear sunglasses at night. They are forced in these situations because the modern Japanese culture has nothing for them to do. They are aliens in their own country now that the Americans have come to occupy it. The American presence looms over everything that happens in this movie. They occupy abandoned buildings that once housed American troops. The one legitimate person in the movie, makes his living off of owning a bar that caters to the troops. At one point in the narrative, Togawa acquires a machine gun (presumably the gun of the story, although it doesn’t factor that much into the plot) that was American made. He is warned that if he points the gun with the intention of using it, he must be ready to kill. He aims it at his mob boss after he gets shafted by him and is able to fully exact his revenge using a foreign instrument.
When this movie was made, Shishido was just forming the legacy he will play on for the rest of the sixties. He isn’t as fully formed as he would be later on in his film career, but you can see hints of his badass characters in Branded to Kill and Tokyo Drifter. He stalks scenes and plays the brooding master mind that the script makes for him quite well. Quite honestly I am still impressed that he is able to open his mouth with those insane cheeks of his, let alone act as well as he does.