Release Year: 1970
Director: Yukio Noda
Writers: Fumio Konami, Yukio Noda
Cast: Sonny Chiba, Ryohei Uchida, Ryoji Hayama, Rinichi Yamamoto, Machiko Yashiro, Yoko Nogiwa, Toru Yuri
Editor: Osamu Tanaka
Music: Masao Yagi
Producers: Koji Ohta, Masao Sato
The James Bond films were more than a massive hit in Japan. They were an unprecedented phenomenon. When the series went to Japan to make You Only Live Twice, the crowds and the attention that Sean Connery garnered were overwhelming. In the book Martinis, Girls and Guns (Sterling & Morecambe. Robson Books 2002), Connery is quoted in an interview from 1974 saying:
‘When we went to Japan, and then to Bangkok and Hong Kong, there were people crowded into Hotel lobbies and on street corners, just waiting to look at me. It became a terrible pressure, like living in a goldfish bowl.’
With the massive influence of Bond in Japan it is not so very surprising that they would start making their own spy movies and television shows. But, and this is just an observation rather than a hard cold fact, the Japanese version of a secret agent was a little different to the one that Western audiences were used to. Firstly, they usually were experts in a form of martial arts. And secondly, and possibly more importantly is that they never left Japan — that is they didn’t ‘globetrot’ like Eurospies — and the agency that they worked for was usually an offshoot of the Police Department. The films are very much spy films, with all the trappings you’d expect — girls, guns, gadgets, and dastardly villains, but the spies depicted were often glorified police men. The titles of many of the Japanese spy films reflect this, like the five film International Secret Police series — International Secret Police: Order No. 8, International Secret Police: Fangs of the Tiger, International Secret Police: Powder Keg, International Secret Police: Key of Keys, International Secret Police: Desperation (portions of Powder Keg and Key of Keys were used as the base for Woody Allen’s What’s Up Tiger Lily?)The children’s television show Spycatcher J3 had it’s operatives working for T.U.L.I.P. (The Undercover Line of International Police) but the series focused on the activities of its Tokyo branch. And Zero Woman (in numerous films) worked for the secret ‘Zero Branch’ of the Police Department. I think I have laboured the point — spies were in fact ‘super cops’.
This review looks at another ‘super cop’ played by martial arts superstar Sonny Chiba in the first film of the Yakuza Deka (Gangster Detective) series. The Australian DVD release is actually called Yakuza Deka: Secret Police. There are four films in the series — the others being Yakuza Deka: The Assassin (Yakuza Deka: Marifuana Mitsubai Soshiki [lit. Gangster Detective: Marijuana Smugglers Ring] 1970, also directed by Yukio Noda), Yakuza Deka: Poison Gas Affair (Yakuza Deka: Kyofu no Doku Gasu [lit. Gangster Dective: The Terror of Poison Gas] 1971, directed by Ryuichi Takamori) and finally Yakuza Deka: No Epitaphs for Us (Yakuza Deka: Oretachi ni Haka wa nai [lit. Gangster Detective: No Graves for Us] 1971, also directed by Ryuichi Takamori). As far as I am aware the last two films are not currently available on DVD.
Yakuza Deka: Secret Police opens in a pachinko parlour in the Ginza. The police surround the building and attempt to arrest two gang members. One is Tetsuji Asai (Ryohei Uchida), who is wearing a slick white suit. The other is Hayata (Sonny Chiba), and he is kind of scruffy looking. Tetsuji and Hayata attempt to make a run for it, and end up on the streets with a veritable army of police after them. But somehow, against the odds, they manage to get away.
Later that evening they are in a gambling house — and guess what? Yep, another raid by the police. Before attempting to make their own escape, Tetsuji and Hayata help the mob boss who runs the gambling house to evade capture. Then they try to get away, but no such luck. They are caught and end up in a jail cell.
But Hayata’s incarceration is short lived. Why? Because he is an undercover police officer. But cell-time is not the only thing that was short lived. Hayata career as a police officer is short lived too. After he is released, in an act of petulance he steals the ‘police department’ sign from out the front of the building. He is booted off the force.
It doesn’t take long for the Yakuza to come sniffing around Hayata. He has valuable skills. Tetsuji is sent to evaluate him and see if he is made from the ‘right stuff’. This is actually a pretty amusing scene. They face each other on the beach, each behing at the wheel of a dune buggy. Then they both place a rose between their teeth. Next, with one hand on the steering wheel and the other on a pistol, they drive at each other firing their guns. The object is not to kill each other, but to shoot their opponent’s rose from it’s stem.
Soon Hayata is accepted into the Yashiro Gang. But — and you’ve propbably guessed this, as this is a spy film review and so far there has been no spying — Hayata is actually working super secretly under cover to bring down the Yashiro Gang, and their financier, Mr Akutsu.
Of course, the Yashiro Gang don’t trust Hayata implicitly. No, they choose to test him. They want the rival gang — the Okura Gang — out of the way. To do this, the Yashiro fake an ambush on Hayata. They then tell Hayata that it was the Okura Gang. So Hayata’s mission for the Yashiro is to kill the head of the Okura Gang. Which he does, now becoming a target for the Okura Gang. I don’t think that I’d be the first to suggest that the story of a man caught in the middle of two warring factions bares a passing resemblance to Yojimbo (or Fistful of Dollars if you prefer).
Yakuza Deka is fairly action packed, but at the beginning it has a confusing directorial style. The story makes sense by the end of the film, but all throughout are these little action set pieces that seem to have little purpose. Only after the scene, is the plot explained. I guess in some ways the film is like an old school detective film and you only find out what is going on as Hayata does. The action sequences however, are not like an old school detective film. Yakuza Deka is tough and violent with a healthy dose of martial arts thrown into the mix.
The last twenty minutes of this film is packed with fights, shootings, electrocutions, explosions, leaping from rooftops, and car chases. There’s even a pesky helicopter dropping dynamite on our hero. In other words, the film has a bit of everything — everything that a spy film afficianado could ask for.
A special thanks to John Drake on the Eurospy Forum for answering my question about this series – and information in general about Japanese spy films and television shows.