Retaliation is a difficult film to write about, not because it has little to offer as a cinematic classic but because it is quite complex. On the surface, it is a standard Japanese yakuza film from director Yasuharu Hasebe, a niche genre that he admittedly knows rather well from other works in the era. Its yakuza ties are much more socio-politically fueled than its action setpieces, and Retaliation is a slow-burner because of that; the focus on interpersonal relations and honor within the crime syndicate take precedence over the actual act of retaliation until the latter moments of the film, and that can often put Hasebe’s film in the uncomfortable position of exposing the less-than-glamorous side of yakuza life.
Because of that, Retaliation often lingers on subtle moments shared between characters, and part of its charm is the way that Hasebe’s main character Jiro (Akira Kobayashi) struggles to do his work dictated by the yakuza Don he works for while under constant threat of attack, either from the opposing Aoba clan or from a peer named Hino (Jo Shishido) that wants to kill him for a past sleight. Jiro is a smart and likable guy, always dressed in a suit and in complete control of himself in his surroundings – Kobayashi is excellent in this role, and it’s no wonder he became part of the diamond group of actors in Japanese cinema.
Jiro’s likability makes his downfall a lot more meaningful, too. When the Don goes back on his word to Jiro, it’s like a sword-stab to the audience as well – throughout much of Retaliation, Jiro resists the urge to do just what the title suggests, unable to kill Hino even after he’s attacked multiple times by him, and he’s unwilling to get back into the violence that once sent him to jail. Theres’s a moral code that consistently runs through Retaliation, a theme that Hasebe and screenwriters Yoshihiro Ishamatsu and Keiji Kubota explore throughout the multiple run-ins with the Aoba clan and within the yakuza lifestyle.
With that said, there are murders, there is rape, and there’s also prostitution. Hasebe doesn’t shrink from showing the terrible things that members of yakuza gangs do, and in fact the intention is to highlight the morality play within. Jiro, for all of his attempts to stay peaceful, is still pulled into the crosshairs – at one point, literally – because one can’t simply have the allure of obtaining a high position in the yakuza without getting blood on their hands in the process. The climactic tipping point, where a young woman is killed in an attack on Jiro, finally forces him back into violence, and though it’s a necessary act for his survival, it is also a tragic moment for the audience.
Hasebe effectively structures these moments, although most contemporary audiences will most likely find Retaliation a bit too slow for their liking. It is often tedious or plodding, but in an intentional way; it is, like The Sopranos, a look at the inner lifestyle of gang members and the hierarchy of such, and that takes time to craft.
Those that find themselves bored of the action should take a look at Hasebe’s scene framing, because it is intentionally structured. Most scenes are shot with an obstruction between the camera and the characters, a literal barrier that obscures the image. It’s intentional – there is always a obstacle between what we want, and Retaliation‘s framing is meant as a metaphor for Jiro’s plight. These moments often make for very interesting shot choices, either set behind some object or enveloped in rain, and it gives Retaliation a defining characteristic that adds to the story.
But the film is not for those who aren’t interested in giving it time to develop. It is a laborious process, and for a yakuza film, Retaliation is often devoid of fight scenes. With that said, the ones that are shown are chaotic and more climactic than one would assume, and Hasebe’s reluctance, using them sparingly, is a wise choice. Retaliation holds a rather scathing view of yakuza lifestyle, and it is somewhat slow-paced, but its presence as important cinema should have few outspoken opponents.
Click next for the Blu-Ray review.