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.
As for extra features, this Arrow Video release is surprisingly lacking, although the passing of some of the crew certainly had something to do with it. Hasebe died in 2009, so there’s no chance of getting an audio commentary or interview unless done previously. However, the disc does include an interview (actually more like a commentary) from film critic Tony Rayns, who goes into enlightening detail about the careers of those involved in Retaliation as well as its presence in Japanese cinema. It runs about a half an hour.
Also included is a brief interview with Jo Shishido, who discusses his work on Retaliation and his hopes to be a 90-year-old bad guy in a movie. Worth a watch – this one’s in Japanese with English subtitles.
A trailer and still gallery round out the extras on the disc. However, there’s also reversible cover art (can’t comment since I don’t have the actual release but a check disc) as well as DVD version of the film, and most importantly, a full-color booklet insert. Not a bad set for a good picture!
Restored High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) and Standard Definition DVD presentation, on Blu-ray for the first time in the world!
Original uncompressed mono PCM audio
Newly translated English subtitles
Brand new interview with star Jô Shishido
Interview with renowned critic and historian Tony Rayns
Original theatrical trailer
Gallery featuring rare promotional images
Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Ian MacEwan
Booklet featuring new writing on the film by Japanese cinema expert Jasper Sharp, newly illustrated by Ian MacEwan and featuring original archive stills