It wasn’t until near the end of his life and career that Japanese filmmaker Kinji Fukasaku really came to the attention of most American film fans. In 2000, his final movie, Battle Royale exploded on the screen, serving notice to audiences in the states that a bold, innovative director had arrived. The only problem was that by the time Battle Royale had come out, Fukasaku’s career already spanned five decades and spawned over sixty films, including Graveyard of Honor, the classic Battles Without Honor series, and the sci-fi classic The Green Slime (one of his better known film among American audiences). He is regarded as one of Japan’s greatest directors, and if his work were better known outside of his native country, he would easily be considered one of the greatest directors in the world. Best known for his yakuza films, Fukasaku reinvented the Japanese gangster genre with a series of gritty films in the 1970s.
Street Mobster was the first film to open my eyes to the work of Kinji Fukasaku. Moving at a hyper pace that seldom slows down, Street Mobster is a raw, depraved and brutally relentless bloodbath. The incomparable Bunta Sugawara stars as Isamu Okita, psychotic street thug born on the day Japan surrendered World War II. After getting out of prison, Isamu forms his own gang of punks, and goes to battle against the yakuza, who he despises. But when Isamu and his boys take things too far, he is forced to become allies with one yakuza clan, in order to keep from being killed by another. Yakuza boss Yato (Noboru Ando) hopes that by having Isamu and his gang under his command, he can control and harness their violent outbursts. The problem is, Isamu is a nihilistic madman who cannot and will not be controlled. The result is one of the most violent gangster films of all time, which makes Scarface look like Disney fare.
Street Mobster is actually the sixth and final installment in the popular Gendai Yakuz (a.k.a. Modern Yakuza) series that starred Sugawara. It was the only film in the series to be directed by Fukasaku, and marked the first real collaboration between the director and Sugawara. More important, Street Mobster helped to usher in a new era in yakuza films. Before this film, Japanese gangster movies were more often than not about glamorized, chivalrous anti-heroes. But Fukasaku changed all of that, opening the door for a new, ultra-violent breed of yakuza films, of which he is considered one of the best directors.
Revered in Japan – and deservedly so – as one of the greatest filmmakers of all time, Kinji Fukasaku has demonstrated over the years an incredible versatility as a filmmaker, from the quiet beauty of Geisha House to the depraved violence of Battle Royale. His unique vision can be traced all the way back to his early films of the 1960s, but 1972’s Street Mobster is easily one of his best films. Shot primarily hand-held, with tons of zooming in and out, and often break-neck editing, this is Fukasaku’s signature piece in terms of kinetic energy and nihilistic theme.
Released in the United States on DVD in 2004 (when many of Kukasaku’s better known films were also released), Street Mobster is currently out of print. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take the time to find it, as it is one of Fukasaku’s best yakuza films.
It was quite by accident that I first “discovered” filmmaker Peter Watkins several years ago, when his 1971 film Punishment Park was released on DVD. Punishment Park was an amazing film, the likes of which I had never quite seen, and served as a wonderful introduction to the work of Watkins. As a lover of film, Watkins’ work inspired me. As a critic of film, however, Watkins’ work intimidated me. He is one of those rare directors whose work is so finely crafted, deftly layered and intellectually profound that it is difficult to do the films justice. It would be easy to proclaim, “the films of Peter Watkins are cinematic genius,” but without elaboration such a statement seems hollow and hyperbolic.
The key to understanding the genius of Watkins as a filmmaker is understanding the nature of his films and then placing them within the context of the time in which they were made. Thought provoking and often incendiary, Watkins’s films were more often than not scathing commentaries on the media and politics. Part of what makes his work so incredible is how much ahead of his time Watkins was in the message he was crafting with his work. The other part of what makes Watkins films so incredible is how relevant they are decades later—often more so than when they were initially released. This is especially true of Privilege, Watkins’s controversial film from 1967, which is as profound and relevant now as it was when it was released over fifty years ago—perhaps even more so.
Set in the very near future, pop singer Paul Jones (of Manfred Mann) stars as Steven Shorter, the most popular celebrity in all of England. But Steven’s popularity is more than just a case the adoration and devotion from mobs of screaming fans. His popularity is the mark of something far more sinister, as Steven has become a tool used by powers that rule England to keep the youth in check. Through Steven’s music and his actions, the restless masses have found a vicarious means to express themselves, and no longer feel the need for individuality. As the film opens, Steven is performing a live concert that is equal parts rock show and performance art, in which he is beaten and caged by police officers, all of which leads to a riot. But this is what his corporate handlers and the controlling forces of the government want—something that placates and ultimately pacifies the masses into total conformity.
Things begin to change when artist Vanessa Ritchie (Jean Shrimpton) is commissioned to paint a portrait of Steven. Vanessa sees in Steven what is left of the humanity that has been drained after years of being used as an agenda of propaganda, and she reaches out to what is left of the real man buried deep inside of him. This only makes the confused Steven even more torn, as he is used by more and more parties to drive home whatever message is being delivered to the public. When it is decided that the public needs to eat more apples, it is Steven who is called upon to make a ridiculous commercial telling all good citizens to consume six apples a day. But things take a more sinister turn when the church employs Steven as a recruiting tool, leading to a concert that bares an uncanny resemblance to a Nazi rally.
Like the majority of Watkins’s best work, Privilege is a faux-documentary. This cinematic style has become a trademark of the director’s films, but more importantly serves as one of the recurring aspects of his work, which is an exploration of the media itself. In films such as Punishment Park, The War Game, The Gladiators and Privilege, the media is an integral character, and part of the story that Watkins is telling is how the media itself interprets what is going on and its level of complicity. As a filmmaker, Watkins does not simply tell a story, he interprets it through the “impartial” eyes of the media. The result is a filter that creates another layer of meaning within many of Watkins’s films. In the case of Privilege, the film is not only a scathing portrait of Steven Shorter as a mass media tool of corporate, government and religious forces looking to control the population, it is also an interpretation of that portrait as seen through the lens of a documentary film.
Audiences and critics didn’t know what to make of Privilege when it was first released. The first and only starring role for Jean Shrimpton—one of the first super models—and the debut acting role of Paul Jones, who was already popular as a rock star, it’s likely people were expecting something much different from this unique pairing of iconic celebrities. Whatever it was that audiences and critics were expecting, it was almost certainly not something as unglamorous as the tortured performance of Jones, who plays Steven Shorter as if he were a man who has lost his soul, and can feel the physical aftereffects. Jones gives an incredible, largely non-verbal performance, bringing a sense of raw emotion that doesn’t so much bring a sense of humanity to Privilege as it warns of its impending loss.
As a filmmaker, Watkins has never been one to pull his punches. Some of his films have moments of razor-sharp humor, but for the most part his work can be unsettling and even at times brutal—and everything is a metaphor. Many of his film, which take place in alternate realities that closely mirror our own—made all the more real by Watkins’s mockumentary approach—are clever cautionary tales. And while some of the evils Watkins warned of in his work have come to pass, none of his films have been more revelatory than Privilege; which was condemned in 1967 by critics for its presentation of organized religion as a neo-fascist movement taking control of the government, and the mass media as a tool used to numb the minds of the masses. In 1967, Privilege was a warning of how bad things could get, but in 2018 it is an I-told-you-so.
Some of Watkins’s films are fairly easy to find, but Privilege, which was released on DVD in 2008, has become one of those that are not-so-easy to find. All of his films are profound and worth watching, but none seem to ring as true as Privilege.
Some people believe you can tell a lot about a person by the shoes they wear. I believe you can tell more about a person by the t-shirts they have worn. This is the story of my life, as told by the t-shirts I have worn.
Within the vast array of shirts that have found a home in the David F. Walker Museum of Decorative Clothing and Accessories (which includes not just t-shirts, but underwear, hats, socks and a collection of novelty thongs I will never wear), there are tons of band shirts and promotional giveaways for a variety of films. In some cases, like with the band Fishbone, I have multiple designs. But the one thing that I have more of than anything else is Batman shirts.
I am sad to say that I no longer have the oldest of my Batman shirts, which dates back approximately 44 years. That particular shirt was simply an old, beat-up undershirt that was once white, but was so dingy it almost looked gray. I took a Batman sticker, and stuck it on the chest, making it my first-ever Batman shirt. I don’t know what happened to that beloved shirt, although I suspect it ceased to exist as soon as it went through the wash. I was probably about 5 years-old when I made that shirt, which served as a testimony to my life-long devotion to the Caped Crusader. I was a huge fan of the live-action Batman television series starring Adam West, which was still in syndication when I was a kid, and the first comic book my mother ever bought me was a Batman title (which I still have to this day).
The top shirt is my second-oldest Batman shirt. I got this either in high school or shortly thereafter, along with the other two pictured above. This was several years before the Tim Burton-directed Batman film came out, so finding shirts with the character on it was pretty hard to do. I got these shirts at one of those weird gift shops that sells dirty greeting cards and fart spray. All three shirts are 50/50 cotton/polyester blends (which I hate), so I never really wore them that often. Still, both shirts brought me a sense of comfort.
This next shirt date back to when Burton’s Batman film came out. There was a massive blitz of Batman merchandise that came out in the months leading up to that film, and even more stuff after the film was a big hit. Although all of the merchandising made me a bit sick to stomach, as I saw it as the whoring of my childhood hero, I was also happy to get my hands on some cool shit. I’m pretty sure that this particular shirt was a present from some friends. I think Brian Wisely and Tony Kimple bought this one for me, but I can’t be sure. If it wasn’t them, and it was someone else reading this, I apologize. But the fact of the matter is that this is not only my favorite shirt in the Batman Collection, but also my favorite of all the Batman shirts I have ever seen. I love the design, and I always liked the fact that to the best of my knowledge the image was not something that had been recycled from a comic book cover.
This next shirt takes its design from Frank Miller’s vision of Batman. I thought the shirt was cool, because of the way the design worked its way into the shoulders. The reverse side of the shirt has the same image, and that always bothered me. I got this shirt from a different little gift shop that sold dirty cards and fart spray. I worked at this particular shop for quite some time in 1989. I was one of those silly pointless jobs, but I loved it. My boss was this great lady, who let me basically run the place. Hardly anyone came in during the week, except to buy cigarettes or the newspaper, so most of my time was spent listening to music, reading books, or hanging out with my friends.
This final shirt is an example of the more esoteric Batman designs we started to see once Burton’s film came out in 1989. I have absolutely no recollection of where this particular shirt came from, but I’m pretty sure my mother got me this one. She says she didn’t get it for me. Maybe I stole it. I think the design is kind of cool, but as I recall, there were people too stupid to know what it was, and I got tired of idiots asking me, “What’s that shirt mean?”
Stay tuned for The Batman Collection #2 in a future installment of T-Shirt Confidential.