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Arrow May Release Wrap-Up

Cops vs Thugs

(1975; BD release date: May 23, 2017)
It's 1963 in the southern Japanese city of Kurashima and tough-as-nails detective Kuno (Bunta Sugawara) oversees a detente between the warring Kawade and Ohara gangs. Being best friends with Ohara lieutenant Hirotani (Hiroki Matsukata), he understands that there are no clear lines in the underworld and that everything is colored a different shade of gray. But, when random violence interrupts the peace and an ambitious, by-the-books lieutenant (Tatsuo Umemiya) comes to town, Kuno's fragile alliance begins to crumble. Greedy bosses and politicians alike seize the opportunity to wipe out their enemies and Kuno faces the painful choice of pledging allegiance to his badge and keeping a promise to his brother. (From Arrow’s official synopsis)
 
Following the super-popular, genre-changing Battles without Honor and Humanity series (1973-74), director Kinji Fukasaku became the go-to guy at Toei Studios for yakuza (aka: jitsuroku) drama, action, and violence. In the year 1975 alone, he produced four such films – Graveyard of Honor (Japanese: Jingi no hakaba), Gambling Den Heist (Japanese: Shikingen godatsu), New Battles Without Honor and Humanity: The Boss's Head (the second in the sequel series, Japanese: Shin Jinginaki tatakai: Kumicho no kubi), and Cops vs. Thugs (Japanese: Kenkei tai soshiki boryoku; aka Police vs. Violence Groups). Among these, Graveyard of Honor endured with the best reputation, but Cops vs. Thugs, which re-teamed him with screenwriter Kazuo Kasahara, remained a favourite amongst the fans who praise its emotionally-charged approach.
 
Cops vs. Thugs assumes that its audience is familiar with the ins & outs of yakuza movie culture, as well as the most common genre storytelling conventions when it tosses us into the middle of a complex, politic-heavy narrative that is populated by literally dozens of important characters. As such, it can be both hard to follow and difficult to understand what makes it special in the larger genre context. Thanks to more than a decade of reviewing these kinds of movies, watching them with expert commentary tracks, and even reading up on them in my spare time, I’m pretty well-versed in the tradition. But I’m far from an expert and admit that a lot of this particular movie was lost on me. For this reason, I can’t really recommend Cops vs. Thugs to Fukasaku novices, who would do better to start with the Battles without Honor and Humanity series. Those that do find themselves in the proverbial deep end, watching the film without the proper context, can be assured that Fukasaku and Kasahara do tie things together well and that the last act matures into a streamlined, entertaining, and emotionally wrought finale.
 
Compared to those other films, Fukasaku dials back a bit on the stylish camera angles and artsy framing techniques (until the climax, that is), then doubles-down on shaky, handheld action shots to create a particularly gritty and nasty atmosphere. While the violence isn’t all that graphic (there were still relatively stringent censorship standards at the time), it is quite intense and almost omnipresent, including brutal beatings, cruel interrogations, and stomach-churning sexual assaults (to both women and men). The goriest bits, such as a beheading on a staircase, are emphasized by abrupt still frames that accentuate their impact while also leaving the grossest bits to the audience’s imagination.
 
Cops vs. Thugs was released on DVD via Kino in the US (who also released Yakuza Graveyard, Graveyard of Honor, and a number of other Fukasaku movies), Eureka in the UK, and Toei in Japan (or so it seems – I can’t find the exact company name in this case). Arrow’s Blu-ray (which is being released simultaneously in the US and UK) marks its first HD home media release. The 1080p, 2.35:1 transfer was supplied directly to Arrow from Toei, so there isn’t much to say about the mastering process. The image quality is basically identical to Arrow’s other Toei and Nikkatsu discs. Details are solid for type and feature only slight mushing in wide-angle shots and this was probably an issue with the original print (the black & white flashbacks are purposefully quite grainy). Grain structure seems accurate and actual print damage artefacts are minimal (unlike some of the Nikkatsu-brand Arrow releases, the Toei ones rarely have roughened frame edges). Colour quality is fine and hues are neatly separated, though the palette is mostly neutral and desaturated (aside from those bright red titles). Really, the only problems here are gamma/contrast levels, which lead to overly soft dynamic range and some very grey black levels.
 
The original mono Japanese audio is preserved and presented in LPCM 1.0 sound. This is a typical ‘70s mix that foregoes most incidental and atmospheric sound effects in favour of dialogue. This works just fine for interior scenes in which characters speak clearly and the noises surrounding them are easily recorded. However exteriors and big group fights seem to have been shot without sound and the foley/ADR work is a bit iffy. None of this is Arrow’s fault, of course, and the uncompressed nature of the track keeps distortion at bay. Composer Toshiaki Tsushima’s funk-infused jazz-rock score buzzes a bit at the highest volume levels, when instruments are overlapping the most.
 
Extras include:
  • Beyond the Film: Cops vs Thugs (9:03, HD) – This short, but informative interview with critic/Fukasaku biographer Sadao Yamane covers the film’s backstory and helps to contextualize Cops vs. Thugs in the greater pantheon of the director’s Toei crime films.
  • All Under the Gun (13:38, HD) – A visual essay hosted by film scholar/author/Midnight Eye co-creator Tom Mes, who compares and contrasts the careers of the filmmakers. It is similar to the commentary tracks Mes often supplies for Arrow and other companies, but covers a broad enough swath of information that it makes more sense to set the narration against images & footage from various movies, rather than Cops vs. Thugs alone.
  • Archival behind-the-scenes footage (4:59, HD)
  • Theatrical trailer


 Arrow May Release Wrap-Up

 Arrow May Release Wrap-Up

 Arrow May Release Wrap-Up

 Arrow May Release Wrap-Up

 Arrow May Release Wrap-Up
 

Arrow May Release Wrap-Up

Wolf Guy

(1975; BD release date: May 23, 2017)
Akira Inugami (Sonny Chiba) is the only survivor of a clan of ancient werewolves who relies on his supernatural powers to solve mysterious crimes. After a series of bloody killings perpetrated by an unseen force, Inugami uncovers a conspiracy involving a murdered cabaret singer, corrupt politicians, and a plot by the J-CIA to harvest his blood in order to steal his lycanthropic powers! At the same time, Inugami also discovers the truth behind his family heritage and that he may not be the last of his kind. (From Arrow’s official synopsis)
 
Sometimes, you run across an obscure exploitation movie that is such a perfect storm of strange ideas, outrageous images, and recognizable stars that you can’t believe that it doesn’t have a bigger reputation. Kazuhiko Yamaguchi’s Wolf Guy (Japanese: Urufu gai: Moero ôkami-otoko; aka: Wolf Guy: Enraged Lycanthrope) is a category 5 cult movie waiting to happen. It overlaps detective, superhero, horror, and sci-fi genre elements, it’s joyfully violent, it has a sex scene about every 20 minutes, it’s earnest in its campiness, its production design is out of this world, and it stars the incomparable Shinichi 'Sonny' ‘Street Fighter’ ‘Hattori Hanz┼Ź’ Chiba. Better yet, this disparate mix of popular conventions actually tie together beautifully and each part works on its own accord. The cops ‘n robbers part of the story, though not particularly unique outside of its supernatural parts, presents tidy little plot that grounds the insanity in a bit of mystery and character development. The action is cartoonishly violent, including typically bone-crunching martial arts from Chiba, a particularly nasty surgery sequence (the title character heals in the moonlight and sucks his guts back into his body), and garishly bloody scenes where people are torn to shreds by an invisible ‘tiger force.’ Chiba himself is also really good, portraying a particularly compassionate hero without losing the cool/sexy edge of the antihero persona he’d developed in movies, like Jun'ya Satô’s Golgo 13 (1973) and Shigehiro Ozawa’s The Street Fighter (Japanese: Gekitotsu! Satsujin ken, 1974).
 
Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion (Japanese: Joshû 701-gô: Sasori, 1972) writer Fumio Kônami’s screenplay is based on the manga series of the same name by Kazumasa Hirai, who is better known as the creator of the super-influential 8 Man and co-writer of the official Japanese Spider-Man comic of the early ‘70s. It is also a pseudo-sequel to Masashi Matsumoto’s Horror of the Wolf (Japanese: Ôkami no monshô, 1973), a straight horror movie in which Tarô Shigaki played a teen version of Akira Inugami that actually turned into a wolf, rather than being granted superpowers by the full moon. The events of Horror of the Wolf don’t have any bearing here; however, like many manga adaptations, Wolf Guy does assume we’re familiar with the source material to some degree. What’s amusing is that the lack of context (aside from some black & white flashbacks to Inugami’s childhood) actually works in the film’s favour, because it forces the audience to take so much for granted. Modern superhero movies might benefit from a similar lack of origin story. As a director, Yamaguchi generally embraces the Toei house style for crime dramas with his anamorphic scope compositions and use of Dutch angles, but there are also enormously theatrical moments, such as the highly-stylized strip club/burlesque scenes and most scenes of violence, which are accompanied by searing red and blue lights (the graphic surgery sequence is ‘censored’ using red/teal-coated, reverse negative shots). I haven’t seen enough of the director’s work to declare Wolf Guy his masterpiece, but can verify that it is better than the also good Tokyo Bad Girls (Japanese: Zubekô banchô: yume wa yoru hiraku, 1970), Sister Street Fighter movies (both 1974), and Wandering Ginza Butterfly movies (both 1972).
 
It appears that Wolf Guy was never released on DVD, even in Japan, and was not available on VHS or Beta in any part of America or Europe. It aired in widescreen on Japanese television, so there are bootlegs, but there was never an official HD or digital media version. Like Cops vs. Thugs, an HD master was supplied directly to Arrow by the folks at Toei. There is no further word on the condition of the material or the mastering process. That said, there was a low bar for the transfer, due to the utter lack of availability. I would’ve probably been happy with an upconverted tape in the correct aspect ration. Fortunately, the image quality is ‘just fine’ on its way to being ‘very good.’ Similar to Cops vs. Thugs, black levels are a bit weak and, in this case, contrast has been pumped up all-around, so the white levels bloom slightly. Given the softish quality of cinematographer Yoshio Nakajuma’s photography, the pillowed highlights might have been intentional. Details are strong, especially in close-up, and edges are tight, even if the fine textures appear smoothed. Colours are consistent (almost eerily so) and the brighter hues pop nicely. The major issue is the presence of digital noise, which can be snowy in dark spots, causes discolouration throughout the richest hues, and creates some mushy background lines. It’s still a minor price to pay for access to this particular movie.
 
The original Japanese audio is presented in LPCM 1.0. The sound design is slightly more aggressive than usual for a ‘70s Japanese B-movie, thanks mostly to the near constant use of music. Hiroshi Baba’s Bernard Herrmann-meets-James-Brown-meets-Cream musical score is one of the film’s finest assets and it rarely fades into the background. The instrumentations are pretty well separated and the bass lines are tight without warbling. The dialogue features minor aspirated hiss and the crunchy foley work is about as tinny as you’d expect from any low-budget martial arts or horror movie from the era.
 
Extras include:
  • Kazuhiko Yamaguchi: Movies with Guts (10:31, HD) – The director talks about his early career, his Delinquent Girl Boss movies, the Wolf Guy comics, designing/filming the Wolf Guy film, and working with the cast.
  • Toru Yoshida: B-Movie Master (17:30, HD) – Yoshida discusses his life as one of the most successful exploitation film producers in ‘70s Japan. He’s quite open and honest about the hardships of the era, not being familiar with the Wolf Guy comics before setting out to make the movie, and how making movies with a female audience in mind was one of the keys to his success.
  • Sonny Chiba: A Life in Action, Vol 1 (14:31, HD) – The superstar sticks mostly to his Toei action movies, including Wolf Guy and the Japanese Action Club actor stunt training regiments he went through in this lively retrospective chat. I assume volume 2 will coincide with Arrow’s upcoming Doberman Cop release.

 
 Arrow May Release Wrap-Up
 
 Arrow May Release Wrap-Up

 Arrow May Release Wrap-Up

 Arrow May Release Wrap-Up

 Arrow May Release Wrap-Up
 

Arrow May Release Wrap-Up

The Climber

(1975; BD release date: May 16, 2017)
Beaten and abandoned by the local gang boss after he tries to skim off some profits for himself, small-time smuggler Aldo (Joe Dallesandro) forms his own group of misfits in order to exact revenge. (From Arrow’s official synopsis)
 
Pasquale Squitieri’s The Climber (Italian: L'ambizioso) is a solid and relatively thoughtful entry in the poliziotteschi (aka: Eurocrime) canon – one that excels, due to its unique attempts at co-opting classic Hollywood and French nouvelle vague motifs. It is a truly Italian take on some very familiar archetypes. More specifically, Squitieri’s screenplay adapts and modernizes many elements from Howard Hawks’ Scarface (1932) nearly a decade before Brian De Palma’s official 1983 remake. Its verité technique skirts the line between slapdash and precision, giving the violence and melodrama an extra intense, sometimes sobering edge. As such, it tends to rise above its exploitation roots, rather than present itself as genuinely classy filmmaking. Most viewers are more likely to approach the film,  not as a middle-stage poliziotteschi or pseudo-remake of Scarface, but as former Andy Warhol muse Joe Dallesandro’s first leading role in an Italian genre movie, following highly fetishized roles in Paul Morrissey’s Flesh (1968), Heat (1972), Flesh for Frankenstein (co-directed by Antonio Margheriti, 1973), and Blood for Dracula (also co-directed by Antonio Margheriti, 1974). He’s no Al Pacino, but the upgrade in his performance from glorified model to a fully-fleshed (excuse the pun), morally-conflicted criminal is impressive. Frankly, Aldo might even qualify as his best film role, despite appearances in better movies, including Louis Malle’s Black Moon (1975) and Aldo Lado’s Born Winner (Italian: L'ultima volta, 1976).
 
Squitieri wasn’t what you’d call a superstar director, at least not at the time. He had made a couple of half-decent, late in the game spaghetti westerns – Death's Dealer ( La vendetta è un piatto che si serve freddo, 1971) and Django Defies Sartana (Italian: Django sfida Sartana, 1970), which, as the title indicates, attempted to unofficially crossover two popular western heroes – as well as a historical drama ( Io e Dio, 1970), before finding his groove while writing and directing Camorra (aka: Gang War in Naples , 1972). In many ways, Camorra is a dry run for The Climber. Both films are stylistically similar and make connections between criminal activities and social inequality as they trace the careers of small-time crook working their way up the criminal ladder. Each is also fronted by a young actor on his way to poliziotteschi stardom – in Camorra’s case, it was Fabio Testi. However, Camorra is definitely trying to blend with its Hollywood contemporaries, while, as I mentioned, The Climber has a distinctly more European flavour.
 
The Climber has never been available on digital home media or, as far as I can tell, even English-friendly VHS/Beta. The closest thing I could find to a watchable version was a bootleg that used an English language European TV rip. Arrow’s Combo Pack release marks the first Blu-ray and DVD release in any country. The brand new transfer was created when the original negative was scanned in 4K and digitally graded at L’immagine Ritrovata in Bologna. Arrow then did some clean-up and image stabilization. The resulting 1.85:1, 1080p transfer is about as good as we can expect from a run-and-gun ‘70s Italian production. There is quite a bit of grain, though cases of major build-up only happen during the opening titles (which are being affected by optical printing issues) and a handful of overcast, outdoor shots. For the most part, these film-based artefacts appear perfectly natural. The real ‘problems’ occur during dimly-lit interior shots, but this is almost certainly a case of the original photography being too dark (perhaps even on purpose). Shadows are strong without crushing out detail (outside of those incredibly dim shots) and highlights aren’t so bright that they bloom. Colour quality is strong, especially primary hues, but it skews a bit lavender, leading to some purplish skin tones and other neutral shades.
 
Both the original Italian and English language dubs are included in uncompressed LPCM. As per usual, The Climber was shot without sound, meaning that all language tracks are dubbed in post, regardless of what language the actors were speaking. In this case, the leads are mostly speaking English and the lip-sync is decent, even if the major players aren’t dubbing themselves. In terms of actual sound quality, the English track has its own itty-bitty advantages in tonal quality and lack of distortion. The Italian dub isn’t overtly distorted, but there is some fuzz at higher volumes. Franco Campanino’s sometime funky, sometimes rocking score (one cue directly lifts a riff from Hocus Pocus’ “Focus”), and the rock/soul songs fused between scenes sound more or less identical on the two tracks. The music is well-balanced and relatively well-layered when it is given reign over the mix, but tends to disappear when it’s used to underscore dialogue or action.
 
Extras include:
  • Little Joe’s Adventures in Europe – Dallesandro discusses breaking away from his Warhol Factory persona and his numerous European film appearances during the 1970s and early 1980s (with a focus on The Climber) in this new interview.

 
 Arrow May Release Wrap-Up

 Arrow May Release Wrap-Up

 Arrow May Release Wrap-Up

 Arrow May Release Wrap-Up

 Arrow May Release Wrap-Up

* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-rays, then resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.


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