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Tattooed Life

A lower-level yakuza obsessed with caring for his younger brother, Tetsu (Hideki Takahashi) kills a rival gang boss on orders from his superiors but is set up by rivals in his own gang who want to see him dead. When Tetsu's more sensitive, artistically inclined brother shoots Tetsu's would-be assassin, the two brothers decide to buy illegal passage to Manchuria — but a con man swindles them out of all their cash and the pair are forced to seek employment at a mine to earn their escape-money. Romantic entanglements conspire with the machinations of a rival family that wants to take over the mine, and Tetsu is outed as a yakuza and forced into a showdown with both the local gang and the family who wants to see him dead. Tattooed Life (1965) was made during a period when the prolific Seijun Suzuki, who cranked out three or four films each year during the 1960s for Nikkatsu Studio, was beginning to tire of being told to tame down his work. Between his increasingly violent gangster flicks and his WWII films that were boldly critical of Japan's government, Suzuki pushed the envelope beyond the comfort levels of his studio bosses — in the two years following Tattooed Life, Suzuki would make five more pictures, including two of his most esteemed titles, Branded to Kill and Tokyo Drifter, before severing his ties with Nikkatsu. The first two acts of Tattooed Life are a compelling but fairly mainstream drama, with Tetsu hiding his past from an amorous co-worker (Masako Izumi) and trying to keep an eye on his brother Kenji (Akira Yamauchi), who's endangering their cover through his romantic fixation on the boss's wife. But when Tetsu erupts in vengeful fury during the movie's final 20 minutes, Suzuki kicks into high cinematic gear — colors become brighter and the shadows more noir-ish, the camera-work becomes more experimental and the violence more unexpected and graphic. Suzuki's mastery of the B-movie has earned him comparisons to Samuel Fuller, and that comparison is apt — making 40 pictures for Nikkatsu between 1956 and 1967, Suzuki's films became darker and more expressionistic as time went on, to the point where he finally quit the studio because of their insistence that he direct scripts that he didn't care for in a more naturalistic style that he'd outgrown. Perhaps not the best or most distinctive of Suzuki's films, Tattooed Life is still a solid example of this underseen director's work … and that last 20 minutes is simply delicious cinema. Home Vision's bare-bones DVD release offers the film in a gorgeous new anamorphic transfer (2.35:1). The monaural Dolby Digital audio (Japanese with English subtitles) is unspectacular but very clean, and more than adequate to the task. Suzuki filmography, keep-case.
—Dawn Taylor



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