The Game Trilogy (Toru Murakawa, 1978-1979)


AV_Inferno_DVD_.inddTôru Murakawa’s Game Trilogy stars Yûsaku Matsuda (Black Rain) in the role that made him the Japanese king of cool.

Matsuda stars as the indomitable hitman Shohei Narumi, a deadly freelance assassin steeped in outsider appeal.  In The Most Dangerous Game, Narumi is hired to tip the scales in a murderous corporate rivalry, but is forced to watch his own back while protecting the alluring girlfriend of a gangster.  Narumi is enlisted into a gang conflict and is then betrayed in The Killing Game, endangering not just his life but the lives of his friend and of two beautiful women who know Narumi from a previous hit.  In The Execution Game, Narumi is strong-armed into killing another assassin and becomes embroiled in a complex web of mysterious organizations and hidden identities.

The Game Trilogy features Matsuda’s über-cool persona, typified by his lean frame, stylish clothes, and aggressive indifference and supported by beautiful women, desperate action, and the jazzy score of celebrated composer Yuji Ohno, making these action-thrillers a trifecta in funky, macho resolve.

Special Features:

  • High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) and Standard Definition DVD presentation of all 3 films in The Game Trilogy, available in the English speaking world for the first time
  • Original Mono audio (uncompressed PCM on the Blu-rays)
  • New English subtitle translation of all 3 films
  • New interviews with director Tôru Murakawa, actor-singer Ichirô Araki, and actresses Kaori Takeda and Yutaka Nakajima
  • Soul Red, Osamu Minorikawa’s 2-hour documentary on Yûsaku Matsuda featuring interviews with Andy Garcia and Tadanobu Asano
  • Original trailers for all 3 films
  • Collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the films by Japanese cinema expert Tom Mes

Yûsaku Matsuda may be best known outside of Japan for his role as the villain Sato in Ridley Scott’s Black Rain (1989), but in his native country Matsuda is a bona fide icon of macho, action film cool comparable to James Dean or Steve McQueen.  Like Dean and McQueen, the Japanese star’s legacy persists in part by his early death.  Matsuda was diagnosed with bladder cancer after being cast in Black Rain, but delayed chemotherapy for the film (fulfilling a dream to star in a Hollywood production) and died shortly thereafter when the disease had spread to his lungs and spine.  Matsuda was only 40 when he passed away, but he remains alive and well in Japanese popular culture, where books, vinyl figures, and other products devoted to the late megastar continue to be produced and where actors and anime characters still emulate Matsuda’s brand of lean, dangerous masculinity (Cowboy Bebop‘s Spike Spiegel being our particular favourite).

Matsuda first cut his teeth in various well-regarded theatre companies and broke through as a popular television actor in 1973 playing a rebellious junior police officer in Taiyo ni Hoero! (or Howl at the Sun!), a role that earned Yûsaku his nickname “Jiipan” (or “jean pants”).  However, Matsuda’s ascendancy is most closely tied to the work of director Tôru Murakawa, who collaborated with the actor in the late 1970s and 1980s in TV and movies.  It was with the Yugi series (otherwise called the Game Trilogy) that Murakawa established the actor’s aura of outsider cool – a sinewy tough guy with few words and a stylish wardrobe.  Murakawa and Matsuda would thereafter build on this persona, collaborating on the hit private detective show Tantei Monogatari (1979-1980), the crime thriller Resurrection of the Golden Wolf (1979), the “war journalist gone over the edge” story The Beast to Die (1980), and others, however The Game Trilogy is where it first started on the big screen, making it significant in the global cult film canon.  It is here that Matsuda established himself as the cultural touchstone he remains in Japan, in a trio of stylishly gritty outlaw films loaded with seedy ’70s class and an increasingly hard-boiled attitude.

The Most Dangerous Game 1978The trilogy commences with The Most Dangerous Game (1978), where hitman Shohei Narumi (Yûsaku Matsuda) becomes embroiled in a vicious power struggle between two large corporations over a sizable government defence contract.  Executives of the Tonichi Group are being ransomed and then killed and its chairman, Kohei Kohinata (Asao Uchida), asserts that it is a plot concocted by the Godai Conglomerate and its head, Seishiro Adachi (Bontarô Miake).  Narumi is hired to save the kidnapped head of Tonichi Electrics, Nobutaka Nanjo (Masanori Irie).  Despite his failure to retrieve Nanjo alive, Kohinata is nevertheless impressed Narumi’s work and hires him to kill Adachi.  Narumi accepts the new assignment, but his efforts are complicated by the unexpected devotion of a beautiful gangster’s moll named Kyoko (Keiko Tasaka), the intervention of police inspector Katsuragi (Ichirô Araki), and an unexpected double cross.  Needless to say, few survive crossing Narumi, as the impassive assassin eludes scores of waiting police, literally runs down a car absconding with Kyoko, and fights his way into Kohinata’s mansion compound.

Like the films that follow, The Most Dangerous Game (1978) wraps itself in the action-thriller minimalism we associate with 1970s cinema, where truth and enlightenment seem always out reach and where paranoia and uncertainty dominate.  It’s not exactly clear what interest Katsuragi has in this web of cutthroat capitalism, why Narumi continues to be employed by Kohinata when the industrialist obviously develops other plans, or what Kyoko sees in Narumi during his sexual assault upon her that leads to her love and commitment.  It is clear that Narumi is cool.  His stoic demeanour, his sweet threads, and his killer skills denotes someone who men want to be and who women want to be with.  It’s enough that danger surrounds Narumi and that he must overcome it, and it’s made compelling when done from behind Narumi’s aviator sunglasses and along with Yuji Ohno’s jazzy, spacey score comprised of brass, woodwinds, and synthesized sound.  The Most Dangerous Game does not so much establish a tone for the later films than it establishes its tone as the fundamental basis of the trilogy.

The Killing Game 1978Released the same year, The Killing Game (1978) commences in flashback, depicting Narumi’s infiltration of the Tosan chairman’s office to assassinate his target.  Five years later, Narumi returns to town and quickly runs across the chairman’s daughter (Kaori Takeda), now working happily as an escort, and the chairman’s mistress (Yutaka Nakajima), now a “super deluxe” madam and the companion of Kotobuki yakuza boss Shoichi Katsuda (Kei Satô).  Narumi is pressured by the Kotobuki to stay away from the mistress and to take up an assignment to kill the head of a rival gang, the Hanai.  Narumi carries out the job after Hanai thugs rape and kill the chairman’s daughter, but Narumi is betrayed by Katsuda, only escaping his gang’s clutches after being tortured.  With the help of Katsuda’s mistress who nurses the hitman back to health and who is also seduced by his romantic aggression, Narumi has his revenge, once again confirming that he is not one to double-cross.

The Killing Game follows many of the conventions established in The Most Dangerous Game, although slightly abbreviated.  Offered once again are bracketing sequences that depict Narumi as rather foolish and frivolous when outside the role of “hitman on a mission.”  The first film initially shows the assassin being swindled and bullied in a mahjong game, and concludes with Narumi falling asleep in front of a performing stripper, then frantically chasing a car through the streets.  The second film introduces Narumi following the flashback as being down on his luck – avoiding gangsters, cruising for women he can’t afford, flanked by a buffoonish friend who has been waiting for him to return – and concludes with him surrounded by hostesses and prostitutes, holding court despite having no way to pay for their companionship.  The latter film includes the standard work-out montage ubiquitous to the entire trilogy and offers another strained romantic relationship built on non-consensual sexual advances and feminine care of an injured Narumi, however the hitman’s relationship with the mistress/madam in The Killing Game is saved for its conclusion, rather than as an ongoing element of the narrative as it is in The Most Dangerous Game.  The two films strongly resemble each other, but the second film in the trilogy pares down some of the tangential details of its narrative and its characterization of Narumi, keeping him at slightly greater distance from the women, the employers, and the targets around him.  It is the start of a distillation that becomes quite obvious by the third film in The Game Trilogy.

Execution Game 1979The Execution Game (1979) opens with Narumi’s abduction, his torture, and his guns-ablazing escape from an abandoned warehouse, a lengthy, violent passage that proves to merely be a test by a mysterious group who wants Narumi to assassinate the hitman currently in their employ.  They are uncompromising, telling Narumi that theirs is “not a job.  It’s an order.”  Unhappy with the task, Narumi still carries it out with the help of a mysterious female jazz singer who assisted in Narumi’s kidnapping at the beginning of the film and who seems to have some kind of romantic/sexual relationship with the target.  Pleased with his work, Narumi is assigned another job, this one to kill an individual in police custody.  Narumi takes the job as an opportunity to botch the assignment and kill not only his employers but another mysterious group observing and manipulating the events.  Abrupt, final, and brutal, Narumi ensures that none of the shady individuals orchestrating the events of The Execution Game survive.

With Murakawa’s final film in the trilogy, Shohei Narumi is left a cypher.  Unlike other movies that conventionally introduce its main character as a mystery to be unpacked over sequels and additional stories, Murakawa strips away Narumi’s day-to-day personality until he is just a near-killing machine.  The comedic asides and the sexual interludes of the previous films are virtually absent from The Execution Game.  The identities, the relationships, and the motivations that surround The Game Trilogy‘s plots and conflicts are barely sketched out in The Execution Game.  We are treated to another work-out montage, and Narumi occasionally interacts with a young woman running a clock store, however his boyish playfulness and shirtless sexuality are left hidden in these exchanges by his omnipresent sunglasses.  Stoic coolness is all that is left of Narumi.  He is a handsome, yet impassive man hidden by shades and a turned-up collar, striking a diffident pose in a tightly drawn trench coat.  His excessive inscrutability hints at his casual propensity for violence, his stillness like that of an animal prowling, ready to come alive with deadly intentions.  This is what roots The Game Trilogy and by its third film, there is little interest explaining it or dressing it up.  The Game Trilogy takes aim at corporate capitalism, organized crime, and government corruption, but prefers not to unpack its criticisms and instead simply set a cynical stage for its star.  Matsuda/Narumi simply demand to be watched, and The Execution Game revels in its bare essentials.

Arrow Video’s recent launch into North America has already resulted in a significant expansion of its Japanese titles, strongly embracing the nation’s popular crime cinema in particular.  The Game Trilogy is a significant contribution to Japanese genre cinema, representing an iconic collaboration in Japanese film and the making of a true movie legend.  Aside from the benefit of extending the label’s Japanese crime cinema into the late 1970s, Murakawa’s trilogy would be a natural fit into the cult film label as it exemplifies the line’s avowed commitment to genre cinema.  The Game Trilogy makes style its substance and increasingly elects to root itself in the conventions of that mode rather than dilute it with extraneous content.   These are crime/action thrillers for crime/action thriller fans, and The Game Trilogy has no interest in appealing to any other audience.  Japanese film fans loved Yûsaku Matsuda and The Game Trilogy, and we suspect that Arrow Video fans with love these 3 films too.

Credits:  Our cover summary is loosely modelled on Arrow Video’s Stray Cat Rock collection.  Given that director Tôru Murakawa is still with us a the age of 78, we propose an extended interview with the filmmaker to discuss both the trilogy and his numerous collaborations with Yûsaku Matsuda.  Additional interviews with other surviving performers are also offered.  The Soul Red documentary actually exists, although we must admit to not having seen it.  Tom Mes was chosen to provide a booklet essay given his relationship with Arrow Video and his essay “Yûsaku Matsuda: Lost Rebel.”


3 thoughts on “The Game Trilogy (Toru Murakawa, 1978-1979)

  1. Mike June 5, 2020 / 5:02 pm

    I don’t seem to be able to find this boxset. Was it ever released?

    • spinenumbered June 5, 2020 / 8:53 pm

      These posts propose films worthy of release on these labels and imagine what they might look like. They don’t actually exist.

      Sadly, The Game Trilogy continues to wait for a proper release by some enterprising label.

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