After emphasizing Tai Katô’s career with Toei, MMC! turns its attention to the director’s work with Shochiku studio. Otokonokao wa rirekisho (1966), also known by the astounding English titles By a Man’s Face Shall You Know Him and A Man’s Face Shows His Personal History, examines the grievances and burdens of post-war Japan through the lens of the bloody gangster film. Loud and short-tempered, Katô creates a man vs. yakuza tale that feels at once familiar and aesthetically irregular.
By a Man’s Face opens with its main character, Dr. Suichi Amamiya (Noboru Ando), standing in profile, a circular scar extending from the left corner of his mouth nearly up to his eye. In the background, his nurse asks of his intentions for his practice while construction equipment works outside his window, the post-war economic boom threatening to inevitably push him out of his current office. Amamiya’s prominent wound seems to declare the film’s title, although By a Man’s Face may also refer to the patient rushed into the doctor’s clinic. Emergency responders bring in a man severely injured in a motor vehicle accident, blood soaking through material of the stretcher transporting him. Amamiya refuses to treat the man, stating he has inadequate resources to save him, but his nurse pleads for him to intervene, pointing out that the prospective patient will surely not survive the ride to the closest hospital. Amamiya is firm in his view until he sees the injured man’s face, recognizing him as “Choi.” From there, the doctor begins treating Choi and their shared past is recollected in extended flashback sequences that attend to Japanese occupation and emasculation in the post-war context and the grievances held by Koreans brutalized before and during WWII.
Within the framing narrative of the emergency surgery, Amamiya recalls the hard times of 1948 when Japan was occupied by American authorities and he practiced medicine within an impoverished community/black market called the New Life Market and located on land owned by Amamiya. The Market’s land becomes a point of interest to the Nine Heavens League of Korean Nationals, a zainichi (ethnic Koreans living in Japan) group that fronts an aggressive crime organization. The Nine Heavens’ boss, Yoo Seong-won, aims to take over the New Life Market, establish an entertainment district owned and operated by the Koreans, and more generally subjugate the Japanese population. Yoo Seong-won declares, “The Japs are weak. We’ll create enough turmoil to tear this country apart.” When the thugs of the Nine Heavens begin terrorizing the residents of the Market, the locals know that American authorities would be happy to see black marketeers shut down and so they turn to their local yakuza, the Onogawa gang. The Onogawa lack the necessary manpower to resist the Nine Heavens and so the community is referred to Amamiya for his bravery and for his role as the land’s owner. The doctor intervenes into specific incidents of violence he observes or is caught up in, but he is generally dispassionate to the entire situation and takes no interest in opposing the Koreans.
Amamiya’s hands-off approach is complicated by the interventions of various supporting figures. Most significant is the return of his brother Shunji (played by a young Juzo Itami well in advance of his famed directing career). Shunji is an educated and principled young man affronted by the actions of the Nine Heavens League and disgusted with his “coward” of a brother. His desire to combat these hoods is encouraged by his love for a local Korean woman, Gye Hye-chun (Akemi Mari), and he finds some unexpected assistance from Choi (Ichiro Nakatani), a member of the Nine Heavens League who seems at arm’s length from the group and its tactics. Amamiya recognizes Choi as a soldier under his command during the war who passed as Japanese under the name “Shibata” – their past history together represented in a black and white flashback sequence where Amamiya spares his troop by personally surrendering and Shibata being physically restrained from joining his superior’s sacrifice. Amamiya tells Choi that he will not join in the battle over the New Life Market, being done with killing and wanting to conclude this endless cycle of revenge. Naturally, the bloodshed and tragedy becomes too much for even Amamiya to abide by, as he is forced to take up arms single-handed against the Nine Heavens. In the present, Amamiya fights to save Choi against terrible odds and By a Man’s Face concludes with even more of the doctor’s past coming to visit him and further emboldening him to face the challenge posed in Choi’s severe injuries.
By a Man’s Face is not an unproblematic film. While frequently acknowledging the real grievances held by Koreans against the Japanese, the Nine Heavens League are little more than bloodthirsty embodiments of rancourous hostility and their portrayal by Japanese actors (including gangster film stand-out Bunta Sugawara) feels uneasy at best. Noburo Ando brings an air of authenticity to the unflappable Amamiya. Ando was a true yakuza, leading a gang of more than 300 members in the 1950s. After ordering the murder of a businessman and going on the run for 35 days, Ando served 6 years in prison. On his release, he disbanded his gang and began acting at Shochiku just a year before By a Man’s Face. He was a fixture of films about the yakuza through the remainder of the 1960s and the 1970s, working twice more with Tai Katô and later with Teruo Ishii and Kinji Fukasaku. That round scar on his cheek was real, marking a wound suffered as a young man while fighting with a Korean gangster, as if art couldn’t imitate life any farther.
With its belligerent, short-fused gangsters, its nastily exploited honour codes, and its single-man-against-many finale, Tai Katô and Seiji Hoshikawa’s script makes By a Man’s Face seem fairly conventional as a yakuza film. In execution, however, Katô’s film seems oddly off-centre of the genre’s familiar atmosphere. While Kinji Fukasaku was establishing in the 1960s a cinematic style that was as wild and manic as his gangsters themselves, the extra-legal world Katô establishes in By a Man’s Face is nearly static. Shots rarely incorporate movement as Katô frequently places the camera at virtually ground level and lets the action pass before it. Framings are unusual, as Katô typically shoots his close-ups nearer than necessary and hedges downward in medium shots such that characters end up crossing into the lower and upper frame limits. In other hands, this construction might seem mistaken, but Katô’s talent suggests something intended here. By a Man’s Face does not make heroes of gangsters like Fukasaku’s films do and therefore does not reflect their character in their aesthetics. Its unusual look of passively low perspectives and odd croppings connects with the community trapped between the socio-economic violence of subsiding under defeat and foreign rule and the actual violence of Koreans avenging their own persecution. As such, By a Man’s Face seems to have one foot firmly placed in the budget quickie, exploitation mode and the other in an aesthetically peculiar, yet meaningfully ambitious sophistication.
By a Man’s Face Shall You Know Him is not the most conventional Japanese gangster film, but it does seem in character with the yakuza films released by Arrow Video thus far and offers a different take on the genre within this proposed set, one shot in colour and decidedly grim in comparison to Fighting Tatsu, the Rickshaw Man. While some seem to consider the movie a compromised effort in grim, masculine melodrama, it is certainly worth watching and provides some necessary variety required in fully appreciating the brilliance of Tai Katô. We hope to complete this proposed package of films next week with I, the Executioner, a serial killer-revenge tale unlike any other!