Celebrate Jô Shishido’s 83rd birthday with five of his best films.
When it comes to Yakuza cinema few names carry more weight than Jô Shishido. The intense, puffy-cheeked star made a living starring in a number of ultra-violent, stylized action films to come out of Japan in the 60’s and 70’s. But things didn’t start so smoothly for Shishido.
In the early 50’s Shishido signed on with Nikkatsu, Japan’s oldest major studio. After a few middling roles Shishido opted to beef up his cheeks in order to give him a more noticeable look. And it worked. Shishido immediately starting getting larger roles, usually as villains, and eventually became one Nikkatsu’s “Diamond Guys,” which was essentially a cool way of saying action star.
Of course Shishido didn’t rise to stardom solely because of his new look but it did help. I first became aware of Shishido a year ago, in part because his cheeks are hard to forget. Beyond the distinct facial feature he has talent worthy of being a household name. He’s a dynamic actor with a wide range able to play terrifying villains and heroes, or more accurately anti-heroes. And despite his tough guy image he was arguably more successful in more comedic action roles.
Earlier this week Shishido turned 83 but he continues to be very active. His last film was in 2012 but just last year he recorded some brand-new on screen interviews for a number of Arrow Video Blu-ray releases of Nikkatsu films. In celebration of Shishido’s big day here’s five of his best films.
Voice Without a Shadow – 1958 – Dir. Seijun Suzuki
In 1958 Shishido teamed up with director Seinjun Suzuki for the second time with Voice Without a Shadow, a Hitchcokian thriller about a phone operator who hears the voice of a murder suspect on the phone one night at work. The voice haunts the woman for a number of years but she’s never able to figure out who is is. That all changes the day her husband brings home a business associate and she hears the voice once again.
Shishido is phenomenal in this film. He’s the voice heard on the phone (not a spoiler) and he’s a truly menacing, villainous character. He has a complete disregard for everything and everyone.
Voice Without a Shadow is a masterpiece. It’s a film noir. It’s a giallo. It has the suspense of Hitchcock. And of course it has that signature Suzuki style.
Massacre Gun – 1967 – Dir. Yasuharu Hasebe
Massacre Gun was the first time I noticed Shishido in a film. Here he plays Kurodo, the mob’s top hitman. He’s latest hit is a familiar target – his girlfriend. While Kurodo is madly in love with his girlfriend he understands the life he has chosen and plans to carry out the job. His brothers see things differently and convince him to refuse resulting in a turf war of sorts between the mob and Kurodo and his brothers.
Shishido’s Kurodo is an extremely loyal character. He’s loyal to the mob, he’s loyal to his girlfriend and he’s loyal to his brothers. The limits of his loyalties for each are tested as violent mob warfare breaks out.
Massacre Gun is breathtaking, as one would expect when you have the cinematography of Kazue Nagatsuka, and it seems to be a pretty accurate portrayal of the life of a hitman. The last shot in particular seems to be a pretty good snapshot of mob life.
Branded to Kill – 1967 – Dir. Seijun Suzuki
Branded to Kill is arguably the most popular film in the career of both Shishido and his partner in crime Seijun Suzuki. And it may just very well be the weirdest too.
Shishido stars as Goro Hanada, the Yakuza’s number three killer. But he’s more than just a hired gun. He’s also a man with a strange fetish for smelling boiling rice. After his most recent job goes wrong, Hanada goes from being the hunter to being the hunted.
It’s hard to believe now but Branded to Kill is the film that ended Suzuki’s relationship with Nikkatsu because the company absolutely hated. At first it looked like Nikkatsu would be proven right as the movie struggled out the gates but eventually it became an iconic, beloved film. The likes of John Woo and Quentin Tarantino are heavily influenced by the film’s frantic and unique style and it clearly shows in their work.
If you’re looking to get into Jô Shishido’s work for the first time Branded to Kill is a pretty great starting point.
Retaliation – 1968 – Dir. Yasuharu Hasebe
A year after Massacre Gun Shishido and Hasebe teamed up once again for Retaliation. This time out the story focuses on Jiro (Akira Kobayashi), a gangster recently released from prison after serving time for killing a man. Upon his release Jiro finds that his gang is all but gone with just a handful of members remaining. Jiro gets the opportunity to restore his gang but in a bit of a surprising two involves him teaming up with Hino (Shishido), the man of the brother he killed.
Retaliation is a ton of fun and has all the same style you’d expect from an Hasebe film. The opening is a great representation of what Hasebe is all about – a fight takes place on screen but it’s sort of in the background. As the audience our view it partially blocked as we watch through tall blades of grass. It’s an interesting approach to be sure but something Hasebe would do from time to time.
Retaliation can be a bit hard to follow at times because there’s a lot going on but I assure you it’s worth it. Shishido gives another great performance and Muneo Ueda’s camerawork is so rad. The camera never stops moving in interesting ways. So while the story may lack a big of polish the rest of the film is top notch.
Battles Without Honor and Humanity: Final Episode – 1974 – Dir. Kinji Fukasaku
Kinji Fukasaku’s Battles Without Honor and Humanity series is often referred to as the Japanese Godfather. The original wrapped at five films with Final Episode bringing things to a close. This is the point in the series that saw Shishido join the cast.
Battles Without Honor and Humanity is a massive, weaving tale of the rise and fall of a number of Yakuza families in post-WWII Japan. By the time we get to Final Episode we’ve become well acquainted with a number of characters over the course of the first four films and have seen pretty much everyone in the series betray everyone at some point.
Shishido plays Katsutoshi Otomo, a number two in a powerful political party. He’s a brand-new character to the series but plays a pivotal role in the conclusion of the series. Final Episode, like the rest of Battles Without Honor and Humanity, is definitely more of an ensemble piece but Shishido rises to the top.
Battles Without Honor and Humanity is a long series but it’s some of the best Yakuza storytelling there is. You can watch Final Episode as a stand alone piece and still enjoy it but it definitely works better if you watch the entire series in order. All five films featuring that frenetic filmmaking that Fukasaku was known for and it all wraps up with a bang thanks to one Shishido’s best roles.
Related Topics: Filmmaking