“Cruel Gun Story” (1964)

by A.J. Hakari

If movie heists always went off accordingly, then we wouldn’t have heist movies. The draw isn’t the crime itself but how it’ll inevitably go wrong, the narrative thrust stemming from all the unforeseen circumstances that make the best laid plans go ker-blooey. Cruel Gun Story sticks to this storied tradition as only a ’60s gangster noir could: with a cool style, a hard edge, and a damned jazzy soundtrack. A slickly-made cautionary tale about losing one’s self in an outlaw lifestyle, Cruel Gun Story brings new meaning to the term “tragically hip.”

Jo Shishido plays Togawa, a small-time hood who abides by a strict code of honor. He’s a big believer in people getting their just desserts, which extends to murdering the trucker who left his sister wheelchair-bound. It’s after serving a couple years for this incident that Togawa is suddenly sprung from the clink, though not without a big catch. The Japanese Derby is coming soon, and with over 100 million yen just waiting to be snatched away from an armored van, a shady organization wants Togawa to mastermind the holdup. With a cut of the dough that’d help his sister and an old partner (Yuji Odaka) pitching in, Togawa can’t say no, even if it means ignoring every sign that tells him he ain’t gonna walk away from this gig alive.

Cruel Gun Story was one of several hard-boiled crime dramas that Japan’s Nikkatsu studio specialized in during the ’60s. A bunch of these even starred Shishido, whose figure may seem at first glance far from intimidating. It takes a while to get past those badass shades perched atop Shishido’s distractingly puffy cheeks, but what can I say, it was a look that solidified him as a fixture in such genre films as A Colt Is My Passport and the acclaimed Branded to Kill. Still, it’s not hard to be won over by his character, a volatile crook whose moral bearings are nevertheless sturdier than others in his field. In fact, it’s Togawa’s refusal to screw over his men and take on the robbery for his sibling’s sake that leave him wide open to be taken advantage of by his hotheaded underlings.

Through the way Togawa clings to the futile notion of honor among thieves, Cruel Gun Story smoothly introduces elements of tragedy into an otherwise fairly typical shooting gallery thriller. The story is pretty cut and dry, and save for one or two occasions, artistic flourishes are kept at a minimum. But with jazzy background tunes that compliment the action and photography that grows darker as the plot does, Cruel Gun Story looks great and flows even better. Perhaps it spends a little too much time tidying up last-minute subplots, but it’s a fitting finale regardless, a somber wrap-up that balances emotions and gunplay with equal ease.

It’s no genre classic, but Cruel Gun Story fares just fine for itself. If the title alone doesn’t grab your interest, the promise of a simple heist picture that pulls off thrills and character development with similar skill might do it. Lean, mean, and armed with a most pokered of faces, Cruel Gun Story‘s blazing bullets leave a heck of an impact.