Deadly Games Part I — Mottomo Kiken na Yugi

April 2023 marks 45 years since the release of Matsuda Yusaku’s 1978 breakout hit film Mottomo Kiken na Yugi (The Most Dangerous Game). At the time, Toei Studios had established a new subsidiary called Toei Central Film, and Yugi was their debut work. While produced on the cheap to play in a double feature with the higher-budget Tarao Bannai, thanks to the uniquely talented group of murderous creatives behind the production, Mottomo Kiken na Yugi stood a cut above other low-budget action films, and is still fondly remembered today. While originally planned as a one-off, it was expanded out into a trilogy, with a sequel titled Satsujin Yugi (The Killing Game) released that same year, followed by the final part, Shokei Yugi (The Execution Game) in 1979. While I have only recently discovered these films, since the timing is right, I hope to commemorate this anniversary of Mottomo Kiken na Yugi by looking back at all three films on this blog.

For those who require some background, the Yugi Trilogy revolves around a human dumpster fire named Narumi Shohei, portrayed by Matsuda Yusaku. Rough with women, loose with alcohol, and stuck with a bad gambling problem to boot, Narumi is the lowest of the low. But despite these flaws, he manages to run a successful business as a master assassin who will take on any job for the right price. The series follows Narumi through some of his biggest jobs, which typically lead him into different webs of intrigue as each tale unfolds.

Mottomo Kiken na Yugi starts in the wee hours of the morning, when the skyscrapers of Shinjuku are dark and quiet. As the camera pans over a yet-to-awaken Tokyo, a quiet jazz tune plays while the opening credits roll. The cry of sirens starts to creep into our soundscape, and the camera zooms into a dead body surrounded by cops. The corpse in question is a man wearing a nice suit who has a bullet hole clean through his forehead. He’s clearly someone important. Via flashing newspaper headlines, we learn that many financial bigwigs are being cleaned out one-by-one, and this guy is one of them.

Meanwhile, our “hero” Narumi wakes up to a phone call while suffering through what seems like a raging hangover–he likely drank himself silly after pitifully losing at a mahjong game the previous night. Picking up the receiver, he angrily reprimands the caller for ringing so early. The caller quickly rebuts, reminding Narumi that it’s already the afternoon. The call is for a job, and after collecting himself Narumi goes to meet his client–chairman Kohinata of the Tonichi Group, a major manufacturing company bidding for a lucrative government defense contract. According to the chairman, the recent killings of executives are being carried out by a “fixer” named Adachi, hired by Tonichi’s competitor in the bid, the Godai Conglomerate. By Kohinata’s assessment, the killings are a “camouflage” meant to draw public attention, with the next victim set to be Kohinata’s son-in-law named Nanjo, president of a Tonichi subsidiary, who has been kidnapped by Adachi’s men. Adachi intends to kill Nanjo to force Tonichi to forfeit their bid, while covering up the targeted killing by framing it as one of the many already happening. As such, Narumi is tasked with wiping out Adachi’s thugs and saving Nanjo for the cool price of 50 million yen.

In search of his target, Narumi sneaks into the apartment of a woman named Kyoko–and he just happens to find her as she comes out of the shower, vulnerable. Narumi tracked her down because she’s the reluctant lover of one of Adachi’s cronies, Igo. Narumi uses Kyoko as bait to lure out Igo and his men–and while he is successful in wiping them out, Nanjo is killed. Despite this, Kohinata tasks Narumi with killing his main target, Adachi himself. Seems the first job was simply a test of Narumi’s skills, and Kohinata had predicted that Nanjo would die either way. As the story progresses, Narumi finds himself pulled into a giant conspiracy with the police getting involved, and hints that Kohinata may not be the most trustworthy client. Meanwhile, Kyoko moves into Narumi’s lair, with the disheveled killer reluctantly accepting her care and advances.

Okay, so while I just spent three paragraphs summarizing the plot, Mottomo Kiken na Yugi is pretty simple. More so than the story, the film is really about moody scenes of men talking to each other in dark rooms, sprinkled in between with frantic action scenes consisting of intense firefights, brutal bouts of fisticuffs, and chases. The production is headed up by director–and American film buff–Murakawa Toru, who was at the time making a comeback into filmmaking after initially leaving the industry. Given the blessing by veteran producers Kurosawa Mitsuru and Ijichi Kei, Murakawa embarked on making a hardboiled Japanese action piece with the aesthetics of the New Hollywood films he loved. Of course, he didn’t do it alone. Thanks to the efforts of cameraman Sengen Seizo, scriptwriter Nagahara Hideichi and jazz musician extraordinaire Ohno Yuji (you know, of Lupin III fame), Mottomo Kiken na Yugi ends up being a very stylish and competently produced pulp action film. However, being first in a series of films that just get better and better, this first entry is the most flawed.

But let’s back up a bit and talk about our lead, Narumi Shohei. On my first viewing of Yugi, I was quite shocked by his characterization. With my initial exposure to Matsuda Yusaku being the quirky-but-lovable detective Kudo Shunsaku in Tantei Monogatari, Narumi being a total piece of shit was an unpleasant surprise. He’s abrasive, uncharismatic, and self-centered, which makes him quite difficult to root for. To give an example of the kind heinous things Narumi is capable of, his most egregious action in this film comes quite early on, when he rapes Kyoko in order figure out where his target is[1]Though in typical male-power-fantasy fashion, Kyoko enjoys his advances quite quickly. However, with my expectations calibrated in the viewing for this review, I could understand Narumi more. Sure, he’s still a piece of shit, but hey–in real life, an assassin for hire is probably a piece of shit. To contrast, Golgo 13, the undisputed assassin ambassador for Japanese pop culture, shows no emotion in any of the stories he’s in, so it’s hard to establish a human connection with him[2]Not like that’s the point, granted.. In the case of Narumi, while his Cool Factor lies in him being an expert hitman like Golgo 13, his coarse human side is all over this film, unlike Golgo 13. If you’re willing to open up to Narumi (which I realize is a tall ask, especially considering what’s mentioned above), I think his characterization is part of what makes Yugi and its sequels so interesting. So despite all the horrible things he does, I cannot help but enjoy Narumi as a more “realistic” portrayal of a hitman.

What helps is that Narumi has clear vulnerabilities, and Yusaku’s nuanced performance really sells us on these failings in his personality. He’s also not invincible–he does take damage during jobs, and needs time to recover. Sure, the film plays it quite fast and loose with his injuries, but the simple inclusion of this detail works to endear the audience to him as a flesh-and-blood human, whereas Golgo may as well be a robot. That said, for first-timers to the series, Narumi is likely more palatable with the hindsight gained from the following films, because he does change as the series goes on.

But for this very first entry into the Yugi Trilogy, what really pushes Mottomo Kiken na Yugi past the finish line is its presentation by way of aforementioned director Murakawa and cameraman Sengen. Yugi has a distinct style, and without it, it would certainly be lacking replay value. On the visual side, from the very first shot of the Shinjuku skyscrapers, you know you’re in for a treat. Part of the look of the film comes from Sengen insisting on not using filters when shooting, opting to take in the scenery as-is. As a result, the opening scene of Tokyo in the early morning is bathed in a rich and beautiful blue. Meanwhile, Narumi’s lair–an abandoned bowling alley–is dark and claustrophobic, seeped in warm reds and oranges. Night scenes live in deep and seductive shadows, while scenes shot during the day pop with the distinct colors of 1978 Tokyo[3]Complete with a cameo of Shakey’s Pizza.. But beyond that, the man knows how to frame a shot–very few scenes look boring, with Sengen knowing where to cut off the frame, come in close, or pull out to show us the big picture. Settings like old-school hostess clubs and 1970s offices are given new life thanks to his framing and exposure, providing a lovely showcase of tacky Showa upholstery, wallpapers and tablecloths.

Obviously, director Murakawa is calling the shots on the aesthetic, and it shows. In a review of this film that ran in Kinema Junpo (which is reproduced in the booklet that comes with the Japanese boxset), film critic Yamada Koichi compares Yugi to American films like Taxi Driver and Dirty Harry. And while it’s certainly not a one-to-one likeness, it’s clear when watching Yugi that Murakawa is wearing his influences on his sleeve. However, since this film was his first work after coming back into the industry, future installments of the Yugi Trilogy and other works like Yomigaeru Kinro (Resurrection of Golden Wolf) would see this aesthetic refined.

On the subject of aesthetics, Ohno Yuji does a bang-up job on the music. Many scenes are bathed in smoky horns and deep bass riffs with twisty sound manipulation, sinking us knee-deep in the seedy underworld of 1970s Tokyo. The series’ main theme is extremely iconic with its downbeat tone and somber horns, and I’ve come to like it far more than the more energetic Lupin III theme. That said, one track used for an early set piece could also be used to compliment Zenigata chasing Lupin, but future installments would see the score get more toned down to match the grim nature of the stories. Given the Yugi Trilogy’s status as a B film series, it didn’t get a soundtrack release in real-time–fans would have to wait 15 years for VAP to release 2 Music File CDs featuring the trilogy’s music in 1993. While the CDs contain a lot of unused tracks and alternate takes, when watching the film again, I realized that the soundtracks were still missing some of the shorter pieces of music that work to punctuate certain scenes or build tension, but I’ll live with it.

When talking about the people behind this film, we of course must talk about Yusaku himself. Narumi is by no means a departure from the many tough-guy characters he was playing in cop shows like Taiyo ni Hoero, Oretachi no Kunsho or Daitokai Part II, and he’s definitely played people living on the fringes of society in works such as Abayo Dachiko. While his first film role was that of the villain in Okami no Monsho (which I have sadly yet to see), I think Narumi may be Yusaku’s first role as a full-on antihero–which essentially means that he cranks up the vicious animosity, arrogance and overall unpleasantness in his performance. Nakano in Kunsho or Natsuki in Dachiko are both likable despite very obvious flaws, but as mentioned earlier, it’s hard to find much good in Narumi. What helps is that Yusaku knows he’s playing jerk–he heaps on the snark in every line delivery, driving it into your head that this guy is a sleaze.

Of course, as mentioned before, Narumi’s likability lies in his vulnerabilities. His first appearance puts him at a mahjong table surrounded by a pack of unsavory fellows, with Narumi clearly shaking and looking anxious. Later on, when Kyoko starts to warm up to Narumi, he starts clumsily pushing her away, as if she has cooties or something. Of course, one of the funniest moments of the film involves Narumi immediately launching into a goofy workout routine upon getting the initial job, which involves doing pushups with bowling balls and hitting himself in the chest with bowling pins. While Golgo 13 is always ready to go, Narumi’s need to build himself up before going into battle presents him as a mere mortal, like one of us. Yusaku sells each moment with funny faces and strong, defined gestures, which also goes a long way towards establishing this human side of Narumi.

Other notable performances include Tasaka Keiko as Kyoko in her one and only film role[4]There’s virtually no information on her otherwise.. Despite how simplistic Kyoko’s characterization is, Tasaka doesn’t phone it in. Not sure if she went to acting school or performed on stage, but she portrays the character well enough for a film like this. I have to also give props to Kusano Daigo for his hilarious performance as Kohinata’s secretary, played with comical amounts of pomp and circumstance, with his big, beautiful mustache sealing the deal. Lastly, Araki Ichiro excellently plays the cold and corrupt cop Katsuragi with chillingly quiet line delivery and a strong undercurrent of government-funded arrogance.

Being an action film, one area where Yugi shines brightly is when the characters are brutally going at each other on-screen. The film’s big money shot is an extended one-take shootout in which Narumi goes up against Adachi’s men for the first time in an abandoned hospital. While a good portion of this scene features a lot of flashing gunshots behind closed doors, we do get to see Yusaku land some clean shots as he makes his way up the building, with the motherfuckers satisfyingly flailing and squirming as they graphically bleed out to death. Flashforward to the end, and we’re treated to a firefight at a pier which takes an opposite approach, with each kill being brilliantly framed and edited together into a short, engaging shootout. The action is certainly elevated by Sengen’s energetic camera work, in which he runs alongside Yusaku a lot of the time[5]In an interview, he equated shooting the Yugi Trilogy to shooting a sporting event., giving the shootouts a very gritty and real quality.

However, in what has become a recurring theme in this review, the crew’s approach to action would also only be refined in further installments. If I was to level criticisms against this first film’s action scenes, I’ll start with the shootout in the hospital–despite being done in one take, it lacks the amount of dynamism and clear choreography that I crave in films like this. On a similar note, one of the film’s big moments involves Narumi stuck in a building being shot at by armies of policemen, and while it is tense, it also feels a bit stiff and goes on for a smidge too long. Lastly, while I think the scene of him chasing a car (yes, on foot) is hilarious, it also overstays its welcome.

But the biggest failing of the first Yugi film is the script. Not to slight Nagahara, because he did an excellent job in adapting Yomigaeru Kinro for the screen, but while the corporate conspiracy bit of the film is satisfying enough, it doesn’t feel like it sustains the 90-minute runtime. Another issue is the shoe-horned in “romance” plot between Narumi and Kyoko. While they give her a reason to stay with Narumi, her real reasons for liking him basically boils down to him having a Big Dick. I mean, I get it–it’s 1970s pulp movie writing, that’s fine. But again, given the more nuanced relationships Narumi has in further installments, on this viewing his relationship with Kyoko seems forced. What does help the script are a few key moments of humor–Narumi’s trashy personality is at times played for snarky giggles, as well as his penchant for “putting on” a badass attitude. One great moment has him busting into a hostess club looking like hot shit, only to sit down at the counter and sternly order a cold glass of milk. Narumi being kicked around by a stripper at the end of her shift is also a sight to be seen.

In the end, Mottomo Kiken na Yugi is elevated beyond the level of an average time-killing B film thanks to the passion of both the staff and the cast behind it. Despite being made in a rush and filled with many genre and generational trappings, the mix of nuance and experimentation in its presentation makes it memorable. And while I won’t claim that the follow-ups are revolutionary, they do extremely well to build on the solid base established in this first film. If some of the more objectionable content doesn’t bother you, and you find yourself latching onto something in this film, I highly recommend you move on to the rest–because they just get better. But on its own, Mottomo Kiken na Yugi is great to sit back with while sipping on some cheap whiskey with your brain turned off.

And yes, those are words of praise.

Last, but not least–I am happy to say that yes, you can watch this film in English. When setting out to write this review, I found myself in a bind similar to when I looked at Tantei Monogatari because the films had no official English release at the time. Personally, I saw it first on Hulu Japan, and then via the Japanese Bluray box. Thankfully, the Yugi Trilogy is coming out for the first time in English via Arrow Video in June of 2023. So if this film sounds interesting to you, go buy it! Or if you need more convincing, stay tuned for my upcoming posts on Satsujin Yugi and Shokei Yugi.

1 Though in typical male-power-fantasy fashion, Kyoko enjoys his advances quite quickly
2 Not like that’s the point, granted.
3 Complete with a cameo of Shakey’s Pizza.
4 There’s virtually no information on her otherwise.
5 In an interview, he equated shooting the Yugi Trilogy to shooting a sporting event.

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