Deadly Games Part II — Satsujin Yugi

You’re reading Deadly Games, a series of posts looking back at the Yugi film trilogy starring Matsuda Yusaku. This post will look at Satsujin Yugi (The Killing Game), the second film in the trilogy. You can read the first Deadly Games post here, which provides a brief overview of the trilogy, and a review of the trilogy’s first installment, Mottomo Kiken na Yugi (The Most Dangerous Game).

Released in April of 1978, Mottomo Kiken na Yugi was a breakout success with its hardboiled aesthetic and visceral action. So naturally, a sequel was immediately rushed into production. Dropped eight months later in December of that same year, Satsujin Yugi builds strongly on the foundation established in Mottomo, giving more depth to the character of Narumi Shohei, and expanding further upon the dark world he lives in.

Satsujin Yugi opens up in a foggy memory. Narumi is infiltrating yet another gangster stronghold, and while in an elevator en route to meet his target, he encounters a school girl. She slips by him, boarding the carriage right as he leaves. After futilely trying to stop the elevator, he gives up and opts to finish the job. Closing in on the hit, he threatens a lone secretary to knock on his mark’s door to lull him into a false sense of security. As she opens the door, Narumi bursts into the room, and wastes no time in shooting the target cleanly through the head before they can pull the trigger on their own gun. But now that he has a witness on his hands, Narumi drags the secretary out of the building and into his car. Arriving at a desolate pier in the wee hours of the morning, the secretary begs that Narumi grant her a clean death. Narumi loads one bullet into his 44 Magnum, spins the chamber, and aims the gun straight at her head. He pulls the trigger, and the gun clicks. “You’re lucky,” he utters as he leaves the car and heads off to another life.

Five years later, Narumi reappears in Tokyo Bay… sleeping on a tugboat, and dressed as a fisherman. As he makes his way into town, he goes out of his way to avoid any altercations with local organized crime. It seems as if he’s put his lucrative life of killing behind him, and is now making chump change. Despite being broke, he’s duped into entering a hostess club while roaming the seductive nighttime streets of Tokyo. In the shop, a hostess approaches him claiming to know who he is. Turns out this woman, “Aki-chan,” was the schoolgirl he met during his job five years ago, and she just happens to be the daughter of the man he killed–the leader of a gang called the Toyama Group. However, she holds no grudge against the seemingly former-killer. In fact, she thanks Narumi for allowing her to now live a free life.

Narumi’s second fateful encounter comes after meeting up with his dimwitted, comic-relief “friend” Bunta. While bumming around with Bunta and engaging in comically low-rent work as debt collectors, Narumi catches sight of a striking looking woman out of the corner of his eye–and it’s someone he knows. He stops in his tracks, and so does she. Turns out she was the secretary from his hit on the Toyama Group five years ago. After exchanging some tense and terse words, they split. Later, Narumi learns from Bunta that her name is Masako, and she happens to be the head hostess at a local club run by a gang called the Kotobuki Group, headed up by a character named Katsuta. There also happens to be another gang in town called the Hanai Group, and tensions have been high between the two factions, with regular bouts of violence increasing on the city streets. As the gang war escalates, Narumi is pulled out of retirement and drawn into the conflict to the tune of tens of millions of yen. However, as we learned in Mottomo, Narumi’s clients seem to think they can manipulate him to their will–and that’s when sparks start to fly in Satsujin Yugi.

Satsujin Yugi hooks you from the very beginning. The opening flashback expertly sets the stage, drawing us into Narumi’s relationships with Aki and Masako, and how they affect his life five years later. What also helps Satsujin Yugi is that its story is far bigger than just Narumi and these two women–we have a large-scale gang war on our hands this time around. While the stakes are lower than the corporate conspiracy of the trilogy’s first installment, Satsujin Yugi does an excellent job of fleshing out the nitty-gritty of the conflict Narumi is sucked into, careful to show us as many bloody details as possible–both literally and figuratively.

With this big overarching gang story, Satsujin Yugi doesn’t rely on Narumi alone to move the story forward. Outside of this film’s opening flashback, Narumi doesn’t do much until the third act. So in place of our lovable assassin running around and killing people, we are treated to a wealth of brutal gang warfare, which keeps the developments fresh. This runs in stark contrast to Mottomo, in which the story doesn’t move forward unless Narumi is physically running from one place to another. This more holistic focus on the setting gives Satsujin Yugi‘s story more texture, and works well to contextualize Narumi’s personal arc.

The story itself is a standard mafia tale steeped in tropes, but the way the developments play out is compelling. Harima Koji and Saji Susumu are on scripting duty this time around, and both have many action, pulp and porn credits to their names. It’s clear that they’re stretching their muscles on all fronts here, as evidenced by the film’s excellent mix of violence, intrigue, and a pinch of sex. Pacing-wise, this film also fares better than Mottomo, which suffers from its story being quite roughly blocked out, resulting in something of a rushed ending. Meanwhile, Satsujin Yugi skillfully builds up tension as Narumi gets his groove back, and the gang war intensifies.

Another thing that helps Satsujin Yugi greatly is that the Narumi we meet this time is very likable. It’s clear that he’s clocked in more years as an assassin, and is now very comfortable in his skin. He’s less on-edge, cracks jokes, and in general carries himself with confidence and swagger. While this film came out before Tantei Monogatari, it’s clear that Yusaku is leaning heavily into Kudo Shunsaku in this portrayal of Narumi–especially when it comes to the more humorous aspects of the character. Needless to say, it’s a welcome improvement from the childish and easily-angered Narumi in Mottomo.

Along with Yusaku returning as Narumi, higher aspirations and a presumably larger budget lets Satsujin Yugi play with more moving parts, mixing in multiple character relationships to enrich this brisk action outing. As a result, the film boasts a significantly larger cast compared to Mottomo.

Satsujin Yugi‘s key female leads, Aki and Masako, are portrayed by Takeda Kaori and Nakajima Yutaka respectively. Takeda always reliably plays young, spunky girls, and continues to deliver on that front with a lot of sass and cute smiles as Aki. At the same time, as the daughter of a slain mob boss, Takeda does manage to weave in realistic helpings of bleak seriousness to ground her character[1]She plays the aptly named Kaori in Tantei Monogatari–one of Kudo Shunsaku’s perky female assistants. She is a similar character to Aki, but without the baggage.. On the flip side, Nakajima consistently leans heavily into melodramatic gravitas in her performance of Masako. While Yugi films don’t give female characters much room to emote outside of the needs of the story, Nakajima’s sorrowful line delivery and deeply melancholic expressions do effectively sell how resolved she is to her fate.

Sato Kei, who was already a veteran actor at the time of filming, does a fantastic job as the big boss of the Kotobuki Group, Katsuta. His performance is a delicious mix of suave and callous, fitting for a successful yakuza kingpin–you know, the sort of guy who watches coldly as his goons shoot up some poor sap while he’s down. Having worked as a narrator as well, his booming and commanding voice is just icing on the cake.

Atou Kai fumbles around as Bunta, a constantly-drunk man[2]While him being constantly-drunk is never explicitly mentioned, it sure does feel that way. who is suddenly onboarded as Narumi’s idiot friend in this installment. With characterization defined entirely by Atou’s slapstick antics and exceedingly goofy line delivery, I can see how Bunta could be perceived as “annoying” comic relief, but he doesn’t overstay his welcome. If anything, he’s there to tell us more about Narumi–a guy who’s extremely suspicious of everyone, and has no friends. However, it’s clear that Narumi is okay with Bunta, likely due to his steadfastly honest and stupid demeanor, which goes further to soften Narumi’s character and make him more approachable in this film

Alongside the main players, the expanded cast features more background characters bumbling around in every corner of the frame. Each gang has their respective ensemble of weird Lupin III-style thugs of all shapes and sizes, played by a rogues gallery of character actors, bringing rich amounts of texture and color into the overall setting. Sato Gajiro of Otoko wa Tsurai yo fame plays one of the higher ranking Kotobuki gang goons. Despite his small stature, goofy 1970s glasses, and handlebar mustache, he convincingly exudes a frightening aura with his slimy line delivery and penchant for random violence. I also have to make a shoutout to my boy Yamanishi Hiromichi, known for portraying the dimwitted detective Matsumoto in Tantei Monogatari and the family-man cop Yoshii “Papa-san” Koichi in Abunai Deka. He’s a low-level thug for the Hanai Group[3]Complete with the standard-issue chinpira punch perm. in Satsujin Yugi, and boy does he play a real bastard–complete with a lovingly stereotypical Osakan accent, brought to life with lots of freshly-rolled Rs. His character can get quite abhorrent, but it tracks with his exceedingly sleazy personality. And spoiler alert: he gets what’s coming to him, as do most of the goons.

From a directorial standpoint, Satsujin Yugi sees Murakawa Toru’s craft mature by leaps and bounds. As mentioned in the previous post, Murakawa came into Mottomo in 1978 after having left the film industry with just three short Nikkatsu Roman Porno films under his belt, which all released six years prior in 1972. While he was slowly making his way back onto the scene by doing some TV directing on the cop drama Daitokai[4]Daitokai Part II is coincidentally where Murakawa first met Yusaku., Mottomo was his first ever full-length feature. With this context in mind, the quality of Mottomo is very impressive. That said, it still suffers from pacing issues, and the story doesn’t quite deliver on the expectations set by the film’s deep hardboiled aesthetic. In Satsujin Yugi, Murakawa’s direction feels far more intentional, working well to effectively drive home each story beat, and deliver on expectations. It’s clear that he ironed out many kinks from the previous work, helping this outing go down nice and smooth.

Testament to his developing directorial prowess, Satsujin Yugi switches the formula up by heavily mixing comedy into its serious story. Murakawa steps up to the challenge of managing these tonal shifts, adeptly setting a clear mood for each scene. While Mottomo definitely has moments of humor, it opts to play it straight most of the time, resulting in some jokes landing flat. Satsujin Yugi establishes its lighter tone early on with the introduction of the aforementioned Bunta. He enters the story by diving cleanly into Tokyo Bay in terrific fashion while waiting for Narumi at the start of the film, presumably trying to meet him on his moving tugboat. Later on, Narumi and Bunta’s debt collecting becomes quite farcical as they publicly humiliate some corporate bigwigs to get their money back, while onlookers laugh and point fingers.

This choice to lean into humor is another aspect that helps soften Narumi’s character. The opening scene has a handful of fun moments featuring Narumi fooling around, such him walking straight out of both of his slippers in the Tsukiji fish market[5]I assume a lot of these gags are improvised, as Yusaku is known for his tendency to adlib., and him hitting a vending machine in just the right place to for it cough out two beers and spit out his money, too. Narumi also has a bunch of snarky disses at the ready this time around, which land hard on the low-level thugs he has to deal with in this story. Overall, the film doesn’t shy away from including some chuckle-inducing bits of key humor, but as the tension rises, the humor does get put on the backburner. That said, even when Narumi is in a pretty bad bind, we’re still treated to some subtle antics that keep the smirks coming.

But for all this talk of comedy, Satsujin Yugi is a serious story at heart. Between Narumi’s relationships with Aki and Masako, as well as the unfolding gang war, it’s clear that things won’t go well. Murakawa is keenly aware of these viewer expectations, and adroitly builds suspense across the film’s 92 minutes. Narumi eventually finds himself in bed with both of the opposing gangs, and his interactions with them are marked by nuance and subtlety, whereas similar exchanges in Mottomo would be more blunt and transactional. When Narumi meets these gangs, there are multiple cues to indicate that either party doesn’t trust each other, be it in their tone of voice or facial expressions, all hinting at a bad ending for everyone involved. Narumi’s interactions with Masako also feel intentionally uncomfortable, with their exchanges being purposely curt and awkward to underscore the unfortunate circumstances of their relationship.

Murakawa also gets noticeably better at contextualizing different parts of the story, making use of varied techniques to help us get a better view into the events unfolding. I’ve already praised the opening flashback, but another good example of how he contextualizes information comes when Bunta is giving Narumi the lowdown on the gang war. During Bunta’s spiel, we are treated to some great newspaper-style photos of various bloody gang incidents, giving the proceedings a palpable, gritty realism[6]This same technique would be reused in certain episodes of Tantei Monogatari..

It’s not just Murakawa who upped his game for this Yugi sequel, because Sengen Seizo is back behind the camera, and kills it in this film. Mottomo is shot excellently, with stylish framing that clearly establishes place and atmosphere, but Satsujin Yugi introduces more dynamism into Sengen’s craft. Sengen gets bolder in his approach to shooting, building upon his knack for setting up clean shots by making effective use of contrast between the foreground and background, setting up bolder close-ups, and capturing grand long shots. Much in the same way that Murakawa gets better at establishing a distinct tone for each scene in Satsujin Yugi, there is certainly far more artistic meaning in Sengen’s camera work that sells every moment effectively.

The location hunting in Satsujin Yugi is another aspect that gives the film its rich look. While this is pure conjecture, it seems that in Mottomo the crew was forced to shoot at weird times in empty parts of the city to make due with their low budget, and lack of clout. This time around, they shoot in brighter, more populated areas, making every scene feel that much more immersive. Much of Satsujin Yugi is shot during the day, and the colors of 1978 Tsukiji pop brilliantly. For all its shenanigans, the film’s opening sequence is a beautiful tour of the area, taking us through the desolate docks, expansive fish market and into the bustling and gritty town center, complete with its countless colorful shop signs attached to cramped, deteriorating, and rusted buildings.

However, being a Yugi film, Satsujin Yugi is required to deliver numerous dark and moody scenes to seep its feet deep in the Neo Noir stylings it loves so much. Right off the bat, the opening flashback features the ever-cool silhouette of Narumi dragging on a cigarette at night, with the smoke beautifully twisting in the wind. In the mainline story, the film likes to hang around the Tsukiji docks after dark, with large concrete columns, cluttered and cavernous warehouses, and claustrophobic alleys cutting aesthetically pleasing shapes and shadows on screen. The setting is great for Narumi to sneak around in to get the drop on some goons, and also provides great areas for him to brood over the consequences of his actions, shrouded in shadows. Sengen also takes us into dimly-lit retro interiors, including hostess clubs and bars rich with tacky Showa Era interior design. We get very familiar with Narumi’s messy man cave as well, which has random items staged strategically just to coax out some cool shadows. These settings once again set the tone for Narumi to either sit around and sulk, or get his gear ready for the next job. But ultimately, everything is meant to make him look badass.

This careful work to establish tone and atmosphere is all buildup towards showcases of gritty action, a staple of the series–and it just gets better in Satsujin Yugi. While Mottomo has some superbly brutal examples of violence, the set pieces in Satsujin Yugi are more dynamic, thrilling and most importantly–they ooze with style. That said, after the initial flashback, we have to wait around for an hour before Narumi goes back out to fuck up some dudes. Thankfully, since we have an entire gang war to enjoy, the film makes sure to exhibit some cold-blooded mafia violence in the interim, complete with goons getting their heads smashed in with giant rocks, and desperate guerilla assassination attempts that don’t end well for the assailant. Despite being set primarily in the sunny streets of Tsukiji, the film is not afraid to get down and dirty with the death and blood spray, and this contrast is what gives Satsujin Yugi a deep and juicy bite.

As the film hits its climax, Narumi heads into action once again. Our assassin has two big firefights in the final act, the first of which involves clean and curated shot framing, and strategic use of the environment. Sieging an office building, the action direction makes smart use of the office doors–be it flipping them about or shooting through them[7]With his penchant to shoot through walls, Narumi would be a great operator in Rainbow Six Siege.–allowing Narumi to both hide from and nail his enemies. The end of Satsujin Yugi continues a tradition established in Mottomo by showcasing an extended take of Narumi making his final assault. This last shootout sees Sengen get more dynamic with the camera, and more daring in chasing Yusaku around as he opens up new assholes in every gangster he meets. To reiterate from the last review, Sengen compared shooting the Yugi series to shooting a sporting event, and during some moments you can imagine him panting as he tries to keep up with Yusaku.

It goes without saying that no Yugi action scene would be complete without goons flying off of staircases, squirming around, or flailing about in their own blood when Narumi pumps them with lead. I have a hard time believing any dead person would move around that much when shot, but it does add to the deliciously visceral nature of the action scenes. And while the goons are bleeding out, Yusaku gets more bold in his stunts, climbing up walls and flinging his body every which way to shoot at the assailants. Murakawa and his editor Tanaka Shu are also sure to include some nice and cheesy slow-motion kills at pivotal moments, and you know that stuff is good.

The film is also sure to throw in some good ol’ fashion brawls to keep the action fresh. In scenes where Narumi is forced to use his fists to settle conflict, you start to see where some of Cowboy Bebop‘s Spike Spiegel comes from. Narumi is a smooth fighter, skillfully deflecting punches like water, and showing the goons who’s boss. One great example of these fights features Narumi in a warehouse surrounded by gangsters–the camera keeps the focus long, clear to highlight the acrobatics of Narumi’s enemies as they jump across wooden planks to get the drop on him, and how Narumi dispatches them despite their best efforts. In another scene where he meets one of the gangs for the first time, some of the goons start to come at him, but he effortlessly dodges their blows–kind of like when Spike meets Asamov in Asteroid Blues.

The soundtrack by Ohno Yuji works to solidify the film’s aesthetic, and his work is better than ever for this sequel. The first Yugi film has a great soundtrack, but at times the pieces lean a bit too hard into the goofiness of Lupin III[8]On this track, jump to around the 2-minute mark for an example of Mottomo‘s more goofy Lupin III-style music., which noticeably clashes against some of the more intense scenes. In Satsujin Yugi, the tone is far more consistent throughout, and the music is effective in dramatically underscoring the story beats. From the opening moments, you can tell Ohno is on his A-game, delivering smoky and mysterious jazzy goodness as Narumi makes his first kill. The soundtrack particularly shines during the more subdued moments, with minimal musical backing that makes strong use of instruments like the xylophone or keyboard, working to quietly build dramatic tension. The soundtrack for Satsujin Yugi also has one insert song that it uses a couple times to punctuate dramatic moments. The song is titled Natsu no Nagare, by the one-and-only Yusaku himself, who was at the time just starting his musical career. It’s a sappy tune in the tradition of Showa Era kayokyoku, but it’s my kind of over-the-top melodrama, and it compliments the tone of the film very well.

The music for Satsujin Yugi was released on one CD which also contains the music for the final film, Shokei Yugi, as part of the VAP Music File series in 1995. The CD doesn’t contain all the tracks used in the film, but it’s a far more complete collection of music compared to the Music File for the first film[9]To be fair, the Music File release for Mottomo was as comprehensive as it could be.. It’s a great listen regardless, and comes through smooth on a decent sound system.

If I had to cite any flaws in Satsujin Yugi, which is admittedly quite a flawless follow-up to Mottomo, it would again fall on the characterization of the female characters. Make no mistake–these are films made for salarymen in the 1970s, and require calibrated expectations. That said, giving Narumi more screen time with Aki and Masako would have given their stories more emotional weight, and ultimately result in better dramatic payoffs later on. And while normal for films of this vintage, I must also once again raise the requisite flag for misogyny in Satsujin Yugi–but thankfully this outing sees dramatically less of that compared to the first film.

If you haven’t figured it out by now, I think that Satsujin Yugi is a breath of fresh air coming off of its predecessor. I still think Mottomo Kiken na Yugi is a great film, but the jump in quality to Satsujin Yugi that seemingly occurred in just eight months is incredible. While Mottomo Kiken na Yugi can feel like a student film with a lot of ambition at times, Satsujin Yugi feels like a fucking good movie all the time. The film is adept at mixing drama with comedy, dishes out the story without wasting a beat, and hits hard with the action. Much like Narumi and his 44 Magnum, Satsujin Yugi cleanly hits its mark.

1 She plays the aptly named Kaori in Tantei Monogatari–one of Kudo Shunsaku’s perky female assistants. She is a similar character to Aki, but without the baggage.
2 While him being constantly-drunk is never explicitly mentioned, it sure does feel that way.
3 Complete with the standard-issue chinpira punch perm.
4 Daitokai Part II is coincidentally where Murakawa first met Yusaku.
5 I assume a lot of these gags are improvised, as Yusaku is known for his tendency to adlib.
6 This same technique would be reused in certain episodes of Tantei Monogatari.
7 With his penchant to shoot through walls, Narumi would be a great operator in Rainbow Six Siege.
8 On this track, jump to around the 2-minute mark for an example of Mottomo‘s more goofy Lupin III-style music.
9 To be fair, the Music File release for Mottomo was as comprehensive as it could be.
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