Deadly Games Part III — Shokei 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 Shokei Yugi (The Execution Game), the third and final film in the trilogy. A list of previous posts can be found below.

  • Deadly Games Part I – This post provides a general overview of the Yugi series, and contains a review of its first installment, Mottomo Kiken na Yugi (The Most Dangerous Game).
  • Deadly Games Part II – A review of the second film in the series, Satsujin Yugi (The Killing Game).

In 1978, the first two installments of the Yugi series thrust Matsuda Yusaku into true stardom. He was already a star on the small screen, making his iconic TV debut as Detective Blue Jeans in the long-running cop drama Taiyo ni Hoero (Howl at the Sun). His success in Taiyo landed him further roles in other similar police procedurals such as Oretachi no Kunsho (Our Trophy) and the second season of Daitokai (Metropolis). While he had appeared in a handful of films up until this point in his career, by 1979 he was a household name.

The year would see Yusaku headline films such as Midare Karakuri (Murder in the Doll House), Oretachi ni Haka wa Nai (We Will Never Rest in Peace) and Yomigaeru Kinro (Resurrection of Golden Wolf). All the while, he was playing the lead role of Kudo Shunsaku in the weekly TV series Tantei Monogatari (Detective Story). He also had a burgeoning music career on his hands, and was likely recording his second album, which was released the following year. Needless to say, this dude was busy, and so were the creatives around him[1]Many of Yusaku’s works in the 1970s involved overlapping staff, so they typically jumped around to different projects together.. That said, despite this packed pipeline, the popular Yugi series couldn’t just end with Narumi Shohei pulling a drink-and-run at a hostess club, per the final scene of Satsujin Yugi. As such, in November of 1979, Shokei Yugi was released in theaters, concluding the dark story of our scoundrel assassin. 

Shokei Yugi opens abruptly, with Narumi knocked-out on the floor of a dark room. There’s no stylish opening sequence to speak of this time around–just a blunt title card followed by a brief credits roll. A sudden flashback depicts Narumi being abducted, and it seems he’s now in the custody of some mysterious and unsavory organization. The group attempts to intimidate Narumi into taking on a job for free, but his professional code takes priority. Turning the tables on his captors, he forces them into a contract of 20 million yen to take on their ask. The mark this time is another assassin–one who had actually been in the employ of Narumi’s new clients, but they now want him out of the picture on account of some suspicious behavior. 

As Narumi prepares for the hit, he starts to recall the time he spent with a woman named Naoko. As part of their intimidation, Narumi’s clients claim to have this woman captive, but Narumi asserts that their relationship was nothing but a one-night affair. However, despite his cold attitude, Naoko seems to be the only woman that Narumi has ever truly loved. In flashbacks, the two of them wistfully chat, and enjoy quiet moments together.

Alternating between flashbacks and the present, Shokei Yugi gradually unravels the mystery of how Narumi came into the hire of this shadowy organization, while also shedding light on a massive conspiracy with international stakes. And of course, many people are brutally maimed and murdered along the way. 

Some of you will notice that the synopsis for this entry is mercifully shorter than in the past two reviews. That’s because Shokei Yugi says a lot with a little. If Mottomo Kiken na Yugi spells out too much, and Satsujin Yugi engrosses with a multi-layered plot, Shokei Yugi gives the viewer only the essentials. Thanks to this efficient approach to scripting, rather than having us focus on fine story details, one area Shokei Yugi opts to shine the spotlight on is the series’ key overarching theme of extreme masculinity. 

Every man in this film is sick, callous and forceful, with Narumi standing out as the most sympathetic–a surprising turn, considering his behavior in the past. The Yugi series regularly involves toxic and uncomfortable men to some degree, but these portrayals are always incidental to the overall aesthetics and sense of excitement. Meanwhile, Shokei Yugi stands out by making a point of rubbing our face in dark, horribly misguided masculinity. This toxic masculinity often goes hand-in-hand with anxiety, which is also highly prevalent in the film–both on the part of Narumi and the bad guys, forcing them to resort to desperate measures at different points in the story. Consequently, Shokei Yugi dishes out some poignant commentary on how destructive extreme masculinity can be[2]Granted, I’m not sure how intentional Shokei Yugi’s commentary on masculinity is, but it’s certainly a crystallization of the anxiety in Japanese men at the time. The 1970s were a time when men … Continue reading

Another thing the Yugi series continues to scrutinize is power structures, be it giant corporations controlling Japan’s national defense, local gangs vying for control of their turf, or the shadowy organization in this film. Ultimately, Narumi finds himself up against these massive organizations each and every time. But while the first two entries in the series are mostly concerned with making Narumi look cool when cleaning up these goons, Shokei Yugi puts forth concrete criticism towards the powers that be by showcasing how pitiful they can be when pushed to the edge by someone they initially perceive as smaller than them. Of course, Shokei Yugi is still primarily concerned with making Narumi look cool, but there’s more thematic meat this time around, especially once we learn the final revelation of the film. Similar commentary can be seen in other collaborations between director Murakawa Toru and Yusaku as well, such as Yomigaeru Kinro and Yaju Shisubeshi (The Beast Must Die), two films that look at how power can corrupt, and the inherent darkness of men.

Helping weave this tale of corruption and distrust is another expertly assembled cast. Yusaku returns as Narumi, and like in the first two films, Shokei Yugi introduces us to a slightly different take on the character. His change in each entry in the series is intentional, representative of his growth as a character. Starting out as an antsy and snot-nosed punk in the first film, he transitions to a confident, snarky and seasoned killer in the second. Meanwhile, the Narumi we meet in Shokei Yugi forces us to reconcile with the reality of what it means to be an assassin for so long. While Narumi is likely the most confident we’ve seen him so far, he’s now very cold, and a lot of his charming snark from the previous film is gone. When depicting Narumi on the job, Yusaku delivers intense, icy stares–gone is his nervousness from Mottomo, or his taunting attitude from Satsujin Yugi. Narumi in Shokei Yugi is undeniably tired of his existence, and just wants to get his work over with. This comes through both in the efficiency and accuracy of his hits, and the resulting lethargy in his movements and expressions when off the job.

With all that said, Narumi is also very sincere in this film, which is a huge change for the character. His love for Naoko comes across as genuine, with their exchanges feeling natural and lived-in. As the two walk by the ocean, Narumi divulges a bit about his past in a weary tone, nostalgically looking back at his childhood spent in an unnamed port town[3]I don’t know if this is another ad lib from Yusaku or not, but he was actually from Shimonoseki in Yamaguchi, which is a port town

Across the different variations of Narumi presented to us in the Yugi series, Shokei Yugi’s iteration of Narumi is the most complex, and Yusaku rises to the challenge with a nuanced performance that sells it brilliantly. While I have yet to dig into Yusaku’s work from the 1980s in any meaningful way, among his work from the 1970s, his performance of Narumi in this film is most certainly the stand-out.

Singer-songwriter Kamata Saeko, known by her stage name “Lily,” plays the part of Naoko. With sheet-white skin, wispy hair, and a ghostly voice, she has a breathtaking and ethereal screen presence. Given Narumi’s relationships with women to this point, it’s only fitting that a woman so not-of-this-world would be a perfect fit for him. That said, despite initially leaving a strong impression, the series eventually falls back on its bad habit of pigeonholing women into roles of dependence. She does however continue to own the role skillfully until the end, and has great chemistry with Yusaku. Their exchanges effectively illustrate how both of these characters are broken, at times intentionally making their conversations disjointed and uncomfortable.

Filling out the rest of the cast is a rogues’ gallery of your typical Yugi series goons. Our top goon is played by Yamamoto Rinichi, who has an extremely gravelly, shit-eating, and villainous voice that runs in hilarious contrast to his short posture, pot belly, and fat shades. Katagiri Ryuji plays a spectacled and sadistic goon with an ominous laugh. I can’t remember if he has any lines outside of his sinister chuckles, but he makes a big impact at the beginning by mercilessly torturing Narumi[4]Katagiri Ryuji also appears in Mottomo in a bit role, and shows up a few times in Tantei Monogatari as different guest characters.. Last but not least, my boy Yamanishi Hiromichi returns for more after being bloodily blasted in Satsujin Yugi. He’s a completely different goon in this one, and his role is less significant–his one big scene involves him getting thrown around by Narumi, but I just gotta make my token shoutout to my favorite bumbling detective from Tantei Monogatari.

One smaller role, but one that’s worth noting, is Morishita Aiko’s role as the young clerk of a local antique watch shop. One subplot of the film involves Narumi visiting the shop to get his pocket watch fixed. The clerk claims some time will be needed to get all the needed parts, and hands him another watch from the shop’s stock to use instead while he waits. Much like Narumi’s sincere relationship with Naoko, his interactions with this clerk are successful at making him empathetic in a way other entries in the series didn’t. Morishita’s character is very earnest–she often gets so absorbed in work that she fails to notice whenever Narumi enters the shop–and she speaks in an extremely formal and feminine register. She’s the polar opposite of Naoko, and Narumi almost treats her like a daughter. Meanwhile, Morishita convincingly portrays this woman as having something of a girlish crush on Narumi, not knowing who he truly is.

Taking a step back to look at the production as a whole, this third installment of the Yugi series once again sees Murakawa Toru grow as a director. Being quite a minimalist film when it comes to story and dialogue, Shokei Yugi’s grim and goopy atmosphere takes center stage. The film is locked on Narumi’s viewpoint for a majority of its running time, resulting in many silent moments bathed in melancholy and uneasiness. Murakawa paints the world of Shokei Yugi as one that is empty, cold and oppressive, which does well to convey the story’s ever-present paranoia. Unlike previous installments of the series, there are no jokes in Shokei Yugi, forcing us to focus on the real repercussions of the never-ending cycle of violence that tires out even a stone-cold killer like Narumi.

Murakawa once again plays with suspense in Shokei Yugi. The film opens up extremely tense, with Narumi captured in the murky depths of an enemy stronghold, trying to escape. Outside of some incidental musical accompaniment to open the sequence, scenes are mostly silent and  disjointedly cut as Narumi navigates the labyrinthine building. Silence is broken by explosive gunshots by way of shadowy figures he encounters when turning corners, or investigating rooms. It’s an incredibly uncomfortable way to get started, establishing that undertone of paranoia that continues throughout. But while the film has this constant anxious undertone, once the playing field is set in Shokei Yugi, the film eases up on the suspense. This runs in contrast to Satsujin Yugi, which is a steady buildup of suspense leading to an explosive finale. In Shokei Yugi, once we get past the first act, the film starts unraveling the mystery of the group Narumi is working for, and the truth behind Naoko. It’s this part of the film that’s most concerned with emotional beats, lulling us a bit into a false sense of security. But once some key mysteries are solved, the story throws a wrench into the works to dial the suspense up into overdrive for the finale. Yaju Shisubeshi, released the following year in 1980, would see a more dynamic approach to this control of suspense, and Shokei Yugi certainly feels like the blueprint for it.

Sengen Seizo returns as Murakawa’s partner in crime behind the camera, and much like Murakawa, he also steps up his game for this final entry in the series. If you liked that sexy blue opening sequence in Mottomo Kiken na Yugi, you’ll love Shokei Yugi–because it’s bathed in that same deep and moody blue goodness for most of its runtime. It seems as if most of the film was shot in the wee hours of the morning to achieve its cold look, and it works deftly to establish Shokei Yugi’s dreary worldview. Key scenes are also shot late at night, against city lights and passing cars, further establishing a thick noir atmosphere. 

Suffice it to say, Shokei Yugi is primarily quite somber in its aesthetic, but has some portions shot during the day. While the visual contrast of these scenes against the rest of the film is obvious, there are two distinct moments of light that have a narrative function, working to express Narumi’s mental state. Near the start of the film, having escaped the dark confines of the enemy lair, Narumi heads home[5]Fun-fact: He lives in Omotesando in this film. Specifically, in the old apartments that are now part of Omotesando Hills.. Making his way out of the subway exit, the beautiful morning light and brilliant colors of the surrounding buildings pierce into view. This is a stimulating sight for both the viewers and Narumi, working to emphasize how shaken he is in that moment. The next moment like this comes at the end of the film, when Narumi has gotten to the bottom of the conspiracy. As he makes his way towards his final target in a Tokyo highrise, we see the city skyline bathed in bright light. This time around the light isn’t overstimulating, and the clear view of Tokyo through the windows seems like a visual representation of the clarity Narumi has achieved at the end of the ordeal. 

Shokei Yugi also sees Sengen play around with visual motifs for the first time in the series. One thing that stands out in Shokei Yugi compared to past entries is a noted concern with nature and the color green. Portions of the film are shot in the mountains among lush green trees, and certain scenes in Tokyo are shot under the city’s many leafy canopies. This heavy focus on nature could be evocative of how many of the characters are backed into a corner, finding themselves reverting to natural, survival instincts to cope. Plants appear frequently in interior shots as well, framed in such a way that characters look physically consumed by the greenery around them, giving emphasis to how tangled they are in dire situations. Another minor motif is mirrors, which appear a few times throughout the film. With surveillance being a big part of the story, this use of mirrors does well to convey an ominous feeling of voyeurism, and works to maintain that constant paranoia. 

Much of the Yugi series’ excellent visual aesthetic also lies in great location-hunting, and Shokei Yugi is no exception. Per the aforementioned motif of  nature, along with taking us deep into the mountains, the film also sits us down on the beach by the crashing ocean waves. These natural locations show up in the flashbacks looking at Narumi and Naoko’s relationship, and suggests that their love is a vehicle for escape, demonstrating a desire to be free of the all-consuming city streets. That being said, these scenes are also all shot under overcast skies, which doesn’t inspire much hope for these two fractured souls. 

The main story takes us back to the city streets of Tokyo, which are notably quiet and barren in Shokei Yugi. Mottomo also features deserted urban locations, but in that film it feels like a concession due to budget constraints more than anything else. Meanwhile in Shokei Yugi, the choice to shoot in dark and empty streets is intentional, instilling a feeling of isolation that contributes to the film’s uncomfortable undertone. 

It’s worth noting that the second act of the film takes us outside of Tokyo to the area around Narita Airport. The scenes in Narita have a palpable and gross suburban grime, something else the series has lacked until this point. A majority of the Narita portion is set in and around a dingy motel that’s lovingly drab during the day, and astonishingly sinister at night. Taking a look inside, the interior of this tacky Showa motel room comes to life, becoming moody and mesmerizing via Sengen’s eye for framing, and his choice of film stock that brings out rich colors and deep shadows. This same approach extends to the other prosaic suburban locales that show up such as cafes and family restaurants, making them feel haunting, and somewhat liminal. 

There’s little information on the locations featured in Shokei Yugi compared to the rest of the films, as a lot of the shots go out of their way to keep locations vague. But at a cursory glance, it seems much of the film is shot around the emptier corners of Omotesando and Aoyama–two neighborhoods with wide boulevards and western-style buildings. As a result, this final entry almost feels like it’s shot in a foreign country, in stark contrast to the first two installments, which are down-and-dirty Tokyo films. Perhaps it’s intentional given the international stakes of the story, but this sort of aesthetic also prevails in Yomigaeru Kinro and Yaju Shisubeshi, so it probably says more about Murakawa’s love for western film than anything else. 

Alongside Murakawa and Sengen, while a majority of the core staff for all the Yugi trilogy films is the same, each film intentionally brought in a different writer to provide unique takes on the formula. As mentioned earlier, 1979 was a very busy year for Yusaku and the crew, and anecdotal evidence points to the production of Shokei Yugi getting lost in the shuffle. As a result, the schedule was quite tight, which seemed to spook the writer they onboarded for this final installment–one Maruyama Shoichi.

Maruyama was an up-and-coming writer at the time, and Shokei Yugi was his very first film. The record shows that he penned it when he was only just cutting his teeth on TV writing, scripting episodes of Tantei Monogatari. According to the interview in the Japanese Yugi trilogy box set, Maruyama mentions his concerns surrounding the tight production schedule. He specifically cites being scared shitless when he was brought into a kick-off meeting and shown a completed film poster with his name already on it, despite him not having turned in a single draft of the script. While I can’t find any details on pre and post production, actual shooting for Shokei Yugi was completed in just 11 days. And according to accounts from the production staff, Yusaku seriously injured himself and broke into a fever during the shoot. These same accounts also state that immediately after filming, the crew went out to get royally shit-faced, partied all night, then rushed out to shoot an episode of Tantei Monogatari first thing in the morning. Incidentally Yusaku (again, injured and burning up) hosted one of the post-shooting afterparties, and of course had to be on-location for his role of Kudo in Tantei Monogatari in the morning as well. Witnessing this chaos, Maruyama was convinced he wouldn’t be able to hack it in show business[6]Thankfully, the record shows that Maruyama kept at it, and continues to enjoy a successful career, penning works as recent as 2020.. Knowing the context behind its production, the minimal nature of Shokei Yugi makes sense–what makes it impressive is how it all works so well. As far as Maruyama’s contribution is concerned, his script divulges only what we need to know, inviting the viewer to guess at the scale of the conflict, and its ramifications. 

But despite this long-winded analysis around potential symbolism and amateur deep-dives into direction and cinematography, the Yugi series is all about action, and Shokei Yugi hands-down has the best action of the series. A majority of the action can be found in two set pieces at the front and back ends of the film. The first of these sequences depicts Narumi’s initial escape from his captors, touched upon earlier in this post. This scene is less about dynamic action and more about disorienting both Narumi and the viewer, but throwing him behind enemy lines and watching him improvise his way out is a thrilling way to start. Yusaku also gets a moment to show off some impressive circus acrobatics as he frees himself from being tied to a ceiling.

Meanwhile, the second set piece is the apex of action in the Yugi series, encompassing over six minutes of pure carnage. The scene is composed of two continuous three-minute takes that follow Narumi through the depths of the enemy’s lair, down dark hallways and up winding staircases[7]A bit of a spoiler, but the final enemy stronghold is the same place he finds himself in at the start of the film, making the two scenes pair together exquisitely.. It feels like a haunted house of goons, with baddies hiding behind doors, sniping through windows, and even hiding in the ceiling. 

The craft behind this final scene is unreal. The staging of each goon and how they react to Yusaku’s appearance must have required extreme levels of coordination, especially considering how the script demands that Narumi shoot through doors, walls and windows, adding another layer of complexity to the direction. Meanwhile, Sengen sticks to Yusaku, keeping our eye firmly on his sharp and powerful movements. Sengen’s not afraid to get in close this time either, and snaps the camera around quickly to capture each kill, making the entire sequence immensely visceral. Spike’s final attack on the Red Dragons in Cowboy Bebop certainly draws some of its DNA from this final action scene in Shokei Yugi, upping the ante with more explosions and automatic weapons[8]That said, that scene isn’t six-fucking-minutes-long..

What’s notable about the action in Shokei Yugi is a great concern for realism in the shootouts. Due to the amount of sponsorship accumulated by this final film, the crew was able to hire a weapons expert to oversee the use of firearms in the film. As such, Shokei Yugi takes great care to show Narumi taking cover to reload multiple times during the final fight. Throughout the film, there are also a few scenes depicting him carefully maintaining his guns, and even making home-made bullets for his jobs[9]Granted, I cannot vouch for how realistic the “making bullets” thing is..

The Yugi series would not be what it is without its soundtrack, and Ohno Yuji continues to kill it with the music. Given the tone of the film, certain pieces are quite sparse, atmospheric and experimental, specifically near the beginning of the film[10]Unfortunately these more minimal tracks did not make it on the VAP Music File release of the soundtrack, which also contains music from Satsujin Yugi.. When it comes to scenes with Narumi and Naoko, the soundtrack leans towards the sentimental side, but the tone is less saccharine and more bittersweet. These scenes are typically backed by a twangy acoustic guitar, or a quiet tin whistle, creating a sense of emptiness that fits the relationship between them. One standout track is a magnificent piece of extended free jazz, complete with screaming guitars and wailing horns, deployed during the final fight. It’s the most unhinged piece of music in the series, but it perfectly compliments the visceral action unfolding on screen. This film also gives us another vocal track to chew on, much in the same way that Yusaku sang a song in Satsujin Yugi. This time around, the tune comes by way of songstress Lily, delivering a vocal version of the main Yugi series theme, characterized by Lily’s deep vocals and a melancholic tone. Meanwhile, the rest of the film is bathed in the smokey and mysterious horns that are hallmarks of the series’ soundscape. 

It’s hard to find much wrong with Shokei Yugi, outside the regular criticism I level at the series with regards to its portrayal and treatment of women. It’s especially unfortunate for Naoko, as she could be a very bad-ass character. However, at the same time I feel changing her role would affect what the film is trying to say about the oppressiveness of overbearing power structures. It’s also a film that you need to be in the mood to watch, because there’s no levity at all, whereas the other entries in the franchise are more lighthearted. But these are just minor quibbles–if you got this far in the series, you’re going to like Shokei Yugi.

Mottomo Kiken na Yugi and Satsujin Yugi are two stylish films based around the premise of how cool it is to be a lone-wolf assassin. Meanwhile, Shokei Yugi confronts the reality of what it means to be a hired gun, and what a never-ending cycle of violence does to a person. On a higher level, the film is also reflective of the social anxieties of the time, specifically with regards to men’s place in society, and the power structures that govern us. The way Shokei Yugi has a laser focus on the key themes of the trilogy while also examining Narumi’s psyche makes for an excellent send-off for the series, and the character. Of course, given the subject matter and tone, it’s perhaps not the easiest film to sit down with. So much like Narumi, you may want to help yourself to some healthy pours of Old Crow to get through it.

But I wouldn’t have it any other way.

On the whole, the Yugi series is an outstanding set of compact action films. Thanks to a strong vision and diverse influences, the series manages to come out as something far more elevated than other action films of the time. While the trilogy primarily concerns itself with telling slick gangster tales, the way in which they tap into the paranoia of the times and examine the nature of men is deeply fascinating, and keeps me coming back.

Intrigued? Go ahead and pick up the English-language release by Arrow Video. You won’t be disappointed. 

1 Many of Yusaku’s works in the 1970s involved overlapping staff, so they typically jumped around to different projects together.
2 Granted, I’m not sure how intentional Shokei Yugi’s commentary on masculinity is, but it’s certainly a crystallization of the anxiety in Japanese men at the time. The 1970s were a time when men were still the primary breadwinners, and during this period the country was suffering through an energy crisis, resulting in an unstable economy, which affected how well men could carry out their expected societal duties.
3 I don’t know if this is another ad lib from Yusaku or not, but he was actually from Shimonoseki in Yamaguchi, which is a port town
4 Katagiri Ryuji also appears in Mottomo in a bit role, and shows up a few times in Tantei Monogatari as different guest characters.
5 Fun-fact: He lives in Omotesando in this film. Specifically, in the old apartments that are now part of Omotesando Hills.
6 Thankfully, the record shows that Maruyama kept at it, and continues to enjoy a successful career, penning works as recent as 2020.
7 A bit of a spoiler, but the final enemy stronghold is the same place he finds himself in at the start of the film, making the two scenes pair together exquisitely.
8 That said, that scene isn’t six-fucking-minutes-long.
9 Granted, I cannot vouch for how realistic the “making bullets” thing is.
10 Unfortunately these more minimal tracks did not make it on the VAP Music File release of the soundtrack, which also contains music from Satsujin Yugi.

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