Written by: Michael Den Boer on February 9th, 2005
Theatrical Release Date: Japan, 1971
Director: Kinji Fukasaku
Writers: Kinji Fukasaku, Fumio Konami, Hiro Matsuda
Cast: Koji Tsuruta, Noboru Ando, Kenji Imai, Akiko Kudo
DVD Released: February 1st, 2005
Approximate Running Time: 93 minutes
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1 Anamorphic Widescreen
Sound: Dolby Digital Mono
DVD Release: Home Vision
Region Coding: Region 1 NTSC
Retail Price: $24.95
Released from prison after serving a ten year sentence Gonji (Koji Tsuruta) wants to go straight and leave the Yakuza world behind. Dai Tokai clan has taken over Gonji’s former clan’s shipyard business. Gonji wants to get his clan back together to observe the seventh anniversary of their bosses’ death. Kudo is wounded after an attempted hit on the Dai Tokai clan’s boss. He stumbles across Gonji who helps take care of him until he can recover which leads too a rift between Gonji and Dai Tokai clan. Gonji reforms his former gang and convinces them that they could easily claim a new territory in Okinawa lucrative whisky business. Has Gonji found sanctuary or will he be forced to confront his enemies back in Tokyo?
Sympathy for the Underdog is also known as Gamblers in Okinawa (the films original International: English title). Noboru Ando the actor who plays Shark in the film would draw inspiration from his past when he used to be a gangster. Tomisaburo Wakayama is most famous for his role of Ogami Itto in the Lone Wolf and Cub series. He is also the brother of Shintaro Katsu who portrayed the legendary blind swordsman Zatôichi.
The basic premise of Sympathy for the Underdog of a Yakuza trying to break free has been recycled and used in several Yakuza films. Kinji Fukasaku only briefly focuses on this premise as the set up for the rest of the films foundation. Many things have changed in the ten years that Gonji has been in prison including the transformation of the Yakuza into a more modern business man instead of your typical street thug. The core of the film is about the old school Yakuza vs. this new breed of Yakuza. It is also interesting too note that Fukasaku around this time he was on the verge of reshaping the Yakuza genre.
The choice of using Okinawa as the films primary location adds too the films foreign look with its use of American iconic images like Pepsi and Coca-Cola billboards. The fish out of water plot device is one of the films strongest assets. Takeo Yamashita’s jazz infused score sounds like a funeral procession as the bodies start to pile up. Fukasaku experiments with editing and the framing of his compositions. He also makes good use of the films sound design. In one scene there is a group of assassin’s playing pool while their targets Gonji and his clan sit in the next room. They wait until an airplane flies overhead before unloading a flurry of bullets. Sympathy for the Underdog is filled with fascinating characters whose flaws make them more human.
Sympathy for the Underdog is presented in an anamorphic widescreen that preserves its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio. The robust color palette perfectly captures the films 1970’s décor with its lucid colors and natural looking flesh tones. The black levels remain strong and rich in detail through out. Sympathy for the Underdog is yet another solid transfer from Home Vision that is on par with their other Kinji Fukasaku releases.
This DVD comes with only one audio option the films original Japanese language track which is presented in a Dolby Digital mono. The dialog & action are crisp through out as the mono track evenly balances them with the music & effects. There are no problems with hiss or distortion. Overall considering the age of the film and the mono source Sympathy for the Underdog sounds amazing. English subtitles that are easy to follow and understand have been included.
The main extra is a sixteen minute interview with Kinji Fukasaku biographer Sadao Yamane. He discusses the origins of Sympathy for the Underdog and Fukasaku’s relationship with actor Koji Tsuruta. The information is informative and detailed. Other extras included the films original theatrical trailer and Kinji Fukasaku’s filmograpahy. Rounding out the extras is liner notes written by Patrick Macias author of Tokyoscope: the Japanese cult film companion.
If I were asked which film would be a good starting point for someone just getting into the cinema of Kinji Fukasaku I would recommend Sympathy for the Underdog. Home Vision unleashes another classic Yakuza film by the late legendary director Kinji Fukasaku. Like their previous releases Sympathy for the Underdog comes with a stunning audio/video presentation and a wealth of extras, highly recommended.