Blackmail Is My Life DVD Review

Cover Art and Menu: 8/10
As often as I am disappointed in the cover art design on DVD’s it’s a great thing to find one that catches my attention. I’m not saying my standards have lowered, but after years of constant boring blah covers it doesn’t take much to elevate my opinion of a DVD’s cover art.

Blackmail is My Life has one of those covers that I really like, but for simple reasons. It has a pulp kind of comic book/indie art look to it which is just plain cool. The first official thing that caught my eye is that they used an image of the lead character with an actual facial expression that implies something of the story. A man holding some money and a gun with a very satisfied, if slightly surprised, look on his face. It might sound like a small detail, but a picture of him with no expression, just being the ‘star’ of the film would have been so utterly uninteresting. I would like to think they used this image of him on purpose to shed some light on the character, a hint of what this guy is all about. That gives some life to the cover making it more dynamic in my opinion.

The second thing I like is the use of color verses just using a plain color or black and white. It’s one of the most basic color jobs you will see, but to have the man’s face and money in green with the gun in the cold grey, it adds one more subtle clue as to what you are getting into when you sit down to watch this movie.

What can I say? It didn’t take much on their part to jazz up what could have been an ultra-boring cover, and yet they have actually impressed ME of all people. Nice job.

Extras & Features: 7/10

  • Interview with director Fukasaku – This is a rare treat for me indeed. I had not seen any Fukasaku films, no, not even Battle Royale. After watching Blackmail is My Life I was so curious about how it was made, the person behind the direction, etc. When we went into the extras to watch the interview I was very pleasantly surprised. This is a long discussion by Fukasaku about his filmmaking career, his fight against the Japanese film industry, and making Blackmail is My Life. Mr. Fukasaku passed away last year so that makes this interview that much more important to have preserved it on DVD for film lovers and students for years to come. If you want to learn more, here is an excellent article about Fukasaku.
  • Liner notes written by Patrick Macias, author of Tokyo Scope – I might be a nerd, but I’m a fan of the liner notes that some DVD come with. I love to read essays, impressions, comments, even other reviews of the films and to have them added to the package might seem a small thing, but it’s one more aspect to experiencing the film/DVD and I appreciate it.
  • Director Filmography – Simple list of all Fukasaku films. If you become interested in his work or in Japanese film in general, it’s a good place to start compiling your list of Must See Fukasaku flicks.

Picture & Sound: 9/10
The picture is well preserved but does have some subtle hints of graininess here and there. I assume that is a by-product of the condition of the original film. I personally think it looks fantastic, however I do know there are some pretty picky people out there who might not be as forgiving and expect every DVD to be absolutely perfectly clear and crisp. I just don’t think that’s always possible. I know from their commitment to film preservation that HVE and Criterion do everything they can to preserve and hopefully improve the quality of the picture for the DVD.

Mono sound can be poorly done to the point of distracting you from the film. If voices are too low to hear and the sounds in the background are all blurred together the fact that it’s Mono jumps out at you and slams you in the ear…so to speak. HVE, however, had done an excellent job of bringing the voices, background sounds and music all to the foreground without losing any part of the audio experience. There are difficult sound issues to overcome like rain in the background of an intimate conversation, and explosions in front of yet more dialogue. It all comes out clear and well balanced (if that’s the right term) so that you don’t have to turn up the volume every time people are talking, which does happen sometimes with Mono sound.

The Movie: 8/10:
Is it puppy love or the real thing? Don’t tell my husband, but I think I might just be starting an illicit affair….with Japanese films. The fact that this my first introduction to Fukasaku and one of my first experiences with Japanese cinema is a deciding factor when it comes to scoring this movie. I have a feeling that I could become a serious Japanese movie fan. I loved this movie from start to finish for so many reason. Maybe the newness of it, or the fact that it’s so different from anything I’ve seen before. I love new experiences with film and it’s hard to come by anything new these days. I know it’s not a new film, and Japanese cinema is not new either, but it’s new to me and I’m impressed.

I suppose the thrill of a new movie watching experience gives me a somewhat biased slant on the movie. But that is part of being a movie lover and never losing the enthusiasm for the art of film. Every story, every character, every costume, every idea that floods across the screen is potential for inspiration, excitement, entertainment, and broadening one’s view of the world. Being inundated with Hollywood flicks all your life is like living in a submarine, a nice comfortable submarine, but it’s still a very isolated existence nonetheless. You might have oxygen to breath from day to day, but it can become stale and suffocating so when you finally surface and get a breath of fresh air it brings you back to life and makes you realize what you’ve been missing.

It’s not like I’m looking at this movie through virginal rose colored glasses. I see the flaws. There is a lot of campy acting that can be distracting, but other than that this is a fantastic film. I was impressed with the look, the style, the story, the performances, the dialogue, and everything else. The interesting look of the film is elevated at times with black and white cut scenes, bold pauses and freeze frames throughout and innovative use of camera angles. It’s exciting to look at even when there is a quiet moment between characters.

Fukasaku, with his anti-studio style, is obviously ahead of his time. Everything from the clothes to the cars make this film stylish, even if it’s not trying to be. There are a lot of close ups, but not your average close ups. He puts a different twist on most filmmaking conventions. Fukasaku doesn’t seem to do anything very traditionally. This is what makes this movie so stimulating even just to look at.

The story is a classic tale of some punk young adults turning to crime to make a living in a dog eat dog world. They decide, through circumstance, that blackmail is the way to go. Their saga progresses from petty deals to eventual kidnapping and slipping into a more intense, nearly violent approach. When they come up against the big city political bullies, their days of simple blackmail are over. Their policy of non-violence and not resorting to killing is put to the test when they realize they are somewhat naive to the fact that their new enemies have no problem taking the lives of anyone who gets in their way. A real sense of doom mixed with a strange optimism starts to evolve in the story.

You are drawn so close to the characters, both physically with close camera shots, and through the time you spend getting involved in quality dialogue between the members of the gang. They become slightly caricatures of who they are trying to be, but that makes them even more endearing in a way. You know they are doing bad things, but because you see them in their friendships with one another, as the youthful dreamers they are, you find that element of sympathy that makes all the difference to weaving an intriguing story. They celebrate their accomplishments like children winning a prize at a carnival. They are lively and almost innocent which make us identify with them, cheer them on almost. We don’t want them to fail, but we know deep down inside that they cannot triumph against the real heavy hitters.

My favorite scene is between the leading man and his female “gang” member. They sit in a car, face to face (after a steamy scene in the backseat), holding one another and talking about what is going to happen next in their plan. The actor and actress are so genuine and convincing as they look desperately at one another, contemplating the worse of what may come of them. I was moved and drawn into their characters 100%. That is a great moment that can happen while watching a movie. Like I said, I might be biased due to my limited exposure to these cinematic gems, so I’ll just have to watch a lot more Japanese movies to see if the novelty wears off or if it’s true love at first site.

I will briefly mention that this is one of the movies that inspired Quentin Tarantino. You don’t even have to watch closely to see the influences it has had on some of his films. If you are a Tarantino fan I highly recommend that you watch this movie, if for no other reason to realize that maybe Quent baby isn’t quite as original as you might think he is.

Value: 7/10
First of all, if you love Japanese cinema, Fukasaku, Quentin Tarantino, or just enjoy experiencing international films, I say buy this DVD and have it around to watch and discuss with like minded folks, it’s well well worth the price. However, for everyone else, those of you not into any of that but you are curious, the best I can say is to hunt down some obscure rental shop and take it home for one night to broaden your horizons on the cheap.

Home Vision Entertainment is a part of Criterion, their mission is to preserve movie classics to preserve cinematic history. They do almost every type of film from big blockbusters like Armageddon, because of the achievements in special effects, to Blackmail is My Life because of Fukasaku and his role in the battle against a big studio system that was trying to sugar coat Japanese movies of the 60’s. It was like fighting the Hollywood machine that can rip and tear a good story until it is glossy, over run with sappy stars, pleasing to the public, a big money maker, and just plain boring,

Japan had their version of a commercially driven film industry against which Fukasaku fought against with his well crafted stories of protagonists who were not necessarily good guys, and he would not force happy endings on the audience when they didn’t make sense for the movie. I appreciate HVE and Criterion for their efforts to preserve these films and fight for the integrity and quality and original director’s cuts. I know that I love having them in my collection, but I also know that 99% of the people in my life don’t make an effort to experience international films. When they go to buy the types of DVD’s they want like Spiderman and it’s $16 they jump for joy because it’s a crowd pleaser, something they will watch over and over. But, I just can’t recommend that those same people, the majority of the movie going public, to spend over $20 on a Japanese film from the 60’s that they have to read subtitles ( I love subtitles, most people do not) and that they most likely will not fully understand. I want to tell people to buy these amazing films, but I have to have a clean conscience. I have to say that I hope they can find it for rental somewhere and leave it at that.

I totally understand the struggle and expense of bringing a movie like this to DVD. It’s not cheap and they won’t be selling tens of millions of copies so they have to raise the retail price to get a return on their investment, it just makes it harder to introduce these movies to mainstream DVD buyers because of the price.

I am overjoyed to own this DVD, it’s an excellent addition to an ever-growing diverse movie collection. I just wish that there was a way for these DVD’s to be less expensive so that more people can enjoy them as much as I do.

Overall Score 8/10