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Yukio Mishima (1925-1970) was one of the most celebrated Japanese writers, nominated for the Nobel Prize for literature three times. Besides his literary work, Mishima is best known for his attempted coup d'état in honour of the emperor and his subsequent ritual suicide, but he also had a relatively short acting career. His best known performance is probably the lead role in Yasuzo Masumura's 1960 yakuza tale Afraid to Die.
At the beginning a yakuza named Takeo Asahina (Mishima) is released from prison after serving a few years for stabbing a member of a rivaling yakuza clan, the Sagara. Afraid of Sagara's revenge, Asahina tries to maintain a somewhat low profile while continuing his criminal businesses with his educated associate Aikawa (Eiji Funakoshi) and also begins an abusive relationship with a cashier girl Yoshie (Ayako Wakao) who doesn't approve of his dangerous lifestyle, a sentiment shared by the pharmacist girlfriend of Aikawa. The Asahina and Sagara clans then keep trying to one-up each other in their businesses, such as blackmailing a medicine company and kidnapping each others loved ones. Takeo has promised to leave his old life behind, but the dangerous circumstances are putting him under great pressure.
A lot of the responsibility regarding the effectiveness of the film lies on the shoulders of Mishima as the protagonist Asahina. Luckily he handles the role pretty well and looks convincing as the skinny but tough gangster who has to maintain a hard surface despite his hidden fears. Actually, it is this eponymous fear of death that I wish would have been examined more in the film; I would have loved to see more of nightmarish noir atmosphere at the expense of straightforward crime movie plot. Even though the mood does not quite reach truly powerful levels until the final scenes, technical details are well created throughout, from the dark streets to the seedy nightclub where Asahina's ex-girlfriend Masako (Yaeko Mizutani) performs as a cabaret singer. I enjoyed the loud jazzy music too, even though it is used quite sparingly.
The film does present some commentary about the nature of life of crime; for instance, Asahina's comments about how money should mean more than anything for a yakuza and his feelings of commitment to the family tradition (his father was also a yakuza). The cymbal-playing toy monkey and the impressive escalator scene at the end can also be understood as symbols for the inescapable criminal lifestyle. Even so, for the most part the plot focuses on the increasing tension between the two clans instead of artistic symbolism; this would be completely OK if said mental strain came across as even harder than it does now. Now I feel the tightening atmosphere leaves some room for improvement, as already mentioned above.
In any case, as a traditional crime story Afraid to Die works decently and contains plenty of things to enjoy. Besides Mishima, the veteran actor Takashi Shimura and the sinister-looking Shigeru Kôyama deliver good performances as Asahina's tattooed yakuza uncle Gohei and an asthmatic hit-man Masa respectively. Visually the movie is fine too. I have yet to see more of Mishima's work as an actor, but based on this movie he would have had potential for a much longer career in film. Anyway, personally I liked Afraid to Die and would not hesitate to recommend it to crime movie fans.
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