Underworld Beauty (Review)
aka 暗黒街の美女 aka Ankokugai no Bijo
Written by Susumu Saji
Directed by Seijun Suzuki
One of Seijun Suzuki’s first films (and the first credited as his pseudonym Seijun Suzuki!), Underworld Beauty shows hints of the creative sparks that would soon gain Suzuki a cult following in Japan and the ire of his studio bosses. But it’s mostly a straightforward and entertaining noir, elevated by the cast, so don’t be too disappointed when it goes by the numbers. It seems you can’t talk about Suzuki without using the term “fever dream”, so I’ll just use it in this sentence complaining about the term in this film that has among the lowest amounts of fever dreamness.
A noir flick that gets enhanced by the black and white photography, Underworld Beauty features a jewel thief gang member named Miyamoto (Michitaro Mizushima) who has just gotten out of the joint. He retrieves a gun and stolen diamonds from a hiding spot in the sewer, and sets out finish the job. But prison has given him a change of perspective, and he wants to give the diamonds to the member of the gang who was injured during the job (and saved Miyamoto in the process), Mihara (Toru Abe). The third gang member, who is now a powerful boss named Chairman Oyane (Shinsuke Ashida), is not too happy with this sudden display of honor, but is smart enough to hide his disapproval.
Mihara is now working in a noodle stall and ostensibly taking care of his younger sister Akiko (Mari Shiraki), who is on a wild streak down a dark path. She earns money posing nude for the mannequin sculptures (done by her quasi-boyfriend Arita (Hiroshi Kondo)), and going out drinking is her hobby. The attempt to sell the diamonds to a fence ends when armed masked men burst in on the proceedings, and Mihara swallows the diamonds and leaps off the roof of a building, attracting attention. He stays alive long enough to explain to the police that he slipped, but then passes on. The criminals are concerned the diamonds will burn when he is cremated, and soon the various factions go all The Treasure of the Sierra Madre with diamond fever.
Miyamoto stays largely free of this, now stalking after Akiko in an attempt to try to steer her straight as debt repayment to Mihara, but she just finds him annoying. Miyamoto eventually deduces that the diamonds were not burned up and were cut out of Mihara, and he’s not too happy. Things will then come to a head with Akiko caught in the middle.
Some of the existing Suzuki goodness includes one of the characters living above a mannequin factory, which results in lots of interesting scenery of nude posed mannequins and disembodied heads displaying a range of expressions. Why someone would want a head that seems to be moaning in agony on their clothing display model, I have no idea, but it looks cool. That also helps set up a repeated theme of diamonds hidden in bodies, from Mihara to the display mannequin to Akiko’s jokes about the bodies being hidden inside her breasts. It’s punctuated by the discarded mannequin lying in pieces half-submerged in the sewer, a gaping hole where the jewels were stashed.
A particularly good sequence is Arita attempting to make amends to Akiko in an obvious attempt to find out where she hid the diamonds. The deception is so poor Akiko is even bored by it, and immediately points it out and berates him. All the while, she’s yanking on the cord of a lamp, turning it on and off, only to flip the lamp so it lands with the light as a spotlight on Arita right as she accuses him of never caring about her and just caring about the diamonds.
Mari Shiraki is great as the wild child Akiko, who is bored with life and partying it up. She degrades her brother to his face, mocking him for not violently revenging for his injury and talking him down to others. But when he dies, there is real sorrow, she truly loved him despite all her disappointments in them, especially since he was all she had left after their parents died. She sits sobbing at the docks, only to turn completely excited and happy when an American sailor invites her to go drinking. She can play the part just to get a load of alcohol to forget everything. Her aimlessness style comes to an end after the climax, as being put in a life and death struggle gives her a new lease on life. She no longer is chasing after the next thrill.
Michitaro Mizushima’s Miyamoto is perfect as the gruff ex-con who is attempting to do the honorable thing for the man who helped him, only to see things spiral out of control thanks to the greed of others. He’s just good enough to cheer for, but just bad enough to be dangerous to those who mess with him. Mizushima balances the two sides of the coin perfectly, we know he’ll go to the ends of the Earth to help repay his obligations, and those who stand in his way better watch out. The gang’s former unity is shows by each having a different suit of card tattoo on their forearm – Miyamoto has a spade, Oyane has a club, Mihara has a diamond. The symbolism of Mihara having the diamond and Oyane the club becomes a bit obvious, while Miyamoto displays his spade skills in the finale. If anyone had a heart, they didn’t live to make it to the reunion! The closest candidate would be Oyane’s creepy right hand goon Osawa (Kaku Takashima), but despite having a major role, it is implied he’s just a hired thug and not one of the original gang.
Underworld Beauty‘s promotional material promises actress Mari Shiraki in black undies with a machine gun, a scene that doesn’t happen in the film. I was as disappointed to find that fact out as I was to find out the movie Blended did not involve Adam Sandler being shoved into a moving blender. Luckily, Underworld Beauty is good enough to keep the levels of dissatisfaction to a minimum, while I’m still stalking down Adam Sandler with my oversized blender. While I do that, you should check out Underworld Beauty, which has had some releases with subtitles and is even on streaming platforms, making it so accessible you no longer have an excuse not to watch it!
Rated 8/10 (gang tat, gang tat, gang tat, Wonderful!, inspiration, wall croc, strike a pose, logo)
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