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By a Man’s Face Shall You Know Him (Blu-Ray Review)

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It's barely been a month since Radiance put out the excellent I, the Executioner (1968), and they're already back with another banger, this one taken from ever so slightly earlier in his career. By a Man's Face Shall You Know Him (1966), a title that is as wonderfully overwrought as it is pointed in its questionable wisdom, marks somewhat of a transitional film for the Japanese director—still working in the yakuza genre, but repurposing his characteristic unflinching eye for violence to forge a critique of the treatment of Korean nationals in Japan. The result is one of the finer revisionist gangster pictures of its period, and a film that successfully traces the break point separating national guilt from personal accountability.

In terms of broad narrative strokes, By a Man's Face is about as boilerplate as they come, centring on a turf dispute contested by warring gang-affiliated factions. The Montagues and Capulets this is not, however. Set predominantly in post-war Tokyo during its occupation by American forces (often alluded to, rarely seen), the New Life Market community has been pushed into black market trading and other illicit practices to make ends meet, browbeaten by the war's losses and left destitute by the sanctions imposed since.

Tensions only increase further when the Nine Heavens League of Korean Nationals, a lobbying body acting as a thinly-veiled front for an insurgent crime organisation, seek to expand their operation by turning the market into a Korean-owned entertainment district. Stuck in the middle is the market's owner and local doctor Amamiya (played with a quiet remove by legendary ex-yakuza Noboru Ando), an ex-soldier whose part in the war serves to distance him from the conflict threatening to erupt around him, even as all those involved force his hand.

With 35 years of brutal Japanese rule in Korea only having ended at the close of World War II, to say there were tensions between ethnic Japanese nationals and the Korean “Zainichi” (a term which implies a temporary stay, despite their residency) in the aftermath is an understatement. And while much of the film takes place in the ‘40s, by 1966 those same strains were still present in Japanese society—a mercurial mix of national guilt and ingrained prejudice that had no pressure release valve. As Kenta Fukasaku explains in an interview exclusively for this Radiance release, “Japan is not mono-ethnic, but its culture was built on the belief that it is”. To know a man by his face within such a context is as much an incitement for racially-motivated violence as it is passively narrow-minded.

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By a Man's Face Shall You Know Him (1966)

Fittingly, the film opens on a shot of Amamiya's face in eye-catching profile, drawing attention to the scar carved from his mouth to his ear. The frame behind him is out of focus, though we can make out the rough geometries of a hospital room, and a construction site further behind that. Not only do the swollen edges of the scar immediately recall the film's title, a very literal signifier of Amamiya's violent past left dashed across his face (Fukasaku explains that the author who came up with the titular expression was inspired by Ando's actual face scar—that ain't a prosthetic!), but the composition also serves to underline the fashion in which the rapid expansion of the post-war economic boom impacted the personal lives of those who had suffered through the years of strife beforehand.

As with I, the Executioner, Kato's unique visual sensibility is evident from this first scene. Most notable are his extreme low angles and unusual perspectives, resulting in busy frames that somehow never feel overthought. It's rare to get a wide shot that isn't obstructed somehow, whether it's a teapot boiling in the foreground during a long take of Japanese marketers discussing their lamentable fortunes, or their ensuing conversation with an ageing gangster, taking place over two floors and sliced through with multiple parallel lines; firm bannisters, sweating backs, and the blades of a fan, to name a few. Rather than moving the camera or resorting to cuts, Kato exploits the depth and breadth of the frame.

Even the fight sequences have a similar scope: at one point a previously unseen character falls into frame after being loudly shot, landing directly in front of the camera, as behind him the large scale brawl continues. Despite its precise engineering, Kato's approach successfully captures the chaotic closeness of such a period of tumult, where rational people are readily driven to acts of heinous dereliction.

Before the film begins, before the titles and the idents, Kato opens By a Man's Face with a written entreaty that would seem hopelessly clichéd were it not delivered with such a militant sincerity. It reads as follows:

This film is a fictional tale set in Japan's post-war years. The producers of the film made this drama in the belief that someday mankind can live in harmony.

At a certain point in By a Man's Face, the shifting allegiances all become somewhat illegible, as they so often do in gangster fare, but what persists is Kato's sorrow for the socio-political factors that led to such divisions, and his hope that something might change in the future. Nearly seventy years on, that communal aspiration lives on.

Special Features

  • High-Definition digital transfer
  • Uncompressed mono PCM audio
  • Appreciation by filmmaker Kenta Fukasaku (2023, 18 mins)
  • Tribute to Sanae Nakahara by her son Kenta Fukasaku (2023, 14 mins)
  • Tale of a Scarface – A visual essay on Noboru Ando by Nathan Stuart (2023. 22 mins)
  • Newly translated English subtitles
  • Reversible sleeve featuring original newly commissioned artwork by Time Tomorrow
  • Limited edition booklet featuring new writing by Mark Schilling
  • Limited edition of 3000 copies, presented in full-height Scanavo packaging with removable OBI strip leaving packaging free of certificates and markings

By a Man's Face Shall You Know Him releases in the UK on February 26th courtesy of