May 27, 2024

PRISON WALLS: ABASHIRI PRISON I-III: The Biggest Franchise You Probably Never Heard Of

1965 / 270 min (3 movies)
Review by Mr. Paws😺

The next time someone gripes about the number of Fast & Furious movies Hollywood cranks out, lay this little tidbit on them: There are 18 movies in Japan’s Abashi Prison franchise. Not only that, they were all produced within a seven year timespan. This new Blu-ray set collects the first three, all released in 1965.

For the record, Abashiri prison is real, built in the 1800s. While this franchise may have indeed been inspired by it, only one of these three films actually takes place there. In Abashiri Prison, Shinichi Tachibana (the great Ken Takakura) is a yakuza serving a three year sentence. He’s a model prisoner, which prompts the sympathetic warden (TersurĂ´ Tanba) to support his parole. However, during a prison break instigated by a group of tough gangsters, Tachibana is shackled to one of the escapees and is forced to flee along with them. After a slow start - and numerous flashbacks of Tachibana’s troubled youth - the narrative turns into an exciting chase, culminating in an emotionally affecting climax and resolution.

In Abashiri Prison Continues, Tachibana has been recently released from prison with plans to go straight, which proves difficult when a cache of stolen diamonds comes into his possession. Teaming up with flirty pickpocket (Michiko Saga), he’s pursued by the gang who committed the robbery in the first place, led by the yakuza boss he did time with (TĂ´ru Abe). This one lacks the emotional intensity of the first film. It’s much lighter in tone, with comedic elements that feel kind of intrusive, but the story is pretty good and Tachibana’s growing empathy for others is engaging.

Never bring a chair to a swordfight.
The last film, Abashiri Prison: Saga of Homesickness, has Tachibana returning to his hometown, where he once worked for the Asahi yakuza gang. Times have changed, though. His former boss has turned the Asahi into a legitimate family business. But after a rival yakuza gang comes in and tries to take over, Tachibana feels obligated to step in and set things right. An overall better film than the last sequel, this one depicts Tachibana as a true defender of the downtrodden, - not just his old boss - becoming increasingly likable in the process. 

Ken Takakura would go on to do four more sequels after this. I don’t know if any of them ever actually return to the prison of their namesake, or if the law of diminishing returns resulted in significant drops in quality. But for the most part, the three films in this collection are pretty entertaining and Takakura is excellent in all of them. 


NOTE: Free Kittens Movie Guide was provided with a promo disc for review purposes. Physical supplemental material included with the final product (booklets, artwork, inserts, etc) were not available for review.

TONY RAYNS ON ABASHIRI PRISON - Interview with critic Tony Rayns, who talks extensively about the franchise.

VIDEO APPRECIATION - By Jasper Sharp & Mark Schilling.

AUDIO COMMENTARIES FOR EACH FILM - By Tom Mes, Chris Poggliali, Mike Leeder & Arne Venema.



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