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January 21, 2013

Best Japanese Gangster (Yakuza) Films (Movie Reviews)

Like in other countries, there have always been gangster films in Japan (a superb non-genre film is of course Drunken Angel by Kurosawa Akira, about the complex ties between a violent gangster and a doctor fond of the bottle), but the yakuza genre is typical for the Land of the Rising Sun. This genre only really got underway in the sixties, when the "ninkyo eiga" or "chivalry films" started being made. The hero in these movies is always a traditional yakuza who strictly observes the honor code and does not hurt outsiders. He wears kimono and fights with a sword in contrast to the "bad" modern yakuza who look like businessmen and carry pistols. The setting is in the Meiji-, Taisho- or early Showa-period. In the the drama, the hero is often torn between the contradictory values of giri (duty) and ninjo (personal feelings). The most popular actor in these films was the stoical Takakura Ken, often flanked by Tsuruta Koji or Ikebe Ryo. Countless of these films were produced by the Toei studios, replacing their samurai films which had been going strong in the 1950s. The 1960s were the heyday of the yakuza genre. Since these classical yakuza films later fell out of favor, they are now difficult to find, even in Japan.

After the demise of the ninkyo-film, the yakuza movie boom as such stopped, but there were three separate revivals. First, the "jitsuroku" or "docudrama" films devised in the early 1970s by Fukasaku Kinji in his five-film series Battles Without Honor and Humanity. These films were based on true stories, filmed with a hand camera in documentary style, and they portrayed the yakuza as they really are: ruthless, treacherous street thugs - as "unchivalrous" as possible. The films are also extremely violent. The "hero" is played by Sugawara Bunta - a cynical ex-soldier who just after WWII rises to power in the underworld of post-atomic bomb Hiroshima. Many "jitsuroku films" were produced - most yakuza films made today still belong to this genre - but without the genius of Fukasaku, this is mainly straight-to-video stuff.

The second revival came in the second half of the eighties when a series of films was made about the wives of gangster bosses. These films were also based on journalistic "true stories" and caught the popular fancy with a generous admixture of sex - an element which so far had been lacking in yakuza films. The star of these films was Iwashita Shima, as a tough and coolly elegant female gang boss stepping in for her husband (either in hospital, in prison, or in his grave). These films never made much impact in the West, but had a very strong following in Japan.

In the nineties, finally, there was a third revival, in the films of new directors as Kitano Takeshi and Miike Takeshi - to whom one might add Ishii Takashi and Mochizuki Rokuro. These latter-day productions were often direct-to-video releases (certainly in the case of Miike), meant for a small and specialized cult public. Even the films of Kitano Takeshi have never caused much of a ripple in Japan, in contrast to the praise they received at the film festival circuit outside its borders. They are a strange mix of static boredom and sudden, ultra-violent scenes. The typical actors are Kitano Takeshi himself, as well as Ishibashi Ryo, Takeuchi Riki and Aikawa Sho. The last three actors also often appear in films of the other three directors. This third revival, by now, has died a silent dead as well.

Here are 10 yakuza films you must see under threat of loosing your little finger:
  • Tough Guy (Akumyo, 1961; Lit. "Bad Reputation") by Tanaka Tokuzo and with Katsu Shintaro, Tamiya Jiro and Nakamura Tamao. This series was started in 1961 by the Daiei studios, well before Toei began making its "ninkyo" films. Based on a popular serial novel by Kon Toko, it features Katsu Shintaro as Asakichi, a rough and ready young thug with a peasant background who easily gets into fist fights, although he is chivalrous at heart. The handsome but dry Tamiya Jiro plays his sidekick (kobun) "Motor" Sada, as the studio didn't believe Katsu Shintaro alone was enough of a leading man type. But Katsu's enormous vitality propelled him to stardom. The series saw 16 installments until 1974 and probably gave the studio the courage to have Katsu Shintaro star on his own in another series, the chanbara films about the blind swordsman Zatoichi. These last films are now more famous outside Japan, but in the 1960s both series were equally popular. Different from the heroes in the later Toei ninkyo films, hot-headed Asakichi frequently gets into trouble with women. In this first film he rescues Kototoi, a geisha from the Matsushima yukaku, with whom he has fallen in love, from Innoshima Island in the Inland Sea, where she has been sold. This brings him into conflict with the local gang of Silk Hat, but a tough female boss helps him. However, back in Osaka there is another girlfriend who claims to be his wife, so things are not that easily settled. Production values of this color film are high, as is usual for Daiei. 
  • Pale Flower (Kawaita Hana, 1964; Lit. "Withered Flower") by Shinoda Masahiro and with Ikebe Ryo, Kaga Mariko and Fujiki Takashi. Beautiful authorist art film with a strongly nihilistic tone made at Shochiku. Ikebe Ryo plays Muraki, a misanthropic, world-weary yakuza gangster just released from prison. Previously, he has killed a gangster from a rival gang, with whom his boss now has formed an alliance, so he feels rather out of place. In one of his old gambling haunts he meets Saeko (Kaga Mariko), a young upper-class child-woman who seeks thrills by gambling on high stakes and driving madly fast in her sporty convertible. Muraki introduces her to a new high-stakes gambling joint but gradually looses control over her. One of his worries is Yoh, a drug-addict with the cold eyes of a killer, who stalks her without ever saying a single word. But Muraki never pries into who she is, the relationship seems almost Platonic. When Muraki finally accepts another killing assignment, he takes Saeko along for the thrill. The final killing is filmed like a religious sacrifice and brings Muraki where he was at the beginning of the film: in jail, where he finally learns of Saeko's death. Life has nothing to offer him, but he already knew that, too, in the beginning. This existential noir film is shot in stark black-and-white, in a mostly night-time Yokohama, with an atonal score by Takemitsu Toru. 
  • Abashiri Prison (also called "A Man from Abashiri Prison;"Abashiri Bangaichi, 1965) by Ishii Teruo and with Takakura Ken, Nanbara Koji, Tanaka Kunie and Tanba Tetsuro. The popularity of Toei Ninkyo films in the 1960s rested on five "cash-cow" series, of which three featured Takakura Ken. This is the first one, very popular in Japan even today, but little known outside its borders. Takakura Ken was introduced in this film as the noble yakuza hero - you still see him working on his character. The prison was a very notorious real one, Japan's Alcatraz, located in Abashiri, in the wilds of the northernmost island of Hokkaido - it now is a popular prison museum. Maverick director Ishii Teruo helmed the first ten films of the series, after which other directors took over for another eight films. The story is simple: Takakura Ken plays a convicted yakuza, Tsukibana Shinichi, who despite nearing the end of his prison term, escapes to visit his ailing mother (a motivation typical of the sixties, when mothers were the most important women in the lives of screen "ninkyo" yakuza). Tanba Tetsuro plays a prison warden who believed in Tsukibana's character, but after being disappointed, chases him relentlessly. In a breath-taking sequence, Takakura Ken flees handcuffed to another convict in a railway handcar hurling down a steep mountain. Next, the escaped convicts trek across the desolate snow country of Hokkaido, affording the director the opportunity to show us some great vistas. 
  • Account of the Chivalrous Commoners of Japan: Osaka (Nihon Kyokyakuden: Naniwahen, 1965) by Makino Masahiro and with Takakura Ken and Tsuruta Koji. The most typical ninkyo series of the sixties, and the second one with Takakura Ken, unfortunately little known outside Japan. This is the second installment of eleven, running from 1964 to 1971, and often thought to be the best. The story is set among transport companies in Osaka port, where honest workers are threatened by cheating gangsters. Takakura Ken plays a yakuza who upholds the traditional ninkyo code and selflessly sides with the workers. Besides the feuding gangs, we have two stories of doomed romance, which give the film additional interest. On top of that, a young woman who keeps an outside stall falls in love with Takakura Ken, but this is only played for laughs as a true yakuza is not interested in women (he is shy and she only giggles). Before the final showdown, the film contains several of the large action scenes for which Makino was famous. Yachigusa Kaoru has a nice role as a flirtatious geisha. The film reaffirms the status quo, in typical "ninkyo" manner: the Japanese way as exemplified by the common people is basically good and fills us with warm feelings; the bad gangsters who disturb the normal, harmonious relations are duly punished. A third series with Takakura Ken, now flanked by Ikebe Ryo, and with a setup-up very similar to Nihon Kyokyakuden was Remnants of Chivalry in the Showa Era (Showa Zankyoden), which saw nine entries between 1965 to 1972. The only difference is that the stories are set in the more modern Showa-period in which chivalry was getting an even rarer item and that Ikebe Ryo always dies in the ultra-violent finale. And here, too, Makino Masahiro was the major director. 
  • Branded to Kill (Koroshi no Rakuin, 1967) by Suzuki Seijun and with Joe Shishido, Nanbara Koji, Mari Annu and Ogawa Mariko. Suzuki Seijun was thirty years in advance of his time - he made satirical, grand-guignol yakuza films in the days of the straight-laced ninkyo flics. No wonder he was fired by his studio after the present film - which today is considered as one of Japan's most important cult films. It is difficult to make sense of this wild ride through the bypaths and alleys of the yakuza genre, but it is enough just to enjoy the visiuals. Joe Shishido plays a yakuza assassin who has two problems: he wants to reach the top of his profession, but is stuck in the position of "number 3" killer, without even knowing who is "number 1." And he has a problem with women: his loony wife despises him but is mad for sex, and an icily cold, mysterious woman who is eager for death and surrounds herself with dead butterflies, becomes an obsession for him. On top of that, he needs to sniff boiled rice as a turn-on... There is one very stark scene: a butterfly lands on the gun of our killer, just as he is about to pull the trigger. A sign of peace? No, he misses and instead hits an innocent bystander... A brilliant. modernist masterpiece. 
  • Red Peony Gambler: Flower Cards Match (Hibotan Bakuto: Hanafuda Shobu, 1969) by Kato Tai and with Fuji Junko, Takakura Ken and Wakayama Tomisaburo. This was a highly popular series, running to eight installments, with actress Fuji Junko (Sumiko Fuji after her marriage) in the main role of the knife-wielding female yakuza Oryu, a wandering gambler. Takakura Ken plays a wandering gangster who joins forces with her. Oryu lodges with the Nishinomaru gang which is vying with the Kanahara-gumi for a lucrative gambling concession that raises money for the Atsuta Shrine in Nagoya. To complicate matters, in a true gangland "Romeo and Julia" story, the son of the Nishinomaru boss is in love with the daughter of the Kanahara-gumi leader. Oryu helps them flee to Osaka and in the end takes on the whole Kanaharu gang. An interesting scene is the first one, where Oryu saves a young girl from an onrushing train - director Kato Tai demonstrates his skill here in some rapid, Eisenstein-style cutting. Culturally interesting is another scene at the beginning, where Oryu first arrives at the headquarters of the Nishinomaru gang and in an elaborate greeting in stilted Japanese asks for their hospitality as "kyakubun." This is a faithful representation of a typical yakuza ritual. But the top attraction of these films is the alluring Fuji Junko who wears an immaculate kimono and has perfectly polite manners, but who also possesses nerves of steel and can kill in the blink of an eye. Besides that, she has a warm humanity as shown in this installment. 
  • Battles Without Honor and Humanity (Jingi Naki Tatakai, 1973) by Fukasaku Kinji and with Sugawara Bunta, Matsukata Hiroki and Tanaka Kunie. The yakuza as just a gang of violent mobsters, without an inkling of chivalry - the ninkyo-code is trampled in the mud here. Based on a magazine series about the life of a gang boss from Kure (near Hiroshima) in the chaotic years just after WWII. Fukasaku filmed the realities of the postwar world, of angry ex-soldiers turned gangsters and black marketeers taking on the Japanese cops and the GIs - with as only values those of the street. He used handheld cameras, frequent zoom-ups and natural light to give a gritty and authentic look to the film. The violence is extreme and sudden, and not cartoonish but brutal and shocking. At the same time, Fukasaku emphasizes the absurdity of the Hiroshima gang wars. The series, which starred Sugawara Bunta, became a great hit. Fukasaku made five installments. The plot is so insanely complicated and fast moving, that I will not try to reproduce it here! The director created a new type of yakuza movie that is in a way still with us, for ever burying the ninkyo-style flics. 
  • The Yakuza Wives (Gokudo no Onnatachi, 1986) by Gosha Hideo and with Iwashita Shima and Katase Rina. Based on a reportage by journalist Ieda Shoko, who demonstrated that the women in the yakuza world were strong personalities with nerves of steel. Iwashita Shima (the wife of director Shinoda Masahiro) was a golden choice for the gang-boss wife, cool and steely, but also elegant and stately. And Katase Rina provides a perfect contrast as her softer and more voluptuous younger sister - she attracts men as honey does flies, and one of her admirers is a vile, low-life yakuza which leads to problems as her sister wants to keep her out of gang-life. A highlight of the film is the cat fight between both women, and there is plenty of other action as well. Iwashita Shima rules the mob like a business imperium, but just in case also hides a gun under her kimono. And woe to who opposes her, he may find his house bulldozed at night! This first film still has the feel of the reportage on which it was based, which adds to authenticity. In later installments it would peter out into a yakuza sopa opera. By the way, the "gokudo" of the Japanese title refers to "the extreme way," i.e. gangsters and gangs. 
  • Sonatine (1993) by Kitano Takeshi and with Kitano Takeshi and Kokumai Aya. While the whole yakuza genre is quite nihilistic, this is probably the most empty and negative gangster film ever made, the most perfect example of the minimalist style of director Kitano Takeshi. Stone-faced Kitano (the director also plays the lead role, as usual in his films) plays a world-weary yakuza, who is already spiritually dead before he commits suicide in the last reel. He is tired of living and wouldn't mind dying, "as that at least would end his fear of death." He is a blot of emptiness at the center of film. The set-up is a familiar yakuza turf war, in which Kitano and his men - though outgunned - face certain deaths by counterattacking. There is no real narrative: what we get is a depiction of the numbing boredom and emptiness of yakuza life - always hanging around and killing time, just like in that other male macho institute, the army. Stalled on a beach in Okinawa, the gangsters in their Hawaiian shirts drink beer and play silly games - until Kitano turns the tables by introducing some serious Russian roulette. There is some comedy thanks to Kitano's inventive and funny mind, but most jokes suffocate in the cruelty which is at their basis. There is little gore, but violence flashes up like a lightning bolt, out of the blue - just as in real life. An unconventional, original vision, not in the last place through the film making with its consciously jerky editing. 
  • Fudoh: The New Generation (Gokudo Sengokushi Fudo, 1996) by Miike Takashi and with Tanihara Shosuke, Takano Kenji and Jinno Marie. One of the most outrageous productions of provocateur Miike, about a generational conflict in a Kyushu yakuza gang. The father has killed the transgressing eldest son and sent his neatly boxed head to the bosses of a rival gang to appease them. Some years later, the younger son who is out for revenge has already set up a shadow gang within his high school, using 11-year olds with pistols hidden inside teddy bears. Fudoh is one of the most exuberant and over-the-top films Miike ever made. There is not a second of seriousness in its cartoonish reels. It all starts with a battle in a public toilet where 10,000 rounds of munition are fired making Sam Peckinpah look like kindergarten stuff. Some other delicious outrages are: a yakuza poisoned by some bad coffee and turning into a human blood geyser, or a schoolgirl assassin who fires poisoned darts from between her legs with lethal precision (as an interesting inquiry into the link between sex and death). Not to forget a hermaphroditic love scene, soccer with a hacked-off head, and a lovely English teacher in the most "sexploitational" skimpy outfit you have ever seen. This is one fest of macabre humor, and a demented, mayhem parody of the yakuza genre.