Monday, August 31, 2009

Our Top Ten Favorite Yakuza Films

For so many people around the globe their vision of Japan has been coloured by geisha, ikebana, cherry blossoms, and tea ceremonies. For fans of Japanese films, though, that genteel tourist exterior gives way to towering monsters from kaiju films, lethal and highly-skilled samurai, and even the complex and colourful world of anime. Of all the cultural icons exported overseas by Japanese movies one may have has captured the imaginations of audiences more than all of those combined, that of the Japanese mob, the yakuza. Unlike Hollywood gangsters all the way from the roles of Edward G. Robinson up to HBO's "The Sopranos" the yakuza were (and still are) a criminal organization steeped in ritual and mystery. While in reality the yakuza grew from violent street gangs who ruled Japan's black market on movie screens they replaced samurai as a way to explore traditional values of loyalty, feudalism, and the warrior spirit during a time when these very values were being discouraged or just plain banned by the Post-War occupying U.S. forces. Of course these snarling, swaggering, tattooed gangsters have had their screen personas revamped any number of times through the decades and have ultimately fallen out of favor with Japanese movie audiences yakuza eiga have remained one of the most popular genres of Japanese film overseas. To honour these cinematic mobsters the J-Film Pow-Wow would like to present our top ten favorite yakuza films. Enjoy!

10. Lighthouse - Hiroyuki Nakano (2008)

While many people, myself included, made their way to Japanese cinema as a way to escape the formulaic nature of Hollywood films it didn't take any of us long to realize that Japanese films had had plenty of their own cookie cutter plots, and no genre better exemplifies this better than yakuza movies. The basic outline goes something like this: a lone gangster gets released from prison to discover his old gang isn't the same as it used to be - standards have been lowered, allegiances with old enemies have been made, and the traditional yakuza code has been thrown out the window. It becomes this lone gangsters mission to remind everyone of the old ways, even if it means blood must be spilled doing it. This is that premise of yakuza film after yakuza film, often with romantic sub-plots, or even more popular revenge sub-plots woven in. Leave it to post-modern storyteller and once hot young director Hiroyuki Nakano to take this traditional premise and winnow it down to a delicate, black and white short film titled "The Lighthouse". Here the gangster is released from prison to be greeted by members of his old gang. They're going to throw him a welcome back party, and he deserves it. He's just served eight years for avenging his father's murder. This lone gangster isn't interested in parties though and has his fellow yakuza take him to the beach where he reminisces about his relationship with his late father (played by yakuza eiga superstar Hiroki Matsukata). Honour, familial duty, revenge, the questioning a violent life - it's all here in this yakuza film in miniature, but Nakano delivers it all with a sense of reserve and delicacy that few yakuza movies have ever exhibited. CM

9. Blind Woman's Curse - Teruo Ishii (1970)

Teruo Ishii pushed genre’s too the limit. If "A Colt is my Passport" joyful re-imaging of genre, then "Blind Woman’s Curse" if an outright thrashing. "Blind Woman’s Curse" is at its core a yakuza film. Akami Tachibana, played by the gorgeous Meiko Kaji, is imprisoned after a turf war, and upon release, struggles to rebuild her gang. Of course her rivals want revenge for the death of their boss at the hands of Akemi, and they set out on a spree of violence and vengeance. In a genre dominated by males, Ishii casts Meiko Kaji as the lead, and in the process helps launch her lead lady career. Her primary antagonist is a Zatoichi inspired swordswoman who seeks vengeance on Akami. Of course, she’s also part of a traveling freak show with a dancing Butoh slave, played by Tatsumi Hijikata from "Horrors of Malformed Men", who has a penchant for skinning women alive and collecting their hides! The film is beautiful balance of yakuza lore and surrealistic horror. While Kaji claims it was Ishii’s idea to add the horror element, he insists it was something the studio suggested. Either way, it’s brilliant. Akami becomes cursed by haunting visions of a black cat, after accidentally blinding the younger sister of her rival during the films opening gang battle. The event eerily brings to mind John Woo’s "The Killer". Her men become possessed by a demonic cat spirit. Akami herself has strange visions and nightmares of the hellish beast, the guilt constantly plaguing her. The films method of gangster genre deconstruction would be echoed years later by Takashi Miike. MH

8. Youth of the Beast - Seijun Suzuki (1963)

Technically, Jo Shishido's character Jo Mizuno is not a yakuza - he's actually a detective (disgraced and just out of prison) searching for his old partner's killer. He's a damn sight tougher than just about any member of the gangs he's trying to infiltrate, though, and swaggers with the attitude of a long time yakuza while he dives in undercover. How tough is he? Not only does he survive being blown up in a house while he's hanging upside down, but he then manages to swing himself to a gun, fight off two remaining yakuza, shoot himself free and finish them off before heading off for his final showdown. He barrels through situations and forces the hands of everyone before they can get a jump on him - of particular note is the way he meets and impresses the yakuza bosses for the first time. In one case, he shows up to their club, runs up a huge bill and then casually mentions he has no money to pay it. He doesn't seem to care that he'll get roughed up, but he does manage to get in front of the boss, turn the tables quickly and is then almost immediately offered twice his going rate to join their gang (which strangely happens when he meets the other yakuza boss too). As Mizuno tries to figure out the killer, he comes across call girls, drugs, shootouts, bombs, knife throwing cat-lovers and a myriad of other eccentric characters. Not to mention a knitting school. Nothing stops his one man crusade to pit these two yakuza families against each other as he tries to pay back his old partner the only way he possibly can. Combine all this with Seijun Suzuki's beautiful looking style (the fishbowl club with the one-way mirror, another club that constantly shows Japanese crime films playing in the background and the savage beating of a call girl during an orange-hued dust storm are prime examples) and you have a classic of the 1960s yakuza genre. BT

7. A Colt is My Passport - Takashi Nomura (1967)

One of the best of Nikkatsu’s borderless action films of the 1960’s, "A Colt is my Passport" is right on so many levels. Jo Shishido plays a hitman hired to kill a gang boss, but ends up being double crossed by the very gangster who hired him, culminating in a spectacular gun fight at a dusty reclamation area. The plot is bare, the dialogue sparse. But the genre bending Nikkatsu films evoked many Western sensibilities. European film noir, Spaghetti Westerns, Elvis Presley films, "A Colt is my Passport" is the apex of a stream of films that re-imagined and re-invented Western cinema genres and motifs. It would also lay the ground work for future filmmakers. Like John Woo and the Hong Kong heroic bloodshed films of the 1980’s, the film is influenced by Jean-Pierre Melville. While not quite as tragic, Shishido’s style and code of honor lays somewhere between Alain Delon and Chow Yun-Fat. Men who follow their own strict code, regardless of the consequences, and men, regardless of the circumstances, always ooze cool through every fibre of their being. The film would also mark Shishido’s breakout year, in which he also starred in "Branded to Kill" and "Slaughter Gun". It features Jerry Fujio as his side kick, a popular singer who actually performs a song in the film. And the final scene is reminiscent of many Leone films, both in its expansive, desert-like location and its treatment of the lone gunman protagonist. Shishido battles a slew of gangsters in a kinetic hail of bullets, all the while remaining composed, calm and cool. MH

6. The Wolves - Hideo Gosha (1971)

"The Wolves" is a transitory film, which marks the passing of the ninkyo eiga or chivalry film, and the start of the jitsuroku eiga, or true document film. The ninkyo were akin to "A Colt is my Passport", depicting men who operated by a code of honor, which were popular in the 1960’s. The jitsuroku were the complete opposite, represented beautifully by Fukusaku’s "Yakuza Papers" series. The gangsters were ruthless and morally corrupt. "The Wolves", released in 1971, the cusp of the two era’s of gangster films, begins in the world of the ninkyo eiga. Set in the 1920’s, it follows the exploits of Seji Iwahashi, played by the always amazing Tatsuya Nakadai, who goes to jail after a brutal gang fight at a movie theatre. However, when he returns to the gangster world years later, it’s no longer the place he once loved. It’s changed. What was once decided by a straight up fight is now masked by mediators, backdoor deals and plenty of backstabbing. Iwahashi tries to remain collected, but he soon discovers that the moral code that once existed between the gangsters is gone, and that everyone is as rabid as wolves. They now belong to the jisuroku eiga. Directed by Hideo Gosha film, "The Wolves" is cinematically stunning and meditative in its execution. But the best thing about this film is Nakadai’s performance. Not even Nakadai’s performance as a whole, but the presence in his eyes that pervades every moment he occupies. You can feel the sadness exude from them, as he struggles to come to terms with the fact that the honorable world he once new is gone. In what would have probably been a rage filled performance, turns into a haunting portrayal of a crushed soul. MH

5. Pale Flower - Masahiro Shinoda (1964)

At the half way mark of our list you'd be forgiven for thinking that yakuza films were often more flash than content. During the 1960's Toei Studios churned out yakuza movies like Toho churned out monster movies and Nikkatsu churned out action and youth oriented films, all in a desperate bid to woo audiences away from their newly purchased televisions and back into the movie theatres. So, yes, sometimes style (giddy, innovative and sometimes surreal style) won out over substance. One yakuza film though that married style with deep philosophical substance was New Wave director Masahiro Shinoda's 1964 film "Pale Flower". Based on a novel by Shintarô Ishihara, the future right-wing governor of Tokyo and author of the famed juvenile delinquent novel "Season of the Sun", "Pale Flower" still follows the traditional plot of a yakuza named Muraki (Ryo Ikebe) released from prison to a world he no longer understands, but once back on the street Shinoda and screenwriter Masaru Baba do their best to delve into the psychology of why Muraki has chosen such a risky and violent life. To aide in this they have Muraki become obsessed with a rich, bored young woman played by Mariko Kaga who frequents the back alley gambling dens and seedy nomiya where the yakuza ply their trade. Using paired down black and white visuals, an ambient soundtrack composed by Toru Takemitsu, and an example of violent, tour de force filmmaking at its climax set in a supper club, Shinoda injects an existentialist spin on the yakuza genre by introducing us to this unlikely pair who have decided living at night, risking big, and flirting with death is a far better alternative than a life spent pursuing day time respectability. This one is for yakuza film fans with an art house bent. CM

4. A Yakuza in Love - Rokuro Mochizuki (1997)

Even after director Kinji Fukasamu came along and reinvented the yakuza genre with his groundbreaking "Battles Without Honour and Humanity" in 1973 the yakuza still often seemed larger than life in the ensuing decades of their cinematic depiction. Yes, they were violent thugs, but violent thugs possessed of an almost superhuman cool, reptilian menace, and eventually some of the old ninkyo eiga chivalry even crept back into the hyper-violent films of Takashi Miike and Takashi Ishii. One director who wiped the veneer of ritual and exoticism out of yakuza eiga entirely was Rokuro Mochizuki, and there's no better example of this in his filmography than his 1997 film "A Yakuza in Love". In it actor/ director Eiji Okuda stars as Kinichi, a slimy, ugly, bumbling drug-addicted yakuza foot soldier who falls head over heels in love with an innocent young women named Yoko who's working her way through University as a waitress. Instead of flashing a bit of that yakuza cool and mobster honour to win her over, though, Kinichi takes the easy road and drugs her, and keeps drugging her until she's dependent on him not just for his undying love, but for his ready supply of speed. The two become a modern day Bonnie and Clyde, alienating friends and making more and more enemies everyday as they set up shop as drug dealers in Kinichi's native Osaka. Add into the mix the head of Kinichi's gang shooting up the hospital he's staying in, a cross-dressing assassination scene, and Kinichi's own drug-fueled split personality (one minute he's a scowling thug, the next a gentle mother figure), and "A Yakuza in Love" is like no other yakuza film you're likely to have ever seen. If it weren't for the added flair and historical importance of the next three films on our list I'd have put Mochizuki's low-budget film a lot closer to the top. As it stands "A Yakuza in Love" stands firm at number four as a dirty, darkly comic trip into the Japanese underworld. CM

3. Dead or Alive - Takashi Miike (1999)

In his “Dead or Alive” trilogy, Takashi Miike gave us three unique, fast-paced and hard-hitting crime films that all could have made it onto this list. Yet, because of its masterful handling of yakuza elements and high quality, the most deserving of the bunch is definitely the first entry, “Dead or Alive: Hanzaisha”. The main talking points for this film have long remained the jarring first ten minutes showing a chaotic onslaught of gang-related violence and the final five that make up a brutal, bloody and physics-defying climax, but sandwiched in-between them is a well-written, slow-burning crime thriller that is just as deserving of attention. Its plot mainly focuses on the efforts made by Shô Aikawa’s Detective Jojima to investigate the tensions in both the Japanese and Chinese gangs brought about by Riki Takeuchi’s Ryuichi. However, each character has a whole lot more going on in his life: Jojima’s connection with his family is strained as he is pressured to find the money necessary for a life-saving operation for his daughter while Ryuichi’s younger brother comes back from studying in the U.S. only to learn that his education was paid for with money from dirty dealings. Such complications considerably raise the stakes for both men as they come to realize the damaging consequences crime brings upon family (this motif is also brought up through one of Ryuichi’s underlings who foolishly tries to escape with a chunk of loot from a heist and Jojima’s partner who one day has no choice but to bring his young son along with him as he carries out his duties). Add to the mix impressive set pieces like the celebratory dinner that gives way to a shootout of epic proportions, a no-holds-barred look into Tokyo ’s shadier businesses (hits, drugs, pornography, prostitution) and, of course, that final scene to wrap everything up quite definitively, and what you get is a satisfying, intense and truly one-of-a-kind yakuza film. MSC

2. Sonatine - Takeshi Kitano (1993)

Though just about any of Takeshi Kitano's numerous yakuza films could have made the list, we chose "Sonatine" for several reasons. First and foremost, though, is because it may be his most entertaining. It's very funny, very violent and contains Kitano in his prototypical calm, cool and slightly insane yakuza mode. The violence, of course, occurs in short and very quick blasts while the humour is stretched over the gang's long hiding out period on a beach. They had just been helping out with a turf battle in Okinawa and have taken refuge in a beach house to wait for things to cool down. Kitano's character Murakawa was trying to ditch the crime business before he got pulled into this job with his gang, so the down time offers the chance to reflect. This somewhat mirrors the film itself, as it is one of Kitano's first self-reflexive vehicles which not only pays homage to other films and filmmakers but also allows him to wonder aloud if he too is trapped with yakuzas for the long haul. Against genre conventions, Kitano allows the humanity of all the yakuza in the gang to come out as they playfully wile away the time together shooting off their guns, pretending to be sumo wrestlers and, for the most part, actually enjoying each other. None of them are completely sure about Murakawa's stability (least of all Murakawa himself), but none of them are particularly eager to get back to Okinawa. If the many moments of boredom certainly are familiar to them, they don't seem to mind being able to let their yakuza guards down for awhile. Of course, as a yakuza, you can only do that for so long before you get pulled back in. But by the end of the film, Murakawa finally finds his own way out of the life. BT

1. Battles Without Honour and Humanity - Kinji Fukasaku (1973)

Kinji Fukasaku's lead off film for his epic story arc of the growth of the yakuza in post-war Japan starts with a bang. A really big one. The film's opening titles are shown across pictures of the atomic explosion in Hiroshima and its aftermath. The new society we see (in 1946) is filled with black markets, soldiers without many prospects and an "every man for himself" mentality which begins to breed a new style of violence. This backdrop and history of the rise of the yakuza is alone enough to make this our easy number one pick, but there's so much more on hand here. Fukasaku's dynamic style imposes frenetic hand held camera work and blurry freeze frames which helps to set up the environment and lay the groundwork for the desperate times these men are being forced to face. You can almost feel the frustration and anger of these ex-soldiers as they continue to share their streets with American G.I.s and pretty much understand why they might view the yakuza as being the only way to save their skin. Not that it does...Yakuza rise and fall and bloodshed occurs suddenly and swiftly - almost as quickly as the pace of the story. This is indeed a fast moving film, so it can be hard to follow (it is laying down the foundation for the future films to follow after all), but it never wavers in keeping up the tempo and excitement as yakuza switch families on the fly and many new characters get introduced. Anchoring the whole thing down is a powerhouse performance by Bunta Sugawara as Shozo Hirono. There are few yakuza as honourable as Hirono and if he gains an enemy or two across the entire arc of the story, he never loses any respect. And there are also few yakuza films that can compare to this burst of energy. BT


SPM said...

Not a bad list, very diverse (which is good). It could easily be overrun with Fukasaku & Sugawara flicks (which could be my list). Gosha's "Violent Streets" needs a proper release, although a very nice transfer can be had...if someone wanted to look for it.

Samuel Jamier said...

just realized recently you wrote this article. I'm screening a few of those in March as part of a 15-film yakuza retro.
wondering how I could insert LIGHTHOUSE in there. said...

Hey , really great list. I love yakuza films, I created my own top 10 and I'll love for you to take a look. it is

Any feedback would be great!