Sunday, September 4, 2011

REVIEW: Yakuza Graveyard

やくざの墓場 くちなしの花 (Yakuza no hakaba: Kuchinashi no hana)

Released: 1976

Kinji Fukasaku

Tetsuya Watari
Meiko Kaji
Seizo Fukumoto
Takuzo Kawatani
Hideo Murota

Running time: 97 min.

Reviewed by Marc Saint-Cyr

Kinji Fukasaku’s "Yakuza Graveyard" starts things off with a rush of energy that rarely lets up for the remainder of the film. After a disorienting incident at a baseball stadium, a crisp-suited police official played by none other than Nagisa Oshima briefly provides some background information about the ongoing rivalry between the Nishida and Yamashiro clans. Then the film moves on to a pachinko parlor where we meet its anti-hero as he clashes with a gang of thugs. He is Kuroiwa (Tetsuya Watari), a cop whose unconventional methods frequently lead to volatile scrapes thanks to the simmering aggression that lies beneath his swaggering, world-weary exterior. He soon becomes entrenched in the Nishida family’s affairs through Keiko (Meiko Kaji), the wife of the gang’s imprisoned leader, and Iwata “the Bull” (Tetsuo Umemiya), who is voted as acting boss. As Kuroiwa is pulled deeper into the gang’s network, he faces increasing criticism and disapproval from his superiors in the police force as well as ever-thickening plots of corruption that extend far beyond his reach.

At this point in his career, Fukasaku was already quite familiar with the world of the yakuza. Behind him was his five-part crime epic "The Yakuza Papers," which spans from 1973’s "Battles Without Honor and Humanity" to 1974’s "The Yakuza Papers 5: Final Episode." With "Yakuza Graveyard," he once more launches into a seedy world of shifting loyalties, dark deeds carried out in broad daylight and ugly, chaotic bursts of violence. One might think of "The Godfather" while witnessing the fascinating interactions between the various spheres of society (none of whom are absolutely pure or righteous) and dramatic tension that stems from them, but make no mistake: Fukasaku may tackle some of the same subject matter of Coppola’s classic, but he does so in a down-and-dirty manner that rubs the viewer’s nose into the characters’ rough goings-on at a truly breakneck pace. This film doesn’t tell a story so much as takes you on a tour of the network that binds yakuza to cops in alarmingly close proximity to one another, spectacularly pulled off with a barrage of cinematic effects including freeze frames, canted angles, whip pans and lots of handheld cinematography in which the camera persistently follows its subjects, exuding an unmistakable, feverish fascination.

Every step of the way, there is Kuroiwa, whose wild behavior makes the term “loose cannon” seem somewhat inadequate and weak. From his very first scene in which he brazenly steals pachinko balls from street punks, gets caught and shaken up for it, then simply makes a quick costume change and proceeds to confront his targets, it is clear that this is not your average docile, obedient cop. Kuroiwa has guts and attitude to spare, not to mention instincts and a will that he won’t ignore just for the sake of pleasing his constantly frustrated superiors. Whether angrily cracking his knuckles while being lectured, pursuing a romance with Keiko despite the potential complications from doing so, starting a fight with Iwata at a Nishida celebration or, later, forming a brotherly bond with the acting boss, he is the very definition of a man who acts on his impulses and only truly trusts his own feelings. Kuroiwa doesn’t let his status as a cop hold sway over his perceptions of right and wrong – something that especially becomes significant as those above him become further steeped in corruption and collusion.

While remaining undeniably gritty, "Yakuza Graveyard" constantly impresses as a hugely entertaining tour-de-force thanks to Fukasaku’s breathless technique and unflinching focus on the lives of outsiders. Many great comedic moments arise, such as when Kuroiwa relaxes in his apartment with a record playing at full blast, leading to him beating up a lower-ranking policeman summoned to address the noise complaints. Kuroiwa receives some assistance throughout the film from two clownish crooks who virtually sign up as his helpers – “instant cops,” they amusingly dub themselves. In a later scene, one of them has a vicious fight with his drunken mother – a small moment outside of the main plot that adds further detail to the scummy world of losers Fukasaku has taken us into. In this film, which shows generous amounts of violence dished out by both cops and criminals, he once more demonstrates his gift for morally bleak worldviews and scathing critiques of authority in a stunning tempest of fists, gunshots and boiling emotion.

Read more by Marc Saint-Cyr at his blog

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