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Yakuza Movies: Nihilism and Nobility

Blistering gunfights, severed fingers, and a tattered sense of honor… Japan Society showcases the best of the enduring gangster genre.



It’s no accident that the first image you see in Kinji Fukasaku’s mammoth saga of the Japanese underworld, The Yakuza Papers, is of a mushroom cloud. Above all else the director, who had a late-career sensation with Battle Royale, wants to chronicle the grand flux of the personal and the historical, and in the process suggest the forces that might make one become and remain a member of the yakuza. In this sense, the terrain isn’t too different from the post-war backdrop that begins The Godfather. The difference is here there’s no long-term corruption of the potentially heroic, as with young Michael Corleone. Rather, joining the yakuza is portrayed as a logical response to the barbarous conditions of 1946.


Indeed, in the very opening scene, American G.I.s attempt to rape a young Japanese woman in broad daylight, while black market onlookers are too cowed to defend her—except, of course, for a couple of future gangland leaders. When the local police arrive, they quickly make their priorities clear: none of us can afford to anger the Americans. So if society can’t have law and order, such films seem to argue, they’ll naturally settle for crime and order. Welcome to the classic yakuza film. It’s a world where the narratives can be highly complex and the filmmaking can encompass a wide range of styles, but the one thing you can count on is directness: it’s a genre that just keeps coming at you and always lets you know where you stand—before it knocks you flat, that is.



Proxy Wars
, the third file folder of intrigue and mayhem in The Yakuza Papers series (aka Battles without Honor and Humanity) is part of the impressive lineup in Japan Society’s series "The Hardest Men in Town”, which runs March 9 to 19. The setting is Hiroshima and its environs roughly 15 years after Enola Gay, and the film takes care to bring audiences up to speed regarding its based-upon-true-events storyline. In fact, it’s a great example of jitsuroku eiga, a docudrama approach that includes plenty of onscreen text, black-and-white stills, and omniscient voice-over narration. But Proxy Wars also happens to illustrate the seductive rhythms and fascinating contradictions that perennially crop up in the genre. Scenes of double-crossing, deal-brokering, and alliances formed and shattered offer a cerebral thrill as we try to anticipate which way the plot will flow next—with viewers essentially playing the same game as the characters themselves. Then abruptly we’ll get a montage of jumpcutting street violence, or the camera will come to rest on a severed hand, the relic of a flunky who felt that lopping off “two or three fingers” wasn’t enough to atone for his shameful actions.


What’s most impressive about Fukasaka’s work here, and in memorable films such as Street Mobster and Cops Vs. Thugs, is its burning-up-the-screen energy. Again and again, you wonder how the director is able to cram so much into the frame—with people, vehicles, and broken bottles entering and exiting the shot from every conceivable angle—or how all this frenetic action doesn’t land the camera operator, who seems mere inches away from it all, in the hospital. Fukasaku’s use of raw sex and unglamorized violence, and his insistence on the elusiveness of honor, was in stark contrast to the notion of the heroic or noble yakuza as advanced in the precursor subgenre of ninkyo eiga (literally, “chivalry films”), e.g., Theater of Life: Hishakaku. Often in such films, there’s a crucial and non-ambiguous distinction between good yakuza and bad, the former a kind of well-intentioned men’s club that promotes employment and fellowship, and provides its community with much-needed infrastructure and organization. This is true of Brutal Tales of Chivalry and the Nagasaki-set The Walls of Abashiri Prison (Pt. 3): Longing for Home, which share a similar plot structure and a star, Ken Takakura, who oozes soulful integrity in the manner of Gregory Peck. Both movies beautifully mix the tragic sentimentality of the samurai film with the dark romanticism of film noir—it’s a terrific combination, with the slow-burn of the hero given both dramatic and moral dimensions. If you must choose between the two, Chivalry wins as a manly tearjerker while the Abashiri Prison installment (which doesn’t feature a prison, by the way) excels in terms of sheer coolness: its main badass (Naoki Sugiura) comes across as Doc Holliday in shades as reimagined by Sergio Leone.




Neither of these films has ever screened outside Japan until now, which points to the comparative lack of attention the genre has received abroad. Indeed, if U.S. audiences knew the term “the yakuza” at all before 1990 it was probably from Ridley Scott’s Black Rain or Sydney Pollack’s eponymous film The Yakuza. (The latter, incidentally, was co-scripted by Paul Schrader, who’ll be introducing it at Japan Society.) Both films have their moments, but if you’re looking for something compelling that bridges the distance between the Japanese and Hollywood crime flick, I’d recommend Brother, one of several accomplished yakuza films directed by and starring Takeshi Kitano. His latest, Outrage: The Way of the Modern Yakuza, shows him at the top of his game. Still, it’s a bit amusing to seem him playing, after all these years, the same kind of world-weary gunman that he did in classics such as Sonatine.


Kitano’s intelligence as a filmmaker and his watchability as a lead—he’s so deadpan that he makes Buster Keaton look like Jim Carrey—mark him as today’s leading practitioner of the genre, although Takashi Miike probably gives him a run for his money. Miike frequently uses the archetype as a launching pad to unleash odysseys of violence that become metaphysical in scope, as in his remake of Fukasaku’s Graveyard of Honor. Indeed, in his deliriously unforgettable Dead or Alive, the clash between gangster and cop escalates to the point of an extinction event. Yet while violence in Miike’s films is presented as a grotesque spectacle, and in Fukasaka’s with a realism so gritty that it becomes strangely stylized, Kitano’s films deliver their relentless bloodshed with a stoicism that’s extreme in its own way. As a result, the tone can veer toward black comedy, even though the final intention isn’t really humor. Rather, Kitano circles back around to the cultural roots of yakuza customs in the samurai code’s insistence that a true warrior keeps death in mind at all times—especially one’s own death. Yet a film such as Outrage argues that the positive aspects of that same code, the most important perhaps being loyalty, are now in such a state of disrepair that in the end all that remains is a kind of quiet nihilism.


With its traditional focus on fearlessness, then, the yakuza film, like many forms of dark cinema, plays to our ambivalence. While watching these films we can fantasize about being so self-possessed and cool in the face of death that we briefly forget we’re “squares” in real life… but then, once the blood has stopped flowing, the smoke has cleared, and the houselights come on again, we can breathe a sigh of relief, grateful that we are.


Get tickets for the Hardest Men in Town: Yakuza Chronicles of Sin, Sex & Violence film series at Japan Society, running March 9-19.



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