Battles without Honour and Humanity (1973) by Kinji Fukasaku

1949. Hiroshima. The devastation of the atomic bomb and the harsh economic conditions of post-war Japan are apparent in the shanty town that has been erected amongst the rubble. We are introduced in quick succession to a number of people who are later to become important players in the Japanese underworld: Yakuza bosses and captains. A young ex-soldier, Shozo Hirono (Bunta Sugawara), is sent to prison for killing a gangster. Inside he meets Hiroshi Wakasugi (Tatsuo Umemiya), a member of the Doi Family. The two become blood-brothers and Hirono is inducted into the chaotic world of crime. What follows is an unpredictable, bloody, violent, telling of the various power struggles in the decades following the war. 

Based on newspaper articles of the time by Koichi Iiboshi, the film has a style that is almost documentary-like in places, going so far as to present on screen the names and dates of death of the gangsters who are killed. It requires some concentration to keep in mind all the characters and their allegiances throughout, but this helps add to the sense of realism. The opening scenes of the film, set in the ramshackle streets of Hiroshima, perfectly set up the brutal chaos that is to follow, as we are pushed through noisy crowds, and see a series of gruesome events taking place simultaneously. It is a masterclass in setting up numerous characters and establishing a tone for the film. The film never lets up this relentless pace, with scene after scene adding to the confusion and devastation that the Yakuza leave in their wake. Directed by Kinji Fukasaku, who later went on to helm the Battle Royale adaptation, this film abounds with his style: frenetic, gory, and with a good eye for framing a scene and telling a multiple character story. The actors all do a good job. The music by Toshiaki Tsushima suits the film well, setting the feel for the period.

I would highly recommend this film to fans of the Yakuza genre as one of its finest examples. Although the film does have great flair and stylishness, it does not necessarily glorify the violence. The killings are instead shown to be a mundane affair, taking place so regularly that you become almost desensitized to them. It is a great look at post-war Japanese society from the perspective of the Yakuza.

Agitator (2001) by Takashi Miike

An underground rivalry spirals out of control in this thrilling yakuza tale from a master of the genre. Two rival gangs, the Shirane and Yokomizo groups find themselves locked in a tit-for-tat struggle following the death of one of their members. Things escalate when the heads of the groups are targeted. All of this is part of an audacious plot to take over the groups and see them affiliated with the larger Tenseikai syndicate.

With his “Black Society” and “Dead or Alive” trilogies of the nineties, Miike established himself as a director with a unique style, with often bloodspattered and extreme stories of violence. “Agitator” owes more of a debt to the former than the latter, something akin to a modern day “Yakuza Papers” in its complex hierarchies and increasingly dangerous vendettas, albeit with fictionalised Yakuza families. At the heart of the film is the rivalry between Shirane and Yokomizo gang members, that gives the audience larger forces to split up the large cast of characters. Much of the narrative involves plotting and manipulation by the higher-ups of the yakuza, punctuted by the violence carried out by their underlings. A few characters do fall by the wayside and there are relationships that are underdeveloped. Miike has a fantastic eye for blocking and framing scenes, using inventive camerawork to enliven what would otherwise be tedious scenes of exposition.

“Agitator” deals with themes familiar to many yakuza films: the shifting line between honour and duty; the cycle of violence engendered by revenge; and the hierarchical nature of criminal gangs, and by extension society, that sees people suffering at the whims of their superiors. The film is a sprawling gangster epic with excellent performances and a plot that keeps upping the ante with every twist and turn.

Yakuza Law (1969) by Teruo Ishii

Three stories set in different historical periods, connected only thematically, show the yakuza way of life in all its cruelty. The first takes us back to the era of samurai and swordfights in the street. We are told that the yakuza have only two rules: don’t steal and don’t sleep with married women. Following the violent overthrow of a rival group, one gang feels their position is secure. But affairs and a loss of control by the boss leads to a devastating climactic showdown. The second story is set many years later and follows a gang member recently released from prison. Having served three years for an attack on a rival boss, he is disappointed when his fellow yakuza do not come to visit. He is further upset to find his former girlfriend, believing he had died, to be with another man. The final story centres on a gold heist gone wrong and an elite marksman. Double-crossing gangsters and gun fights abound.

Director Teruo Ishii delights in the most violent and extreme of human drama. “Yakuza Law” begins with credits playing over scenes of grisly and creative tortures employed by gangsters (most of which are not even seen in the film itself). This clues the audience in to the shock value that is at the heart of much of this film and also creates an atmosphere of dread that follows every character. Death and punishment are ever present threats in the world of the yakuza. The three stories act as morality tales (albeit emphasising the twisted moral code of the yakuza), with simple plot structures and broadly drawn characters established to make a point about honour, betrayal, and retribution. The film is packed with action and doesn’t shy away from the gory details of their various punishments, whether cutting off body parts, drowning, burning with a lighter, or even more creative tortures used in the final chapter. Tonally the film is a great example of the exploitation genre, moving from disturbing to comedic with startling alacrity. By the time the third part rolls around it’s no longer clear whether any of it is meant to be taken seriously. The special effects are pushed to their limits (and often beyond) to show the depravity of these people. Even when the effects are shoddy, the sheer cruelty or bizarreness of what is happening is enough to make it alarming. The fact that “Yakuza Law” is essentially three films in one is amazing, as all three parts are all equally engaging and do something different with the premise of gangsters breaking their promises and the backlash that follows.

“Yakuza Law” has a very tongue-in-cheek approach to its subject matter that makes it difficult to easily judge its sincerity. The yakuza are shown to be both terrifying and ridiculous in equal measure, with their strict code of honour barely disguising their underlying thuggish behaviour. Setting the three stories side by side also gives the film a theme of the eternal atavism and strips away the veneer of civilisation to show that throughout the generations these men do not change. The perceived cruelty of yesteryear is in fact replicated in modern times, with only the uniforms changing from yukata to sharp suits. Despite their reputations the yakuza are seen as pitiable figures, who lack empathy and are separate from the outside world. They are insular and trapped in a self-perpetuating cycle of violence that is doomed to eventually swallow anyone in its orbit. “Yakuza Law” will appeal to fans of the exploitation genre, with plenty of off-the-wall action and torture. It also provides an examination of the pathology of violence and gang mentality that is brought into stark contrast by the triple narrative structure.

Street Mobster (1972) by Kinji Fukasaku

Born on the date that Japan lost the Second World War, Isamu Okita (Bunta Sugawara) is told at a young age that his birthday is unlucky. His childhood is rough, with an absent father and a mother who drinks and prostitutes herself. Okita soon becomes involved in the gang lifestyle, interested in money, gambling and women. He and his friends are involved in sexual violence. When he gets caught up in a fight with the Takigawa gang, his retaliation leads him to five years in jail. On release he meets up with Kimiyo (Mayumi Nagisa) who he had previously raped and has now become a prostitute. She blames Okita, but the two soon form an unusual bond, both being outcasts from society. Okita soon gets embroiled in the yakuza world again, when he joins up with the Yato group, who are involved in a turf war with Takigawa. Things become dangerous when a new mob boss from Osaka appears on the scene and joins forces with Takigawa.

Director Kinji Fukasaku teams up again with the star of his “Battles Without Honour and Humanity” star Bunta Sugawara to tell another tale of violence on the mean streets of Tokyo. Although a pre-titles card explains that all events and characters are fictional, there is nevertheless an anonymised truth in the portrayals. Sugawara does a superb job of portraying the loathsome Okita, who should be irredeemable but somehow evokes a degree of sympathy due to his charismatic performance. Mayumi Nagisa is exceptional as Kimiyo, whose tragic backstory creates one of the most compelling tensions in the film. To say that the characters are morally ambiguous would be an understatement, many are downright despicable in their treatment of women and their drive to violence. However, the film does not attempt to sugarcoat the image of gangsters. They are not slick, handsome or smart, but crude and violent. Kinji Fukasaku shows us a world of grime and misery. As Okita leaves the city he explains that everything has changed during his time inside. He is a man out of place in his environment. Fukasaku directs the action scenes in a frenetic, whirlwind of motion, that is almost overwhelming. It is often hard to see exact details, but captures an atavistic brutality that typifies the characters.

“Street Mobster” is a film that shows the sickening violence of gangland life. Okita is driven almost pathologically to a course of action that is destructive and dangerous for himself and those around him. It touches briefly on his upbringing as a cause of his violent ways and also in the mention of his birthday in the sense that there may be nothing that can be done. Tackling the “nature or nurture” argument as a cause for criminality does not limit the responsibility for his actions, but it creates the sense of unavoidable tragedy. The squalor that characters live in and the sense that they have been somehow side-lined by the world, or left behind by progress, also offers some explanation for their actions. Kimiyo’s tragic story is that she is dragged unwillingly into this world, but that she still attempts to do her best. In the portrayal of mob bosses the film gives a sense that the odds are always stacked against people like Okita, due to his lack of status. The hierarchical nature of the underworld, as with other parts of society, means that he can strive to attain a position of power, but will always be subject to the whims of his superiors. “Street Mobster” is a brutal gangster film with a solid plot and some fantastic acting that will appeal to fans of the genre. Fukasaku blends realism with almost theatrical melodrama in an entertaining crime story that also has deeper sociological and psychological themes at work.

Tokyo Drifter (1966) by Seijun Suzuki

Tetsuya (Tetsuya Watari) is a young gangster loyal to his boss Kurata (Ryuji Kita). Kurata has decided to go straight and Tetsuya with him. Tetsuya earns the ire of rival gang leader Otsuka (Hideaki Esumi), by refusing to join with them. Things are further complicated by a real estate deal involving a third boss, Ishii. Tensions run high and bullets start to fly, leading to a number of deaths. Kurata tells Tetsu to leave Tokyo and his singer girlfriend, Chiharu (Chieko Matsubara), and head north. But trouble is never far behind and he soon finds his loyalties being tested.

With constraints on both time and money, director Suzuki managed to create up a film that has all the razzle-dazzle pop elements associated with the 1960’s generation alongside the unpredictable violence of the gangster genre. The story, by Yasunori Kawauchi, is straightforward enough, introducing several main players and a series of dodgy deals and double-crosses. Tetsuya is a likeable hero, sharp-suited and sharp-shooting, and Tetsuya Watari brings an effortless cool to the role in keeping with the youthful feel of the film. Suzuki uses colour to great effect and in a way that might at first seems at odds with the genre. Gone are murky hideouts and chiaroscuro lighting associated with the yakuza, replaced by brightly lit rooms painted in garish colours. There is comic-strip style to both the story and the staging, which, alongside some unusual editing, musical-like sequences of the main character singing the theme song, give the film a peculiarly tongue-in-cheek feel. It is a film that waltzes light-footed through the genre, absolutely nailing the most thrilling aspects of yakuza stories, while at the same time being a one-of-a-kind piece . The music by Hajime Kaburagi picks out the upbeat and enjoyable vibe of the film, with a jazz and pop infused score.

“Tokyo Drifter” deals with several themes familiar to the yakuza genre, primarily ideas of honour and the difficulty in breaking out of a life of crime. Tetsuya is a man who shows utter loyalty to his boss, who is like a surrogate father to him, in a world where loyalty is often poorly rewarded. His choice of profession means that he is doomed to be an outsider, unable to form significant relationships with others. This is typified in his interactions with Chiharu, who he is forced to abandon when things become too dangerous. Where “Tokyo Drifter” succeeds is in its depiction of the period. The stark contrast of colourful discotheques and the bright lights of the city with the lonely hideaways of the yakuza gives the sense of youth culture going on above the surface while underground the old rivalries persist. The film’s primary aim is to entertain. It is pulp entertainment elevated to an art form by a director with boundless creativity who doesn’t take himself or his art too seriously.