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.

Minbo, or the Gentle Art of Japanese Extortion (1992)

The staff at a high-class hotel have a problem. The Yakuza are causing trouble, being abusive to staff, refusing to pay their bills, and other antisocial behaviour. With the manager (Akira Takarada) at a loss he recruits an accountant, Suzuki (Yasuo Daichi) to lead operations to rid the hotel of these people, along with his assistant Wakasugi (Takehiro Murata). The two prove to be incompetent, lacking the strength and wit to out-fox the gangsters. They decide to bring in criminal lawyer, Mahiru Inoue (Nobuko Miyamoto), who specialises in Yakuza-civilian relations. The film is essentially a farce with some great scenes showing the various tricks of the Yakuza swindling people out of their money. Later in the film things take a dark turn when the manager of the hotel is framed for a sexual assault on a minor. Having finally gone too far, the hotel double down on their efforts to get rid of the Yakuza once and for all.

Director Juzo Itami faced a backlash from the Yakuza following the release of the film, being assaulted by gangs who disliked their portrayal in the movie. There are also those who believe Itami’s death to be suspicious and linked to these groups. The film is a fantastic crime-comedy film that has surprisingly dark undercurrents. Not only are the Yakuza shown to be ridiculous, but also violent thugs that should not be respected in Japanese society. The direction is solid and Itami clearly has a good sense of comic timing and framing set-pieces. The script also moves at a great pace and is well-structured into various acts, becoming acquainted with the problematic Yakuza and our hapless heroes, then the secondary plot involving the manager, and finally their showdown with the gangsters. The comic soundtrack by Toshiyuki Honda is very much of its time, but in keeping with the film’s light-hearted tone. The great achievement of the film is that it manages to discuss a serious societal problem with humour without shying away from the darker elements.

The Yakuza are a staple of Japanese cinema, from Kinji Fukasaku’s “Yakuza Papers” series, to Takashi Miike’s “Black Society Trilogy” and Takeshi Kitano’s “Outrage”. This film’s intention was to puncture the mystique around these groups and show them as bullies and criminals. There is nothing honourable about the characters in the film and they lack the aura of cool that has been established by many films. Instead they are loud, lazy and obnoxious, making their money by taking advantage of the good nature of those around them. A great film with some hilarious moments and a serious message underpinning the comedy.

Versus (2000)

Two recently escaped convicts meet up with a group of gangsters who are taking them to safety. After a disagreement regarding a female hostage of the group, one of the men decides to make a run for it, through the woods to freedom. However, these are no ordinary woods. The “Forest of Resurrection”  has the power to bring the dead back to life. What follows is a fight for survival between the convict and his female companion and the men chasing them. In a later twist the man realises that there is a reason why he has been brought back to this particular forest as an ancient adversary returns.

Written by Ryuhei Kitamura and Yudai Yamaguchi the script is a ridiculous blend of Yakuza and Zombie film tropes. The majority of the runtime is dedicated to the action sequences that are the film’s major strength. Essentially a series of fights that are loosely contrived through various characters happening upon one another, there is enough variety to keep them fresh, especially with the zombie element thrown in. The film doesn’t shy away from violence and fans of gore will not be disappointed with the bucket loads of blood, and practical effects for gunshots and other injuries. Decapitation, dismemberment, punching a hole straight through a zombie: all of these are commonplace in a film that doesn’t take itself too seriously. There are moments of intentional slapstick and black humour that lighten the tone. The main issue with the film is that it never quite manages to draw you in on an emotional level, for the most part being surface action and violence. Kitamura’s direction does keep things entertaining, with stylish 360-degree shots, lively editing and some fantastic framing that elevates the film above its basic story. The actors are all well cast and bring their eccentric characters to life, doing a great job with the fight choreography as well as the comedic beats.

“Versus” will appeal to fans of zombie films and the more bizarre yakuza movies, complete with jokes about missing hands, liberal use of violence, increasingly ridiculous guns employed to blast characters out of situations. The film’s own self-awareness of the silliness of its premise along with skilful and stylish direction make this worth a watch for fans of the genre. While there is very little to appeal on a dramatic or story level, the action scenes, with great choreography and practical effects, make for a fun distraction.