The 10 Best Yakuza Movies from Studio Toei

best yakuza movies

During the 1960s the public interest in period spectacles (Jidai-geki), the famous film studio Toei produced at that time, slowly began to wane. The times had changed and Japan was in state of constant political turmoil.

Extremist leftist groups emerged and students rose up to protest against the continuing American influence on their country, resulting in bloody streetfights between the police and the protestors. The audience yearned for something to reflect on those times on screen, yet, which at the same time also adhered to the memory of the supposedly traditional and honorific values of Japan.

The invention of a new type of Japanese gangster film (yakuza eiga), the ninkyo eiga (chivalry films) was Toei’s answer to these demands, a genre which began to emerge in the early 1960s and continued to florish until the 1970s. Ninkyo eiga were films about honorable and old-fashioned yakuza who fought against the greedy and scheming yakuza of the present, who had long traded their honor for the “dog eats dog” mentality of capitalism.

Often set in the Meiji era, an era of politicial reforms and industrialisation, the villains of those films usually were products of this approach to the Western world, wore modern suits and exploited their low-wage workers for personal benefit. In contrast, the heroes wore traditional kimono and stuck to the conservative and virtuos values of bushido. By playing those tateyaku (heroic lead), actors Koji Tsuruta, Ken Takakura and Junko Fuji soon became the great stars of the genre.

The genre gained additional impetus by making the heroes suffer a constant conflict between their duty towards their yakuza brothers (giri) and their own human emotions (ninjo). In contrast to Western films, where the hero usually acts according to his own feelings, it is actually the giri side which is favored in the ninkyo eiga. Eventually, the leading actor of such films will abonden his humanism to exact violent vengeance upon clans of evil yakuza, usually perishing in the end – after having slaughtered every one of them.

It’s no exaggeration to call the ninkyo eiga the most successful Japanese film genre of the 1960s. For example, in contrast to the common Western belief, not popular series like Zatoichi (1962 – 1989) or Sleepy Eyes of Death (1963 – 1969) ruled at the domestic box-office, but ninkyo eiga like the Abashiri Prison series (becoming in fact the highest-grossing film series of the 1960s in Japan) or the Tales of Japanese Chivalry (1965 – 1972) series.

Those films managed to unite their audience by confirming their uprising feeling of xenophobia, celebration of conservative values, while, given that often militarists are the villains of those works, at the same time taking a harsh stance against right-wing parties and as such were also frequented by students, who were commited to highly popular leftist ideologies.

However, since the basic formula of a lone yakuza member fighting against an evilish yakuza clan, attacking the latter’s clan of honest and pacifistic yakuza, was seldom varied, the genre quickly became stale and mannered and younger directors started to question the perception of the yakuza as honorful warriors for justice.

However, while the ninkyo eiga was developed by several talented Toei contract directors like Tai Kato, Kosaku Yamashita or Masahiro Makino, its final deconstruction in the 1970s was almost solely the work of one man, Toei director Kinji Fukasaku.

Beginning in the late 1960s, Fukasaku should demistify the prevalent notion of the yakuza as honorable heroes. His yakuza eiga were rough and violent, he made great use of shaky-cam and more realistic fights and his heroes were no venerable saints, but brutal savages. By giving the genre a more realistic feeling, Fukasaku created the Jitsuroku eiga (actual record film), which succeeded the ninkyo eiga as the most popular yakuza eiga genre of the 1970s.

In the end, however, neither ninkyo eiga, nor jitsuroku eiga could sustain the harsh economic environment of postwar Japanese cinema. In the 1980s, the great yakuza boom faded and Toei ceased production of such films.

Yet, given that Quentin Tarantino has outed himself as a fan of Fukasaku’s gangster films and John Woo has claimed the influence of the ninkyo eiga for his own pathos-filled and violent “Heroic Bloodshed” films of the 1980s, it seems certain that, while becoming comatous as a genre, Toei’s yakuza films still have a profound influence on the work of Western and Asian directors alike and will continue to inspire young filmmakers for decades to come…

This article is dedicated to Ken Takakura and Bunta Sugawara, the two greatest stars of the yakuza film, who both died merely month after this article was originally written


1. Theater of Life: Hishakaku (Jinsei Gekijo: Hishakaku, 1963)

Theater of Life Hishakaku

Theater of Life was one of the first big hits of the ninkyo eiga and helped to set the stylistic and narrative patterns for the upcoming yakuza eiga boom of the 1960s. However, the film will probably split the minds of the viewers as its story about a yakuza (Koji Tsuruta) whose wife commits adultery (with a character played by Ken Takakura, soon also a great leading man of the genre), while the latter is in prison for killing a hostile oyabun (gangster boss), is portrayed in a manner both sentimental and overtly melodramatic.

However, the giri-ninjo conflict seen here also presents the genre at its most effective. It concerns the conflict of Koji Tsuruta who, having forgiven his wife, is torn between his love for her and his obligations towards his yakuza brothers who are threatened by another devilish and violent yakuza clan.

In the end, Theater of Life combines both the weakest and most powerful aspects of the genre. The typically weak portrayal of the female characters, both histerical and bland, and a slow pace are faced with uniformly great performances (especially by Tsuruta in one of his most beloved roles) and a breathtakingly dense and pathos-filled mood.

While some might detest the film for its characeristically conservative attitude towards honor and its clicheed female characters, fans of the genre will find one of the purest examples of the genre (including its two sequels, making the series a triology) which contains this strangely affecting and very unique melodramatic mood, only the ninkyo eiga can provide, at its most carthartic and perfect.


2. Blood of Revenge (Meiji Kyokakuden: Sandai Shumei, 1965)


In contrast to Ken Takakura, whose ninkyo eiga personality was that of a honorful stoics in a cruel world, the second great male star of the genre, Koji Tsuruta, always gave his characters an air of melancholy and hopeless romanticism. A trait that can be seen at its most effective in Tai Katos Blood of Revenge, often cited as the definitive artistic accomplishment of the ninkyo eiga.

Thus, while the story about a yakuza torn between his love for the prostitute Haruta, Junko Fuji in a mesmerizing performance before she made her own breakthrough as an action heroine, and his own good clan, constantly attacked by another clan of evilish yakuza, is fairly run-off-the-mill material, the film is elevated above similar genre pictures by its geniuenly romantic and heartfelt mood, filled with emotional symbolism and subtle gestures.

In one of the most beloved scenes of the genre, Koji Tsurutas yakuza visits the funeral of Haruta’s father and gives her two peaches from her parents garden when he returns. A deeply moving moment, which reminds Haruta of her once innocent youth, before she had to live the sad existence of a forced prostitute.

Set in the Meiji era, the film also shows its directors, the masterful craftsman Tai Kato, characteristic talent for recreating a bygone time period with a natural sense for details and a powerful mise-en-scene. As effectively the romance is played out in this film, however, it is clear from the beginning that this love cannot be in the world of ninkyo. In the end, Koji Tsuruta’s yakuza will leave Haruta and seek justice for the unspeakable misdeeds his clan was subjected to – knowing too well that this will mean his certain death.


3. Abashiri Prison: Longing for Home (Abashiri Bangaichi: Bokyohen, 1965)


In the West, Teruo Ishii is mainly known for his many ero-guro eiga of the late 1960s and 1970s. Films, filled with extreme violence and bizarre fetishized sex scenes. In Japan, however, his numerous ninkyo eiga are usually seen as his most important work. From 1965 until 1972, he directed the first 10 parts of the eightteen-part Abashiri Prison series, which should not only boost its leading actor Ken Takakura to stardom, but also became the highest grossing Japanese film series of the 1960s.

While the first film, Abashiri Prison, was more of an prison breakout film than a ninkyo eiga and the second one, Abashiri Prison: Continued, was a weak heist comedy, the third part, Abashiri Prison: Longing for Home, emerges as a just perfect combination of the ninkyo eiga and the modernist directorial style of its director.

Set in contemporary Japan, instead of the Meiji era, the characters wear stylish Western suits and instead of the characteristically melodramatic ninkyo eiga soundtrack, Ishiis main composer Masao Yagi employs a lofty low-key jazz score.

The film may be hampered by its uneventful middle-part and the inclusion of an African-Japanese girl being grotesquely played by a Japanese actress in blackface, but some scenes belong to the most iconic examples of the style and honorful gusto of the genre. The most striking of them features a thrilling sword-duel between the heroic yakuza hero, played by Ken Takakura, and the killer Joe, whose white suit is stained by the blood of his tubercolosis caused cough seizures.


4. Big Gambling Ceremony (Bakuchiuchi Socho Tobaku, 1968)

Bakuchiuchi Socho tobaku

It was not long after the invention of the ninkyo eiga that the genre became stale and formulaic. However, while the basic plot elements were seldom varied, it was the central conflict between human emotions (ninjo) and social responsibility (giri) which gave every ninkyo eiga its unique nuances. If employed effectively, the giri-ninjo conflict could be tremendously powerful and could raise individual films high above gangster pictures from other countries.

In Big Gambling Ceremony, the fourth film in the ten-part Bakuchiuchi series, this giri-ninjo conflict is brought to its perfection. Justly, the film is hailed as the supreme achievement of the genre and was once described by famous author Yukio Mishima as “resembling ancient tragedies”. The story concerns itself with a yakuza, once again played by Koji Tsuruta in one of his most powerful performances, who acts unwillingly as a executioner for his devilish and cowardly oyabun.

By fullfilling his duty towards his clan, killing several of his close friends in the process, the self-sacrificing hero slowly destroys his own life. When in the end, he finally snaps and proceeds to kill his boss, the latter tries to saw his life by reminding him of the way of ninkyo. In the probably most frequently quoted line of the genre, Tsuruta’s yakuza answers, “I don’t know anything about the way of ninkyo. I’m just a low-down killer”, before he finally ends the life of his oyabun.


5. Red Peony Gambler (Hibotan bakuto, 1968)

Red Peony Gambler

Traditionally, the ninkyo eiga is a very male-centered genre. Women usually appear as weak and histerical characters, the personification of the reprehensible ninjo, which hinder the male hero from fullfilling his honorful obligations towards his yakuza brothers. There is a certain irony in the fact that it was this conservative and male-dominated genre that gave birth to one of the greatest female action heroines of all time, Junko Fuji.

She may not have been the first female action star but in previous films the female heroines usually had to trade their femininity for oversexed male fantasies and vulgar behaviour. Junko Fuji’s characters, on the other hand, were not only sword-wielding heroics but also enchanting and sly women whose breathtaking beauty and gracefulness always ensured that they were never overshadowed by their male co-stars.

Her greatest success came with the eight-part Red Peony Gambler (1968 – 1972) series where the actress plays the honorable and stoic gambler and oyabun, “Red Peony” Oryu. Her tragic fate as brave woman in a male-dominated society gave those films nuanced and melancholic conflicts and the technical mastery of the series’ directors, among them Kosaku Yamashita and Tai Kato, made some of the films true classics of the genre.

It was, however, Junko Fuji who united every film with her beauty and grace. Director Paul Schrader justly once said that “Western cinema has no equivalent for a gracious, polite woman who, given the proper circumstances, can exact violent physical revenge upon the men who oppress her without ever losing her sense of femininity”.