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The 10 Best Yakuza Movies from Studio Toei

20 December 2014 | Features, Film Lists | by Pablo Knote

6. Wicked Priest (Gokuaku bozu, 1968)

Wicked Priest

It is often forgotten that while all ninkyo eiga where infused with the characteristically melodramatic pathos of the genre, many of them also had their share of quirky comic relief. Often the humor in those films was fairly lowbrow, more based on poorly executed slapstick and silly puns than eloquent word jokes or an satirical reflection of the genre.

However, especially if they starred Tomisaburo Wakayama, an actor best known for his portrayal of Ogami Itto in the legendary six-part Lone Wolf and Cub series, those films could also be fairly entertaining. With his loud, but nuanced acting and his bulky, hulking stature Wakayama became a minor star of the genre with the portrayal of clumsy oyabun in ninkyo eiga like the eight-part Red Peony Gambler series or the eleven-part The Scoundrel series.

But his funniest effort in the genre might be his five-part Wicked Priest (1969 – 1971) series where he stars as kickboxing, tattooed priest Mikuni Shinkai. Most of the satirical elements of the series derive from the contrast between Shinkai’s holy profession and his very unholy behaviour. He gambles, drinks and buys prostitutes, regularily exhausting them with his amazing sexual endurance, and is nonetheless a heroic hero when it comes to protecting the weak and surpressed.

Since Wakayama plays no yakuza, the series might not be considered a pure example of the ninkyo eiga. Yet, the villains (cunning, economically motivated yakuza), the pathos-filled mood and Wakayama’s permanently horny Shinkai make most of the entries worthwhile contributions to the genre. Be also sure to check out the grim performance of yakuza star Bunta Sugawara as hate-filled priest Ryotatsu who, having been blinded by Shinkai, holds a deadly grudge towards the latter.

 

7. Japan Organized Crime Boss (Nihon Boryokudan: Kumicho, 1969)

Japan Organized Crime Boss

As I’ve said previously, it was Kinji Fukasaku who was the main contributor to the more realistic jitsuroku eiga-type gangster films of the 1970s. Yet, Japan Organized Crime Boss, one of his earliest efforts in the genre, actually emerges as a successful combination of the jitsuroku eiga with the stylistic devices of the classical ninkyo eiga of the 1960s .

Thus, while many characteristics of Fukasaku’s films like the restless shaky cam and the raw emotions and unscrupulous deviousness of most of the yakuza characters are already in place, the main character is not the violent ruffian as Bunta Sugawara portrayed him in most jitsuroku eiga, but a tateyaku (“heroic lead”) who embodies all the virtues of the classical honorable film personality of the yakuza.

In this film, the main charakter, played by ninkyo eiga icone Koji Tsuruta, appears as an old-fashioned loner, a last remainder of the once honorable yakuza world, which has long traded their honor for violence and economic survivability. Conveniently, the mood of the film is melancholic and the eventual demise of our hero seems to be certain from the beginning.

Ironically, it is this harsh and cruel environment that educes one of his most powerful performances from Koji Tsuruta, an actor who always hated this new type of yakuza film. That his character nonetheless manages to ignite a little spark of honor in some of his fellow yakuza, like in Tomisaburo Wakayama’s drug-addicted, sociopathic oyabun, seems like a last tribute by Fukasaku to the undeniably power of the already dwindling ninkyo eiga-type yakuza films.

 

8. Street Mobster (Gendai Yakuza: Hitokiri Yota, 1972)

Street Mobster

Street Mobster, the sixth film of the „Modern Yakuza“ series, is often considered to be one of the first true jitsuroku eiga, a genre which came to popularity in the early 1970s and succeeded Toei’s more traditional ninkyo eiga as a new type of yakuza eiga. While its social commentary may not be as refined as in Kinji Fukasaku’s later jitsuroku eiga, its potrayal of the main character revoultionized the whole genre.

The breakthrough role of Bunta Sugawara, the „hero“ of the film is not a virtuos ninkyo eiga heroic but a violent sociopath who is short-tempered to the extreme and smashes everyone he doesn’t like to a pulp. He is also an unscrupulous gangster who sells innocent women into prostitution and thus, is considered a dangerous threat even to other yakuza who tend to use carefully planned schemes instead of blunt brutality.

Nonetheless, it should be noted that the ninkyo eiga hero is also often portrayed as a loner in a cold and cruel world. Like Bunta Sugawara’s character he also uses violence in contrast to other honorful yakuza whose attitude is strongly pacifist. In those films, however, the solitude of the hero is romantizised and his eventual retreat to violence always necessary and justified.

Because of this it could be said that Fukasaku didn’t create a completely new type of yakuza leading man but merely showed what an character one had to be in reality to become a loner among other yakuza. A real lone wolf would be no heroic but a sociopath who doesn’t set himself apart with his honorful deeds but with the unpredictable havoc he creates, making him intolerable even in the yakuza world and thus, an outcast.

 

9. Battles Without Honor or Humanity (Jingi Naki Tatakai, 1974)

Battles Without Honor or Humanity

Battles Without Honor or Humanity is often said to be the great masterpiece of the yakuza eiga. While this statement may be debatable, it’s certainly the most well-known yakuza picture and marked a harsh break with the prevalent notion of the yakuza as honorable descendants of the samurai. Situated directly after the war, the film (and its seven follow-ups) chronicles the rise of a new kind of economical motivated yakuza amidst the ruins of Hiroshima.

This said, the hero of the piece, Hirono, played by Bunta Sugawara in his most acclaimed role, is not the sociopathic bastard, Sugawara should play in other jitsuroku eiga. He is by no means a saint, but he has at least one spark of honor left – in stark contrast to his backstabbing and hypocritical yakuza peers.

Thus, while main character doesn’t represent a stretch that far from the usual yakuza hero, the true accomplishment of Battles Without Honor or Humanity lies in its destroyal of the heroic and pathos-filled stories of the classical ninkyo eiga. Here, the story is little more than a constant shifting of alliances and assassinating of opposing yakuza members. While this convoluted plot lacks the emotional punch of the best ninkyo eiga, it seems to be much more true to the reality.

With creating this film with its angry stripping of any heroisation of the cruel mechanisms behind the honorific image of the yakuza, Kinji Fukasaku created a new type of subgenre, the jitsuroku eiga. In the 1970s, those films should eventually become the prime film output of the yakuza eiga and made the ninkyo eiga what it actually had always been – a product of the past.

 

10. Graveyard of Honor (Jingi no Hakaba, 1975)

Graveyard of Honor

The title of Graveyard of Honor couldn’t be more fitting as Fukasaku tries indeed to bury the honorable perception of the yakuza of the ninkyo eiga. The yakuza world which Fukasaku paints here is one where chivalry and honor have long died. Those ideals are presented as merely a facade behind which the yakuza tries to hide their greed and disregard for human lives.

In its portrayal of the main character, Fukasaku goes even further than in his previous outings in other jitsuroku eiga. The hero Rikio Ishikawa, played with psychopathic calmness by Tetsuya Watari, seems to be the natural product of this cold and cruel environment. He doesn’t obey orders from his superiors, he kills and rapes for fun and shows unpredictable violence, which can burst out every moment.

He is a lost soul. A ticking time bomb without a point in life and always ready to go off, which is summed up in the end of the film when Rikio Ishikawa writes the following words on a blackboard in his prison cell. “30 years of hell! What a joke!“. With this character, Fukasaku created the ultimate nihilistic statement against the glorifcation of gangsterism.

Truly, this film is no dignified burial of the ninkyo eiga. A furious Tour-de-Force of the downfall of our main character. “How can there be honor if such a human exists?”, Fukasaku seems to ask. And after having experienced this hell-ride of a film, most viewers will be tended to agree…

Author Bio: Pablo is a 20-year-old freelance critic and film historian from Germany. He is fascinated by classical Japanese cinema of the 20th century, you can check out his website at http://www.nippon-kino.net/.

 

 

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