Since Thomas Edison first showcased the kinetoscope for the Japanese in 1896, Japanese cinema has maintained its position as one of the top benchmarks of world cinema. Combining a rich, unique artistic culture with a bloody feudal history, Japanese cinema has always been able to find the ultimate balance of light and shade; the perfect amount of whimsy and solemnity in order to explore otherwise untouchable aspects of the human condition.
One of the most prominent film genres to come out of Japan is the Yakuza movie. The Yakuza are essentially the Japanese Mafia, and are characterised by their strict adherence to their respective codes of conduct and their ruthless behaviour.
Their established rituals, such as yubitsume (the customary act of cutting off a finger as way of sincere apology) and full body tattooing (or irezumi) often play a major part in the films of the genre, and themes of extreme loyalty, respect, family and adaptation to shifting social landscapes are consistently explored.
Prior to WWII, Japanese cinema concerned itself usually with the exploits of bakuto, who were travelling gamblers predating, and eventually morphing into, the modern Yakuza.
These films portrayed famous national legends as sympathetic Robin Hood-like characters, who were forced to live a solitary outlaw existence. It wasn’t until the post-war works of Japan’s most renowned directors, such as Akira Kurosawa and Yasujiro Ozu, that Yakuza films gained the moral ambiguity and complexity that the bakuto stories lacked.
The following list is intended as an introduction to Yakuza movies; it is in no way comprehensive. It concentrates primarily on the cinema of post-WWII Japan, as it was in this period that the genre truly established it’s own distinctive style.
1. Ryuji (1983)
Kinji Fukasaku, the legendary director of Battles Without Honour and Humanity (which is widely considered the greatest Yakuza film of all time), has gone on record to state that the only classic Yakuza film released since the 1970’s is Ryuji.
With good reason too; writer/star Shoji Kaneko Toru Kawashima turn the genre’s conventions on its head, presenting a low-budget representation of the modern Yakuza where tradition and ritual are nothing more than a running joke. The gritty approach taken in Ryuji helped to set the tone for the recent classics by Takeshi Kitano and Takashi Miike.
A high-ranking Yakuza member named Ryuji is released from prison. Though he is respected and feared within his gang, he wishes to break away from the Yakuza life and look after his young family. However, with mounting debts and the temptation of easy money just around the corner, the lure of rejoining his old gang may be too much to bear.
Kaneko tragically passed away after a battle with cancer less than a month after the release of the film, though his tender, nuanced performance as the flawed titular character ensured that his legacy would be fondly remembered.
2. Branded to Kill (1967)
Throughout the 1950’s and 60’s, the film studio Nikkatsu released a series of Yakuza films which borrowed liberally from Hollywood gangster and noir movies. During this period, the subgenre of Ninkyo Eiga (chivalry films) was the most popular amongst the public, which depicted the Yakuza as sympathetic outlaws much in the manner of the pre-war cinema.
However, Nikkatsu were best known for the absurdist works of director Seijun Suzuki, and though it was his 1967 effort Branded to Kill that led to his firing from the studio (Nikkatsu president Kyusaku Hori deemed it “incomprehensible”), it is now considered an influential masterpiece, cited by filmmakers such as John Woo and Quentin Tarantino as having a considerable effect on their works.
Goro Hanada, a Yakuza hitman with a sexual penchant for the scent of boiled rice, is the third-ranked hitman in the Japanese underworld. When he fails to carry out a difficult contract offered to him by a mysterious woman, he is thrust into a shambolic fight for survival and his sanity, which culminates in a showdown with the enigmatic Number One. After this effort, Suzuki was blacklisted from the Japanese film industry and didn’t work again for 10 years, though this only proved to consolidate his cult status.
3. Sonatine (1993)
Director Takeshi Kitano began his career, surprisingly enough, as a comedian, though you wouldn’t be able to tell it with the intensity he brings to this film as writer, director and lead performer. Kitano got his start as a director in 1989 on the set of Violent Cop when fellow Yakuza film master Kinji Fukasaku fell ill. In the few years that followed, Kitano honed his craft until he was capable of producing a flowing effort as gripping and graceful as Sonatine.
Yakuza enforcer Murakawa is suspicious when he is sent to Okinawa with his contingent to mediate a low key gang dispute. His concerns are proved correct when his group are ambushed and several are killed. Retreating with the survivors to a beach house, Murakawa lays low while plotting his revenge. Equal parts disturbingly violent and profoundly poetic, Sonatine shows an auteur at the peak of his powers.
4. Hana-Bi (1997)
Between this film and Sonatine, Takeshi Kitano announced himself on the world stage as the foremost Japanese filmmaker working today. While this may be a contentious statement, few can argue with the critical success that the work of Kitano has garnered internationally, which includes the prestigious Golden Lion from the Venice Film Festival for Hana-Bi.
The title of the film means “fireworks” in Japanese, though the hyphenated title is used by Kitano to represent the dual nature of his main character, Nishi. Hana means ‘flower’ and is the symbol of life while ‘bi’ means ‘fire’ representing gunfire, thus becoming the symbol of death.
Kitano plays Nishi, who is a corrupt police detective quick to violence. With a wife dying of cancer, Yakuza debts piling up, and a partner confined to a wheelchair after a bloody shootout, Nishi makes a drastic decision with tragic consequences. Kitano’s measured performance anchors the entire film; he moves between joy and extreme violence at will, though it is a testament to his direction that none of these bloody moments feel forced, and always serve the character.
5. The Yakuza (1974)
As the only western-made film on this list, The Yakuza is the perfect starting point for someone with no knowledge of Japanese film. It approaches the unknown world and customs of the Yakuza with a comprehensive yet unmistakably western eye, utilising action and plot where a Japanese director would be happy to forego it.
Directed by the ever reliable Sydney Pollack from a script by screenwriting legends Robert Towne and Paul Schrader (with his brother Leonard), The Yakuza expertly juggles the contrasting ideals of the west and east, culminating in a Schrader trademark messy showdown.
Robert Mitchum as Harry Kilmer is a private detective with a deep connection to Japan; as a marine stationed there following the end of WWII he fell in love with Eiko, who he had to leave at the behest of her brother. Now, almost 30 years later, he is tasked with helping out a close associate, whose daughter has been kidnapped by the Yakuza.
Mitchum’s presence alone is enough to propel the film, but the relationship between him and Eiko’s brother, played by Yakuza movie stalwart Ken Takakura, gives the film its true strength and emotional core.
6. Battles Without Honour and Humanity (1973)
Kinji Fukasaku established himself as the preeminent Yakuza film director of his generation with this instant classic often hailed as the “Japanese Godfather”. Shot in a documentary-like style, it is considered to be one of the very first modern Yakuza films. While others had depicted the Yakuza in its contemporary manifestation, very few showed the desire to have irredeemable antiheroes as their protagonists.
Additionally, its violence and blistering pace set it apart from other mainstream Yakuza films of the period. Based on the memoirs of real Yakuza member Kōzō Minō, it remains near the top of many “best of” lists, including fifth on prestigious Japanese film magazine Kinema Junpo’s best all time film list.
The film is an epic which sprawls over ten years, and follows the actions of young Yakuza thug Shozo Hirono. In post-war Hiroshima, Hirono bears witness to the shifting of the ruling families and leaders of the local Yakuza, as he attempts to make a name for himself in the underworld. The film was the first in what ended up being a hugely successful five part series, which changed the face of Japanese cinema forever.
7. Ichi the Killer (2001)
Takashi Miike is one of the most prolific directors working in Japan today. To give an indication of his high productivity levels, he was credited with directing 15 features between the years of 2001 and 2002 alone. Ranging from slick psychological thrillers to teen dramas and dark comedies, his versatility is also practically unmatched. However, one film stands out in his oeuvre as particularly controversial; his adaptation of the manga series Ichi the Killer.
The film was heavily cut and in some countries outright banned as the extreme sexual violence and gore was targeted by international censorship boards. Despite this, the stylised violence and frenetic direction established it as a highly influential cult classic.
When Kakihara’s boss is murdered, he will stop at nothing to exact revenge on those who did it. As he slashes his way through the Shinjuku underworld (igniting a gang war in the process), he finds a plot in action to cleanse the city of its Yakuza, spearheaded by the murderous outbursts of the mentally unhinged killer known only as Ichi.
As the blood flows and the body count rises, Kakihara and Ichi come closer to an ultimate showdown where neither will come away unscathed. Tadanobu Asano’s punishing turn as the sadomasochistic (and borderline demonic) Kakihara ensures the film moves along at an astounding pace, and is perfectly offset by the jittery madness of Nao Omori’s Ichi.