14 Great Japanese Gangster (Yakuza) Films That Are Worth Your Time

8. Graveyard of Honour (1975)

Graveyard of Honor

Assistant director Kenichi Oguri has stated that realism is the key to any of Kinji Fukasaku’s brilliant Yakuza films, and that he would return time and again to actors who would commit themselves entirely in physical scenes.

Graveyard of Honour may well be the epitome of this ideology, as it centers itself around the self-destruction and lingering psychosis of its main character in an extremely unflinching manner. Powerful and uncompromising in its bleakness, it is among the darkest Yakuza films, as it presents one of the most vile anti-heroes to grace the screen.

Based on the true account of one-time Yakuza boss Rikiko Ishikawa, this film shows the immediate post-war period of Ishikawa’s reign. It follows the ramifications of his violent behaviour, and the sanctions placed on him by his own gang, as his drug habit and disregard for his friends and enemies threaten his delicate hold on power. Takashi Miike directed a celebrated remake in 2002, intensifying the blood and violence in his own inimitable style.


9. Drunken Angel (1948)

Drunken Angel

Akira Kurosawa’s breakthrough film is considered by film historians to not only be the director’s first landmark work, but also the first to depict the post-WWII Yakuza as they are known today. Veering away from the common pre-war depictions of the bakuto, Kurosawa presented a young criminal navigating the landscape of an occupied Japan.

Kurosawa sneaks in as much social criticism as the US censors would allow, and the end result is reminiscent of the neorealist cinema movement happening concurrently in Italy. While the themes explored in the film aren’t common to the genre, Kurosawa’s approach and Toshiro Mifune’s explosive performance would set the stage for the preceding 60 years of Yakuza films.

Matsunaga, a low level Yakuza mobster, moves to drinking and womanising when the head of the clan is imprisoned. After a fight with a rival gang, he is treated by a local alcoholic doctor, with whom he forms an unlikely friendship. When his boss is released from prison, Matsunaga finds that his position in the gang is more tenuous than he first thought. Mifune appears in the first of sixteen collaborations with Kurosawa, which include star turns in Rashomon and Seven Samurai.


10. Another Lonely Hitman (1995)

Another Lonely Hitman (1995)

Mochizuki Rokuro’s character study of a man struggling to come to terms with change is deeply moving without having to sacrifice the action and violence of a regular Yakuza film.

Another Lonely Hitman can be seen as a film which bridges the gap between the gritty, serious Yakuza films of the 1970’s and the cinema of the 21st century, with influences such as Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs. Because of an emotional depth not usually associated with the genre, however, it stands out from the pack as a film of considerable value.

When an old-school Yakuza hitman is released from a ten year stint in prison, he is shocked to find that the code of conduct he used to follow is now defunct, and his gang are now pushing drugs.

A reformed addict himself, he comes to pity a local call girl, and when he defends her from an attack from a rival gang member, he finds himself in the sights of two rival gangs. Ishibashi Rio instills the character of the lonely hitman with considerable pathos in a thoughtful performance, which netted him Best Actor at the Japan Film Professional Awards.


11. Velvet Hustler (1967)

Velvet Hustler

Director Toshio Masuda is considered in Japan to be a consistent box office winner; over 50 years of work, his films have been in the top ten in box office earnings 16 times. His work in the 1960’s with Nikkatsu is the most enduring though, and along with contemporary Seijun Suzuki, defined defined a period of cinematic history.

Velvet Hustler (or Like a Shooting Star) is the most indicative of his style during this period, with its French New Wave influence and vibrant colour. Playfully self-aware and teeming with action, it is among Nikkatsu’s best, not to mention Masuda’s finest hour.

Goro, a young Yakuza hitman, lays low after a successful contract in Tokyo. While he manages to both keep quiet and live the exciting life he wishes, he is eventually suspected for the murder of a young woman. As this occurs, another hitman is on his trail in retaliation for the contract he pulled off in Tokyo. Joe Shishido as Goro brings the madcap brilliance he has sharpened through numerous collaborations with Seijun Suzuki.


12. Abashiri Prison (1965)

5 Abashiri Prison

While Kurosawa’s Drunken Angel was considered the first true Yakuza film, it took until Teruo Ishii’s 1965 picture that the genre witnessed its first box office hit. It made household names of Ishii and star Ken Takakura, and the success of the film would spur Ishii on to make ten(!) sequels.

Abashiri Prison is a notorious jail in Hokkaido. Shinichi Tachibana is a model prisoner trying to keep to himself as he waits for his remaining six months inside to expire. Handcuffed to grizzled Yakuza member Gonda, Tachibana is forced to escape when Gonda breaks out. The two attempt to forge an uneasy partnership as they endeavour to evade the law. Takakura and Koji Nanbara play off each other well as Tachibana and Gonda respectively, as they struggle through snowy Hokkaido.


13. Youth of the Beast (1963)

Youth of the Beast (1963)

Seijun Suzuki’s anarchic direction is once again on display in this wild ride through the Tokyo underworld. The elements that turned him into a cult favourite are on show here, including his masterful use of colour, frantic jazz soundtrack and immaculately dressed murderers. Add to this Suzuki’s trademark absurdity in sequences such as a man having his hair set on fire with a lighter and an aerosol can, and you’ve got another potent addition to his Yakuza B-movie canon.

Prolific Yakuza actor Joe Shishido plays a young petty criminal whose erratic, violent behaviour brings him to the attention of a local Yakuza boss, who subsequently recruits him. Once he is a member, he starts to cut deals with rival gangs in order to play them off against each other, and it is soon revealed that he has ulterior motives. Shishido is a Suzuki regular, and this film finds him at the peak of his powers. Aggressive and effortlessly cool, he suits Suzuki’s colourful version of Tokyo to a tee.


14. Street Mobster (1972)

Street Mobster (1972)

Another film of Kinji Fukasaku’s on this list only goes to show the immense impact and tremendous skill he has over the Yakuza film genre. His passionate eye for detail and unwillingness to turn away from social decay and violence set the pace for the gritty flavour of 1970’s Yakuza cinema. The themes and scope of this film paved the way for his acclaimed epic Battles Without Honour and Humanity.

A Yakuza member is released from prison to find that the gang he once was a part of is now in tatters, and the sociopolitical climate of the underworld has shifted dramatically.

With a relative lack of experience with the new ways, as well as his unchecked aggression and disdain for authority, he must lead the remnants of the group to claim a new territory to reestablish themselves as a formidable gang. Bunta Sugawara not only put in a strong performance as the lead, but offered numerous suggestions to Fukasaku for the script, as he had numerous Yakuza friends.

Author Bio: Daniel Pollock is a Sydney-based writer, actor and director who is simply chuffed that his list was published. He celebrated by treating himself to pastizzi.