Genre: Yakuza Moral Implosion Extraordinaire
review in one breath
This infamous Fukasaku film marks a turning point in Japan's cinematic portrayal of yakuza, from that of a dying bushido breed to self-destructive and societally dangerous criminals. In a powerful and violent tale based on a real-life gangster from Fukasaku's own hometown, audiences are led to both simultaneously sympathize with and revile the monstrous Rikio and the path to hell he chooses.
In the following review I speak repeatedly of this film as a "turning point" or watershed moment in the direction of the yakuza genre. These descriptions are accurate, but with the following caveat...
With this film, Fukasaku ushers in what is known at the "Toei Yakuza Genre", referring specifically to the type of film Toei Studios will ultimately create following Fukasaku's mainstream success with this film. And the word "mainstream" is critical here, since much of this film's historical impact is due to its being the first such film nationally promoted and thus widely viewed in theaters across Japan.
But it is generally admitted that earlier, less widely viewed and more scandalous yakuza films held great influence upon later directors such as Fukasaku, and thus were the true turning point in the genre in terms of directorial inspiration rather than widespread popularity with audiences. Perhaps the single most important film in this regard is the 1964 Pale Flower (Kawaita Hana) by director Shinoda Masahiro, a film which most critics view as the first effective departure from romanticized yakuza depictions. Unlike the blessing, financial backing and national distribution Fukasaku received from the Toei Studio, Shinoda's film was deemed unacceptable by the 1964 standards of government censors and was withheld from the public for nearly a year after its release. Watching these two films side by side, it is impossible to overlook Fukasaku's inspiration from Shinoda's decade-prior film.
This 1975 film follows a series of six immensely popular yakuza films by director Fukasaku Kinji entitled The Yakuza Papers (Jingi Naki Tatakai). This series was so popular that Toei Studio continued to beg Fukasaku for more, even after he felt he had exhausted the material. (After refusing Toei's offers, the studio hired other directors for another two films in the series.) Fukasaku's exhaustion with the series is said to be due to his tiring of the depictions of traditional yakuza in light of his own postwar experiences. (He was 16 years old when Japan conceded defeat in 1945 and his young adulthood was thus permeated with scenes of a poverty-stricken, foreign-occupied Japan.)
Due to the clout he acquired through the success of the series, he was not only given full reign to create a "new" yakuza film (which was to be released theatrically throughout the country) but was also able to cast one of the era's most well-known actors, Watari Tetsuya in a role diametrically opposed to all of his prior appearances. In this new film, Graveyard of Honor, Fukasaku was intent on turning yakuza depictions on its head. And casting media idol Watari as the (unexpectedly) monstrous protagonist pulled audiences headlong into his gritty vision.
From your and my "enlightened" vantage, we may be tempted to take for granted the realistic/pessimistic depiction of yakuza in the many films over the last thirty years. But here we would be wise to contemplate and acknowledge that this film is perhaps the turning point after which later directors followed suite. Miike Takashi himself will later pay tribute to Fukasaku's formative role through a 2002 remake of this film (using the same title). Thus a little chronological perspective is crucial here in accurately appreciating the impact and role of this film.
The historical and cultural aspects of this film are quite profound and insightful. Set throughout the decade following Japan's defeat in 1945, this films portrays to extraordinary degrees the manipulated occupying US military forces (by the yakuza), the uprising of large Chinese and Korean populations in Japan following the US's declaration of their freedom (from Japanese wartime imprisonment), the subsequent social clashes and ultimate quelling of these non-Japanese Asian groups through violent local backlash, AND the gradual descent of the yakuza into purely money-driven modes of existence (against which Rikio utterly rebels). Thus rather than the quaint depictions of yakuza nobility traditionally spoon-fed to the public, Fukasaku here reaches a breaking point and decides to depict, in a film debuting throughout national theaters and starring the premiere hunky actor of the day, a radically different and disturbing depiction of this genre based upon his own first hand and unforgettable experiences.
The impact of this project, even to contemporary Western audiences, comes across loud and clear. And this is a testimony to the strength and effectiveness with which Fukasaku's inner vision comes through unimpeded in this film.
According to those who knew him, Ishikawa Rikio was a strong-willed and intelligent youth from the start, but unfortunately squandered his talents in a life of crime. From a very early age he was a member of the Kawada yakuza clan to which he swore ultimate allegiance, to the point of being arrested and jailed due to a scuffle over someone's irreverent, off-hand comment toward the Kawada Boss.
Such allegiance, of course, endears Rikio to the Boss, but Rikio's recklessly violent behavior soon strains even this affection. From the boss's vantage we understand that times are changing and petty turf rivalry between competing gangs must give way to broader considerations such as the promotion of leading regional yakuza figures in the new and upcoming "democratic" elections. In this regard, any public outbreak of violence can only harm the yakuza's chances for election, and thus Rikio's behavior results in nothing short of strict reprimand.
But Rikio is not the type to be reprimanded, especially when it comes to issues of turf war or (the by now dead) traditional notions of yakuza nobility. Finding himself estranged from those he once pledged allegiance to, he thrusts himself along a path which amounts to a downward spiral, though he himself believes he is floating above the petty fray as if a balloon which lofts higher and higher until it bursts from its ascended accomplishment.
The title of this film impressively alludes to three separate implicit levels.
First, there is is the literal narrative reference which culminates (narratively) with Rikio at the graveyard (hakaba) of his deceased lover.
Secondly, this is, as stated above, a film which deals with (and depicts) the demise (graveyard) of the traditional honor of the yakuza. Ironically, the film itself also marks the end of cinematic depictions of noble, traditional yakuza.
And third, there is in fact a gravestone in Fukasaku's hometown of Mito marked with the name of Ishikawa Rikio, a renowned yakuza figure who went out in an explosive display of violence during the early postwar years. Here, in this film, Fukasaka adamantly suggests an entire tradition died with him.
This is indeed violent and gritty, but perhaps should be seen by ALL fans of yakuza films. You will be drawn into strongly sympathizing for Rikio and his lover, despite the fact that they represent everything you personally abhor. Thus here you will experience a mature, bitter-sweet tale which concludes in a stark moral lesson regarding the end of the romanticized historical yakuza of yore.
Definitely check this out (after you put the chihuahua and kids to bed).
Version reviewed: Region 1 DVD with English subtitles. Available via all mainstream venues.
|Perhaps the most formative yakuza film you will see.||Though hardly graphic by today's standards, here you will see some (1975 Japan) hardcore attempts at violent realism.||Here too, though not graphic in a contemporary sense, tragic rape and subsequent drug-fueled humping abound.||Here is the "godfather" of every delinquent, self-annihilating yakuza film you have ever seen.|