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Tattooed Life - Irezumi ichidai (Suzuki Seijun 1965)


Tattooed Life

Irezumi ichidai

Genre: Old-School Yakuza Reverence

review in one breath

A convicted Yakuza felon is forced to decide between his own safety and the protection of his good-natured, devoted younger brother. Choosing the latter, both brothers flee to a remote mining town in the hopes of finding work and solace from the police. Their career choice brings them into contact with the motley and volatile crew of mine workers, each seemingly with a similarly notorious background. In spite of the elder brother's relentless efforts to keep them both out of harm's way, once the younger brother becomes fixated on the exemplar beauty of boss's wife, all hell breaks loose. This early film by renowned director Suzuki Seijun brings classic depictions of Yakuza nobility and Japanese humanism to the fore. Definitely worth checking out!


Suzuki Seijun is a name with which any fan of Japanese film should be familiar. Now globally renowned, his work is hailed as one of the genre-busting influences within Japanese film. But of course hindsight is always 20/20.

The brunt of Suzuki's directorial career fell between the years of 1956 and 1967. During that eleven year period he directed 40 films exclusively for the Nikkatsu Production Company. But despite the industriousness and dedication, Suzuki's uniquely brazen style and stark content earned him nothing but scorn from the Nikkatsu executives, culminating in his being fired following their viewing of his 1967 Branded to Kill. Shortly afterward Suzuki was blacklisted from film production for 10 years.

But karma's a bitch (as they say) and Nikkatsu eventually ended up losing a HUGE bundle of cash while Suzuki's films became more widely recognized as exemplars in their own right.

The film we are reviewing here, entitled Tattooed Life (Irezumi Ichidai) earned Suzuki his first warning from Nikkatsu for having crossed the line. In less than two years after Tattooed Life Suzuki would be ousted from Nikkatsu.


Tetsu, the yakuza henchman of a waning yakuza family decides to take things into his own hands after witnessing the back-stabbing degradation of a rival clan's code of conduct. He slays the rival clan's boss and has his last target literally in his (gun) sites when his younger brother Kenji happens along and witnesses the spectacle. When Kenji vehemently protests the violence, Tetsu turns and tries to explain his predicament, but his lapse into family concerns is met only with an attack from the panicked rival clan member. Without thinking, Kenji picks up the gun dropped by his distracted older brother and kills the aggressive rival point blank.

Rather than leave his younger brother to his fate, the two flee the region in the hopes of making their way across the sea to Manchuria to start anew. But once swindled out of their cash, they find themselves in a remote town as members of a motley construction crew burrowing deep into the mountainside to make way for the new train line.

Given the very dangerous work, the violence-prone co-workers, and young Kenji's testosterone-feuled interest in the boss's beautiful wife. Tetsu has more than enough trouble keeping his younger brother alive.


This is an early, classic film in the yakuza genre which depicts (certain rogue) yakuza as the heirs of the noble, traditional principles of samurai bushido. Any contemporary viewer will immediately perceive Tetsu as the most moral and honorable character in the lot. And it is clear that his yakuza/bushido principles are what set him apart from his yakuza rivals, his co-workers, and even the lazier members of his own yakuza clan. This tale is purely about Tetsu's inner principles and his persistent self-sacrifice in protecting his younger brother.

This is indeed the "old-school" depiction of yakuza which modern films no longer feign to attempt. At the time, this depiction (along with the violence it involved) was enough to place director Suzuki into significant controversy. From a contemporary perspective, it offers a fascinating view into Japan's traditional sentiment wherein an occasional "bad guy" is in fact the ultimate good guy. (For an easily intuited Western parallel to this phenomenon, just check out any of Clint Eastwood's early spaghetti westerns.)

This is definitely worth checking out. Whether you are a yakuza-fan, or interested in the historical development of Japanese film, or simply have a fetish for curvaceous carvings of the Kwannon Buddha, you will not be disappointed.

cultural interest violence sex strangeness
This film placed Suzuki on the controversial hot seat. Contemporary viewers will find this endearing and historically/culturally distinct. Plenty of 1965-style carnage in the form of guns, knive, fisticuffs, explosives and of course, samurai swords. No nudity unless you count the pencil drawing. But plenty of randiness and culturally-defying, era-specific imaginative suggestion. (Admittedly not our culture and certainly not this era.) One green skull for the memorable blend of brotherly protections and downright violence. Another enthusiastic green skull for the (enlightening and) uncanny resemblance between certain hand-carved statues of Kwannon Buddha and naked, bathing middle-aged women.

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