Yakuza Films at the Asia Societyby David Wilentz
Yakuza Films at the Asia Society
Gamblers, Gangsters and other Anti-Heros: The Japanese Yakuza Movie
March 6-April 17, 2008
The Asia Society
725 Park Avenue at 70th Street
No Borders, No Limits
1960s Nikkatsu Action Cinema
333 East 47th Street
New York, NY 10017
The violent, trope-driven, macho-archetype-abundant gangster cinema of Japan is codified by criminal myth and the true-to-life brutality of the yakuza. A fascinating arc in both crime cinema and social consciousness emerges through the 5 films in Asia Society’s upcoming series. Yakuza films were hot in 1960s Japan, the preferred paradigm being ninkyo-eiga or chivalry films. These formula pictures portrayed stoic young yakuza with a code of honor and sense of nobility that remained untarnished even if our hero belonged to the underworld. Steeped in cinematic artifice, these tales were told in bold, brash strokes, always climaxing in a showdown where the anti-hero takes down all nemeses with a katana (samurai sword).
Ninkyo films offered escapism wrought from folklore, and was a byproduct of a decade of post-war desperation. In the late 1940s, right after the war, the real yakuza were street thugs who ruled the black market by exploiting the scarceness of rice: the daily sustenance was rationed and in extremely high demand. But as the ‘economic miracle’ of the ’60s evened out in the early 70s, an assumed cultural naiveté gave way to cinematic exposés of criminals and a darker human nature. Yakuza films continued to flourish, but no longer were gangsters portrayed as Eastern knights with flashy tattoos (in place of armor). The genre at the forefront now was jitsuroku, or ‘true document’ films, in which criminals were revealed to be low down, vicious brutes. If no katana was in sight, guns, fists, broken glass, or anything available was utilized to inflict pain. No matter how you slice it, yakuza films are bleak territory.
Curated by Japan scholar Ian Buruma, the series opens with an example of Toei Studio’s brand of hardboiled genre cinema. Jinsei Gekijo: Hishakaku to Kiratsune (A Tale of Two Yakuza) (1968) features yakuza icons Ken Takakura and Koji Tsuruta. Like most yakuza films, Tale is a primer in the classic Japanese dilemma of giri vs. ninjo, or, what to do when the overwhelming weight of social duty conflicts with personal feelings? You can bet on lots of macho posturing and stoic stares from the two stars until they can’t take it anymore and explode into a bloody ballet of sword swinging. Despite having helmed a popular version of Miyamoto Musashi, stalwart genre director Tomo Uchida’s films (whose career spanned from 1922–1971) are rarely seen in the west. Later this year BAM will run a brief series of Uchida films. The floodgates are slowly giving way to a tide of largely undiscovered Eastern style.
Heitai Yakuza (Hoodlum Soldier) (1965) is directed by cinematic genius Yasuzo Masamura. Masamura specialized in breaking boundaries and questioning the norm, as exemplified by his S&M shockers Blind Beast and Kisses, the film which ignited the Japanese new wave. Heitai tells the tale of an underdog conscientious objector relentlessly abused by his commanding officers. He comes under the wing of a fellow soldier and bad-ass yakuza who understands restraint. That means he takes a beating and doesn’t fight back until least expected. Masamura delivers an entertaining film with a rebellious spirit and a thinly veiled critique of the obstinacy of Japanese nationalism. The yakuza-soldier is played by none other than the original Zatoichi himself, Shintaro Katsu.
Hibotan Bakuto: Hanafuda Shobu (1969) was the 3rd entry in the enormously popular Red Peony Gambler series. The series made a star out of Junko Fuji as the refined but bad-ass female yakuza Ryu, an anomaly in the male-dominated yakuza genre. The entrance of a heroine into a macho world proves dichotomy is the key to dramatic action, just like the thesis-antithesis-sythesis of the giri-ninjo conflict described above. The cinematic artfulness, characteristic of the series, was perhaps never better executed than in the hands of another unsung genre master, Tai Kato. Kato injects pathos and a painterly touch into this pulp yarn. Despite the studio sets and decided theatricality, Kato and cast effect a strikingly gritty tone. The scenes in the snow alone have since become an indelible element of Quentin Tarantino’s pastiche.
Renowned outlaw auteur Seijun Suzuki was blackballed from Nikkatsu studios in 1967 on the claim that his magnum opus, Branded to Kill, was incomprehensible. Here he is represented by Irizumi Ichidai (Tatooed Life) (1965), a program picture about two brothers on the run after killing a yakuza boss. Suzuki’s defiance against genre constrainsts can be read in his emphasis on brooding drama, replete with the rich design and striking flourishes that dominate his more outlandish work.
The series is rounded out by the ultimate jitsuroku film, Kinji Fukasaku’s hysteric Jingi Naki Tatakai (Battles Without Honor and Humanity) (1973). Battles pulled no punches, singlehandedly dispelling all the previous yakuza myths of the ninkyo films. This ultra-violent tale of a gangster clan’s rise to power after the war is relentlessly paced and incredibly dense, with a new character introduced almost every 45 seconds. Fukasaku’s claustrophobic framing, jittery hand-held camerawork, and other jarring devices such as freeze frames and zooms, render Battles a frightening and cathartic experience. Fukasaku harnessed his rage from war terrors he witnessed as a high school student into a furious social outcry. Don’t miss this rare chance to see it on the big screen.
While it would be nice if the series was more expansive, it is apparent that the influence of Japanese genre cinema is finally starting to get its due. Japan Society continues to host the No Borders, No Limits series of Nikkatsu action films from the ’60s. Nikkatsu specialized in mukokuseki akushun (borderless action). These films are a hybrid of French new wave, hardboiled detective, and film noir influences. They are borderless because the setting is not important. The characters could be anywhere at anytime, and this malleability of narrative allowed the tone and mood to take precedence over expository details. Indeed some of these films are referred to as ‘mood action.’ Genres include rebellious youth films such as the delerious angry young man film, The Warped Ones, shown in October, or the terse noir-action of the series opener, A Colt is My Passport. The series is curated by Japanese cinema authority Mark Schilling, whose recently published book of the same title details this Nikkatsu phenomenon. The provocotive titles are just a hint at the breadth of this unique modern take on action films, an illuminating attempt towards transcendence through genre. Coming up are Plains Wanderer, a Japanese western, the weird La Strada-inspired Glass Johnny: Looks Like a Beast, and a pre-cursor to jitsuroku films, Roughneck.
David Wilentz dreams in color.