With Yakuza Kiwami out now and hopefully selling well for Sega as an evergreen title into the future, overall interest in the long-running series over the past few years seems high enough that I’m thinking some of you folks might be interested in a few of the many Japanese gangster films out there. If you’re new to them, this very short list of recommendations may pack a ton of surprises on a few fronts.
If you’ve played Yakuza 0, Yakuza 4 or more recently, Kiwami (which means “extreme” in Japanese), you’ll very clearly see cinematic influences in abundance throughout the series. Even though the games are set in a more modern version of Japan, most of these films have very similar scenes that show how in general, some criminal behavior never really changes and it’s quite a draw for some who choose to live that lifestyle despite the risks.
Anyway, just step into this alley over here and I’ll set you up right… or set you upright after setting you up, right?
Cops Vs Thugs * – Prolific director Kinji Fukusaku made a number of great yakuza-themed films, but this 1975 gem is probably his best. Notable for a brutal interrogation scene where an actor playing a gangster is actually beaten by actors playing crooked cops (the rehearsal footage is included as one of the bonuses), that scene is somehow very tame once added to the assorted forms of other violence on display.
When crooked but loyal to a fault cop (Bunta Sugawara) and his equally crooked and loyal to a fault Yakuza pal Hirotani (Hiroki Matsukata) clash with a gung-ho young detective who wants all corruption purged from the force, plenty of mayhem ensues. There’s not a dull moment at all here and it’s also a case of seemingly minor characters having major roles as the plot twists pile up.
Fukusaku’s candid camera catches it all, sometimes tilting mid-action during certain scenes and freeze-framing during others for added emphasis. The imminent threat of random violence and no clear black and white heroes makes you almost root for both sides. But you’ll see that there’s no winners here when all is said and done. This one’s a must despite the kind of goofy title as well as a great way to embellish your Kiwami experience outside the game.
New Battles Without Honor and Humanity * – While I still need to see three of the first five films in Kinji Fukusaku’s epic yakuza series, this set of three follow-ups aren’t really connected other than by title alone. That said, the director gets just about as gritty and cold-blooded as you’d expect, but there’s also a smidgen of a slightly softer side weaving between all the violence.
Adding more women to the stories (who are usually treated pretty cruelly in these films) lends them a bit more depth. But don’t worry much if you just want more than enough shootings, stabbings and other injuries happening in your crime dramas, as you get them in spades. Busy as hell actor Bunta Sugawara stars in all three films, but each one shares nothing other than more wildly entertaining and pretty graphic stories set around the yakuza lifestyle and the not so good things that occur at the worst of times for some of them.
Fukusaku never loses his stride throughout and the films even get into the car chase sub-genre by the final installment while keeping things going on the nearly non-stop gunfights and knife battles. The overall sense is a mix of delirium and adrenaline with a few sentimental moments that let you breathe for a few minutes between outbreaks of sudden but expected violence.
Outlaw Gangster VIP: The Complete Collection * – (Allegedly) based on the diaries of real-life former yakuza Goro Fujita, this set of six films (all shot within a year!) manages to be pretty potent stuff overall if you like your crime sagas raw and sliced just right. But the law of diminishing returns and the casting of a few of the same actors in different roles across the series can make things a wee bit confusing if you’re not paying attention to the stories.
Still, Tetsuya Watari (Tokyo Drifter) makes for a great antihero in six films (Gangster VIP, Gangster VIP 2, Heartless, Goro the Assassin, Black Dagger, and Kill!) chock full of violence, betrayal and revenge galore. Don’t let the 1968 date fool you into thinking this series isn’t going to deliver the goods, as blood flows freely and the language is just as strong.
Even though the films get predictable plot-wise, they’re all thrilling when it comes to purely violent and highly tense action sequences breaking out, sometimes when you least expect it. “Slasher” Goro gets into some phenomenally messy fights where he’s outnumbered yet somehow manages to chop and stab his way through foes by the dozen. He also gets stabbed, shot, beaten and even slapped a few times (often by a ticked-off lady love usually played by Chieko Matsubara), but he manages to survive anything man, woman or nature throws his way. While the action can get messy and ugly, the films have a cornball romance angle they work almost as hard as the crime stuff.
Well, there’s still an overall lurid (but highly watchable) sensibility here. But expect to laugh at bit to a lot at those endings where a gravely wounded Goro stumbles and staggers into the distance after exacting some tremendously bloody revenge. Hell, as many times as he’s attacked throughout the series, I have to use the word “Allegedly” up above because it’s hard to imagine anyone surviving so many attempts to kill them who lives to tell a few tales. Hey, I’m just saying (cue sound of yakuza killers boarding many planes, ulp!)…
The Black Society Trilogy * – Takashi Miike’s stellar trilogy of crime films (Shinjuku Triad Society, Rainy Dog, Ley Lines) show off a very different style than some of his later, more outrageous work (Dead or Alive Trilogy, Ichi The Killer). That said, Bleak Society is my nickname for these depressing takes on how violence hits home for the assorted characters, some of whom get what they deserve for going down that dirty criminal path, while others are collateral damage after things go south.
That Miike and his cast actually make you feel for some of these people despite them making some bad choices is one key to why this trilogy works so well. That said, when stuff goes down, it’s sometimes expected or in that unpredictable “no one is safe” zone Game of Thrones fans might appreciate. Still, this is a great entry point for new Miike fans as well as those who only know the director’s more notorious films who want a little more humanity amidst the violence. That humanity gets squashed more often then not here, so be warned.
Dead or Alive Trilogy * – Speaking of warnings, got a cast-iron stomach, a wicked sense of humor and a moral compass with an “OFF” switch? Well, here you go. Takashi Miike’s three very twisted flicks (which have NOTHING to to with the Tecmo fighting games or that awful movie derived from them) will test your tolerance level and probably keep you awake if you’re subject to nightmares.
Granted, the first film is the most insane, opening with a terrifying orgy of sex, drugs and murder that’s more than a little tough to sit through but will definitely blast your eyeballs wide open in you’re sleepy when you pop that disc in. The other two films are crazy on other levels but still aren’t something you’ll want to let the kids check out. But that’s one thing about the director’s wilder films. You’re either watching them wide-eyed or through your fingers with your jaw on the floor and that’s probably something he wants to occur.
Even crazier are the three films not being direct sequels to each other on one level, yet connected with an overall set of themes that somehow makes a strange kind of sense when all is said and done. Expect time-traveling, anime-style bits, stylized gore (in a Tex Avery meets Heavy Metal magazine manner) and nudity aplenty all tossed up and piled high with an offbeat sense of humor that pops up at the weirdest moments. Or the right ones if you wait long enough and can squeak out a laugh after certain parts. As insane as the earlier films on this short list can be, this set’s not pulling any punches when it comes to exceeding expectations.
The Challenge – Well, this one caught me by surprise because I didn’t think it got a DVD or Blu-Ray release at all until a friend pointed it out on the Kino Lober website. Excellent. John Frankenheimer’s 1982 action flick (co-written by John Sayles and shot entirely in Japan) blends old (samurai) and new (yakuza) in a tale of an out of work American boxer named Rick (Scott Glenn, who looks like one of the Ramones hit the gym) who ends up stuck between warring factions with two ancient swords and some family honor as the prize.
While not a “classic” compared to some of these other films, Frankenheimer’s direction is assured, there’s a great Jerry Goldsmith score, and the film packs in some fine work from Toshiro Mifune as the head of one clan that sticks to the old ways and Atsuo Nakamura as his brother who prefers his more modern criminal life. Which means you get swords, bows and arrows versus guns in a key battle and yep, Rick saving the day. Glenn actually eats a beetle in one scene where he’s going though some intense training and gets buried in a hole up to his neck without food or water. That’s commitment!
(Thanks, Mondo Digital!)
Trivia: Steve(n) Segal is credited as “martial arts coordinator” here, which I guess ended up a bonus as the fight and training scenes generally aim for realism over some of the more over the top bits found in a few other films I’ve listed here. Still, the film does have a few wildly violent moments including a sure permanent cure for a headache and some creative use of a stapler as a weapon (ouch!). The film was also released in a crappy TV edit called Sword of the Ninja, but it’s so chopped up that it loses all of its best parts to the censors and is kind of incomprehensible as a result.
I just realized that this list seems short (and yes, it was about five or six films longer in an early draft), but that’s seventeen films total not including the special features. I’ll stop here and let you catch your breath or get started on checking out some or all of these flicks. You’ll very likely get a lot more out of the Yakuza series as well as expanding your cinematic horizons a tad more outside that comfort zone.
*review copies provided by the publisher