Tuesday, May 9, 2023


 by Anthony King

F This Yakuza!

Takeshi Kitano's Violent Cop (1989) made my top 25 film discoveries of 2022. It's gritty yet filled to the brim with neon; dangerous-feeling yet comforting knowing we're in the capable of hands of its star/director; boundary-pushing as we're stuck following around a, you guessed it, violent cop, one who we end up cheering for but pitying at the same time. It's pure brilliance. Little did I know, 13 years prior a film about a cop that borders-on-if-not-outright-is a dirty cop was released by Japan's Toei Company.

Tetsuya Watari (Tokyo Drifter, 1966) stars as Kuroiwa, a detective who toes the line between being on the take and being on the up and up as a cop. Even though his superiors are clearly on the wrong side, Kuroiwa keeps one foot firmly planted between good and evil. As of now there is peace between the different yakuza gangs but the cops seem to think that's bad for cop business. As the top brass begin to shake things up between the warring factions, Kuroiwa is in the middle attempting to keep the peace. On top of this, our violent cop is starting to fall for the wife of an imprisoned gang boss named Keiko, played to the hilt by Meiko Kaji (Lady Snowblood, 1973). A little bit Violent Cop, a little bit Breathless (1960), Yakuza Graveyard could easily sit with director Kinju Fukasaku's best work that includes the Battles Without Honor and Humanity series (1973-1974) and Battle Royale (2000).
This is another brilliant film from the filmmaking duo of director Fukasaku and writer Kazuo Kasahara, who also scripted Big Time Gambling Boss (1968). The cinematography by Fukasaku's frequent collaborator Toru Nakajima puts us right in the action with much of the film shot on handheld. Running through darkened corridors only to burst into raging daylight gets the viewer's heart racing as we're right alongside detective Kuroiwa chasing the bad guys. When shakedowns or shootouts occur the camera is tilted askew sending our equilibrium spiraling. The film feels chaotic at times, as if we were smack dab in the middle of the action, the camera frantically scrambling out of harm's way. As in Violent Cop, we're inside a gritty crime film not unlike the Italian poliziotteschi films of the '60s and '70s immediately followed by calm and quiet where scintillating neons dance off wet streets and reflect their radiant, flashing colors on glass.

Like Jean-Paul Belmondo in Breathless, Watari's charm as an actor carries into his dirty cop persona on screen, allowing the viewer, like Keiko, to fall head over heels for him. The air of mystery surrounding Kuroiwa is magnetic, like its own atmosphere that pulls us into his orbit. Knowing full well we're in for the most dangerous time of our life, we willingly and blindly throw caution (and our well being) to the wind, grab Kuroiwa by the hand, and hang on for dear life. Maybe we get smacked around a little bit and men with guns unrelentingly hunt us down, but our hearts won't let go. The way Watari plays Kuroiwa is one of the most intriguing things about the film. If he's not beating the shit out of guys on the street or sweeping desks clean of flotsam in a fit of rage, Kuroiwa keeps his head down, literally. It's as if he's ashamed of the sort-of double life he's leading. He's having an affair with a married woman. He's friends with some of the baddest dudes in Osaka. So he keeps to himself most of the time.
This all leads to the undercurrent of an interesting theme in Yakuza Graveyard. Kuroiwa is originally from Manchukuo (Manchuria) and is viewed – not favorably, mind you – by many as an immigrant. As his relationship with Keiko grows he discovers she's half Korean, which she keeps to herself as Koreans are also unfavorably welcomed immigrants in Japan. After WWII Koreans made up 60% of the growth in gangs, doing no favors for innocent Korean immigrants in the eyes of native Japanese. In a heart-wrenching scene at the beach we see the toll this takes on both of them. Forever viewed as outsiders, kept at arm's length by their peers, they find solace in each others' arms, for this they have in common. Like Graveyard's not nonfactual portrayal of the yakuza during this time, having our two main characters – played by big stars in Japan, no less – play those outsiders, those immigrants, is yet another fantastic layer in an already exceptional film. As Kuroiwa says to a colleague in the film, “We are all human. The same blood runs through them as in us.” During this moment he's referring to the criminals as “them,” but the double meaning alluding to his immigrant status is quite moving.
You may get sick of seeing it from me, but I mean it every single time: Radiance has another notch in their belt with this release. While the film alone is worth the sticker price, the special features included are a major bonus. Author Tom Mes' video essay titled “The Rage and the Passion” about the many collaborations of actor Meiko Kaji and director Kinji Fukasaku is a stunning love letter to these two titans of the Japanese film industry. Bring your pen and paper because you'll be leaving with a page full of film titles that you'll want to seek out immediately. There's also a great conversation with filmmaker Kazuya Shiraishi (The Blood of Wolves, 2018) where he explores the depths of the yakuza film genre, discusses the history of Korean immigrants in Japan post WWII, and dives deep into Fukasaku's filmmaking styles. This is turning out to be the year of the yakuza for me, and I'm not hating it. With Yakuza Graveyard, my fascination and budding love for the genre has gotten a gigantic boost, and hopefully some of you will come along for the ride with me.

Blu-ray release date: May 16, 2023
96 minutes / 1976
2.35:1 (1080p)
PCM Mono (Japanese)
Subtitles: English (SDH)

Bonus Features:
Limited edition 32-page booklet featuring new writing on the film by Mika Ko on the representations of Koreans in the yakuza film, and new translated re-prints of a contemporary review and writing by screenwriter Kazuo Kasahara

“The Rage and the Passion” – a visual essay by critic Tom Mes on Meiko Kaji and Kinji Fukasaku's collaborations (2022, 12 min.)

Appreciation by filmmaker Kazuya Shiraishi (2022, 15 min.)

Gallery of promotional material

Easter Egg


Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Time Tomorrow

Removable OBI strip leaving packaging free of certificates and markings

1 comment:

  1. Japan has a close historical connection with the Korean Peninsula. It was a colony of Japan for forty years, up till the end of WWII. It is a fraught history, especially during the WWII period. Manchuria was taken over by Japan through invasion in the the early 1930s, and an attempt to take over most of eastern China began from there in 1937. Millions of Chinese would perish during the conflict. Even now Japan has a difficult time acknowledging the bad deeds it perpetrated against its neighbors.