• Jingi no hakaba / Graveyard of Honor (1975)

    Graveyard of Honor is one of the best and most influential Japanese gangster movies ever made. If it had been more popular abroad, this movie might have the same reputation as The Godfather, Once Upon a Time in America and The Untouchables have today. This film was later on re-imagined by legendary Japanese director Miike Takashi.

    The original movie by Fukasaku Kinji is an adaptation of Goro Fujita's novel of the same title and partially based upon real-life gangster Ishikawa Rikio. The film's antagonist starts as an ambitious gangster who assaults and steals money from numerous families but is unfit to be a permanent member of any family due to to his unconventional and violent behaviour. Things spiral out of control when the antagonist assaults the boss of his current family and is banished from Tokyo for ten years. The gangster spends some time in prison before moving to Osaka and becoming a drug addict that hangs around with unreliable junkies and sick prostitutes. He quickly returns to Tokyo and brutally clashes with the only friend he had left who has become an influential gangster boss. The antagonist is now hunted down by two gangster families and the police as he fights for survival while trying to organize some changes in his life.

    There are many brutal Japanese gangster movies released between the late sixties and late seventies but Graveyard of Honor stands out for multiple reasons. The movie features numerous interesting characters such as the sick prostitute who accompanies the antagonist or his estranged friend that he met in prison. The movie has many violent action scenes that have aged surprisingly well but also some quiet dramatic parts that emotionally portray the downfall of the ambitious antagonist. The cinematography is absolutely outstanding with parts of the movie filmed in black and white as well as in sepia to introduce changes and flashbacks that give the final result an experimental mockumentary style. Despite these unconventional elements, the movie is coherent, entertaining and fluid from start to finish.

    To keep it short, anyone who likes gangster movies should know, buy and appreciate Graveyard of Honor. The movie has recently been reissued in a boxed set with Miike Takashi's re-imagined version by Arrow Films. This boxed set is a little bit expensive but crafted with much care and certainly worth every single penny.

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  • Gendai yakuza: Hito-kiri yota / Street Mobster (1972)

    Street Mobster is a violent Japanese gangster movie by prolific director Fukasaku Kinji who would later on direct influential genre masterpieces such as Battles Without Honor and Humanity, Graveyard of Honor and Yakuza Graveyard. Western audiences know him as the director of dystopian action thriller Battle Royale which was the last movie he was able to complete.

    The story of this movie is rather simple. It follows the life of a violent gangster who attacks the members of an inflluential clan who try to extort money from him and associates. He spends some time in prison but soon forms a new gang that is particularly violent. He ultimately gets injured and is temporarily forced to join a bigger family for protection. When another and even bigger family from Osaka tries to increase its influence in Kawasaki, the film's violent antagonist decides to disrespect common conventions and brutally disrespects the different gangster families. The three involved families come to the only reasonable conclusion: they must cooperate to eliminate the antagonist and his associates to preserve peace.

    The most interesting element about Street Mobster is its violent, nihilistic and egoistic antagonist who isn't interested in compromises, peace or truces. He desires to become the biggest gangster boss in the country by any means necessary. While this character is extremely dislikeable, he is brutally consequent and honest in his actions and therefore more complex and profound than one might think at first contact. The movie impresses with numerous violent scenes supported by dynamic camera work that have aged rather well and can still be considered offensive nowadays. The film has frantic pace and entertains from start to finish.

    On the negative side, there are very few characters to sympathize or empathize with. As opposed to Western gangster movies, even the victims and outsiders in organized crime come off as careless and despicable. The story is also extremely thin and quite predictable. The action scenes are quite intense but also rather repetitive. The movie impresses at first contact but lacks creativity, depth and diversity.

    To conclude, you should watch Street Mobster if you are looking for a particularly brutal, entertaining and fast gangster movie that has stood the test of time. This film certainly entertains while it last but doesn't leave any deeper impression due to its thin story line. Street Mobster is a feast for genre fans but can't compete with Fukasaku Kinji's later works.

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  • Kyôfu kikei ningen: Edogawa Rampo zenshû / Horrors of Malformed Men (1969)

    Horrors of Malformed Men is a quite experimental movie by veteran director Ishii Teruo that has been inspired by the tales of famous mystery and horror author Edogawa Rampo who had himself been inspired by Western authors such as Edgar Allan Poe. This experimental movie at the pulse of its time combines several of these tales. The main issue is that this fusion isn't always fluid and leads to two completely contrasting parts.

    The first half of the movie is a murder mystery tale. A medical student without any recollection of his past is trapped in a sinister asylum. He manages to escape when one of the guards attempts to murder him. The fugitive discovers the photograph of a recently deceased man from a prosperous family who looks exactly like him. The medical student decides to take the dead man's identity to find out the truth about his origins and escape from the police.

    The second half of the movie is a supernatural horror tale. The medical student travels to the island of a mad scientist who transforms perfectly normal humans into hideous freaks to create a better society. He gets captured, manipulated and threatened by the scientist and attempts to escape the island and prevent the scientist's megalomanic plans.

    It's probably a matter of prefence whether you prefer the first or the second half of the movie but they are so different from each other that few people will equally appreciate both parts. The first half is atmospheric, mysterious and surprising as it convinces with clever storytelling and intriguing characters. It recalls numerous European murder mystery films as especially the German Edgar Wallace films and the Italian giallo genre come to mind. The second half is much more brutal, experimental and frantic and ventures into experimental cinematography with hectic camera work, numerous flashbacks and colourful locations. It's a mixture of Japan's very own pink film genre of the sixties and American pre-war science-fiction and horror cinema somewhere between King Kong and Island of Lost Souls.

    In the end, Horrors of Malformed Men is certainly daring, entertaining and unconventional. However, the script is all over the place and the conclusion might even be too unconventional for most open-minded cineasts. Ishii Teruo should have created two different movies here instead of putting together two ideas that don't gel.

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  • Yakuza keibatsu-shi: Rinchi! / Yakuza Law (1969)

    Yakuza Law is an anthology that portrays three different stories abot organized crime in Japan. The three stories are presented in chronological order as they take place during the Edo period, followed by the Meiji period and finally present-day Japan when the movie was released. The title is quite ironic since the three tales portray that the common laws don't matter to organized crime syndicates and that they even break with their own conventions when conflicts are at hand.

    This movie has aged quite well since the three tales portray their respective periods in authentic fashion. The cinematography is quite vibrant with dynamic cuts and zooms. The film's pace is frantic without lacking depth. The three different tales offer suprisingly profound conspiracies with a few intersting twists and turns. This movie is also quite violent as all tales end in sinister confrontations. This shouldn't come as a surprise as the opening credits already portray grisly torture sequences.

    In the end, Yakuza Law finds a surprisingly timeless balance between brutal special effects, intelligent plots and dynamic cinematography. Veteran director Ishii Teruo offers one of his most concise films that features numerous skilled veterans such as prolific actor Sugawara Bunta and television star Miyauchi Hiroshi. If you like brutal gangster movie without wanting to sit through the extensive length of contemporary Western cinema, then you should certainly give this overlooked gem a try.

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  • Chiyari Fuji / Bloody Spear at Mount Fuji (1955)

    Bloody Spear at Mount Fuji is a chanbara film which means a sword fighting movie. Released sixty-five years ago as we speak, it has become one of the most influential films of its genre even though it has been overlooked by audiences from abroad for much too long. This movie has a particular vibe since the sword fighting only occurs during the last ten minutes of the film which makes for a surprisingly brutal finale.

    Before this unexpected conclusion, this movie could rather be categorized as a drama that quietly and cleverly criticizes social conventions and restraints. The film follows a group of people who travel from the country side to Edo. We meet a desperate father who sees no other solution to pay his depts than selling his daughter into prostitution. There is a traveling single mother and her daughter who earn a very modest living by dancing and singing at festivals. The film introduces a master who likes to socialize with his servants instead of keeping his distance. All these characters and events are connected to the protagonist of the movie who is a spear carrier with a remarkable sense of duty. He wants to help people in need, encourage those around him and even develops a tender romantic relationship on his journey. Just as the movie seems to conclude with a happy ending, a dramatic turn of events leaves the audience on a most sinister impression.

    This intelligent movie convinces in many departments. The characters are profound, interesting and diversified. The numerous side stories are sometimes serious, sometimes humorous but always entertaining. The locations varying from busy town streets over traditional inns to beautiful country roads bring traditional Japan to life in an authentic manner. The camera work is calm and careful and rather observing than flamboyant which fits the tone of the movie.

    The film isn't without its flaws. The numerous side stories can't hide the fact that the movie is missing a precise guiding line. The locations end up being somewhat repetitive. The movie's slow pace hasn't aged particularly well. The fact that the movie only contains a few minutes of sword fighting scenes contrasts the rather gruesome and misleading title.

    If you are however prepared to watch an intelligent drama criticizing social conventions in feudal Japan instead of an intense sword fighting film, you are certainly going to appreciate this hidden gem with its unusual storytelling.

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