There are more than enough corpses to fill a cemetery once the smoke clears in Yakuza Graveyard, but in Fukasaku Kinji’s caustic thriller national honor is the central casualty. With Japan’s severe economical crisis spreading across both sides of the law, a shooting can become a transaction. “If you kill someone, you owe damages” is how a drug-addicted prostitute justifies detective Kuroiwa’s (Watari Tetsuya) responsibility for her after he’s killed her pimp—just one of the film’s many relationships defined in business as opposed to moral terms.
Assigned to the local crime beat to cool his rogue-cop jets, Kuroiwa quickly finds himself wedged between the Nishida and Ushin families, warring yakuza groups with unsavory links to the police department. His allies include Iwata (Umemiya Tetsuo), a bellicose underworld torpedo with whom the detective bonds over bruises, booze, and Yankee hookers, and Lady Snowblood herself, Kaji Meiko, as Keiko, the wife of an imprisoned Nishida boss.
The godfather of the yakuza genre on which Kitano Takeshi and Miike Takashi would later feed upon, Fukasaku may be a less artistic mayhem-purveyor than his heirs. His handheld frenzies have little of the formalist elegance of Kitano, while Miike digs much deeper into the freaky zones of gangland macho codes. It’s easy to imagine what Miike would have done with the suggestions of “jerk-off brothers” between Kuroiwa and Iwata.
What Fukasaku has is first-hand knowledge of postwar institutional degradation, and the anger to paint it in ferocious strokes and jagged compositions that burn through the trappings of the genre. His contempt is the visceral counterpart of fellow agitator Oshima Nagisa’s cerebral anarchy, and, indeed, Oshima ironically cameos here as Muramoto, a shady figure of authority.
Cramped with shootouts, betrayal, and grudges, the screen (and, by extension, society) has no room for the outdated honor the characters yearn for. When the hero and Kaji’s half-Korean moll (an outsider by birth) have desperate sex by the beach, the pounding sea becomes a marvelous reflection not only of Fukasaku’s stylistic fury, but also of the characters’ desire for purification. And Yakuza Graveyard being one of Fukasaku’s darkest macho critiques, it’s no surprise that such cleansing can only occur through the barrel of a pistol.
Radiance’s transfer highlights the grimy roots of Yakuza Graveyard. Colors are occasionally washed out in bright daytime exteriors, and grain can be so thick in underlit scenes as to obscure detail. But these appear endemic to the film, as there are no visible instances of scratches or debris indicative of a poor-quality source print. And for every example of softness, there are two more of exceptional clarity. Color and flesh tones look strong throughout, right down to the occasional leaps into expressionistic touches of garish bruise makeup and streaks of red and blue lighting. The soundtrack is an endless cacophony of yelling and brawling sounds, but the lossless audio never lets this din descend into a soupy murk, instead clearly separating each voice and roar of street noise from the other in the mix.
Filmmaker Shiraishi Kazuya contributes a brief tribute to the film, tracing how Fukasaku Kinji and his screenwriter, Kasahara Kazuo, refined and deepened the cynical worldview of their prior revisionist yakuza movies, such as Battles Without Honor and Humanity, with an added emphasis on Japan’s unaddressed racism and the moral culpability of unaccountable police in the war on crime. Critic Tom Mes also provides a visual essay about the collaborations between Fukasaku, Kasahara, and actress Kaji Meiko, noting how the latter used ostensibly minor roles in the director and writer’s male-centric worlds to stretch her acting chops and to find the complexities in her characters. A booklet contains an essay by film professor Ko Mika that highlights the film’s social commentary on Koreans in Japanese society; an archival 1976 introduction for the magazine Scenario by Kasahara and excerpts of his screenplay of the film; and an analysis of the film in the same issue of that magazine by Matsuda Masao.
Radiance Films offers a faithful transfer of one of Fukasaku Kinji’s gnarliest yakuza classics.
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