Blood of Revenge (明治侠客伝 三代目襲名, Tai Kato, 1965)

An earnest yakuza trying to walk a more legitimate path faces off against a thuggish businessman in Tai Kato’s late-Meiji ninkyo eiga, Blood of Revenge (明治侠客伝 三代目襲名, Meiji kyokyakuden – Sandaime Shumei). Though set in the confusing world of 1907, Kato’s tale is in some ways not so different from contemporary gangster dramas in its suggestion that even in the early days of the 20th century the yakuza were already somewhat out of date while the fancy capitalist who calls them so is not so far off from the corporatised gangsters of the high prosperity era. 

Kato opens with a tense scene at a festival in which local boss Kiyatatsu is knifed by an impassive assailant who later claims to have been acting alone and that he did it to make a name for himself by stabbing a big time yakuza boss. Kiyatasu’s hot-headed son Haruo (Masahiko Tsugawa) suspects that rival businessman Hoshino (Minoru Oki) is somehow behind the attack but is talked out of a self-destructive bid for revenge as his father reminds him that they are “not a mob” but “honest businessmen” and acts of violence would impact their business negatively. 

Kiyatatsu may once have been a big time yakuza boss but it’s clear he’s made an attempt to go straight by founding a legitimate business that began trading lumber and now sells construction supplies that are helping to expand the rapidly modernising late-Meiji economy. He is closely involved with a construction project to introduce a modern water distribution system for the good of the people of Osaka organised by another former yakuza, Nomura (Tetsuro Tamba). Hoshino, who was indeed behind the attack and is secretly backed by his own band of mercenary yakuza, had Kiyatatsu knifed in the hope of getting his hands on the contract, later stooping to other dirty tricks such as ruining their cement supply so that he can swoop in with a special deal on his own.  

Just like yakuza, businessmen appear to have a code and letting personal feelings interfere with business is just as bad as letting ninjo get in the way of your giri. Hoshino is a bad yakuza in a business suit, his Western clothing just another symbol of his villainy. Kiyotatsu’s guys including noble retainer Asajiro (Koji Tsuruta) all wear kimono with the young son Haruo later shifting to a suit after taking over the business in a bid to appear less like a yakuza and more like a serious young professional. Though Hoshino sneers at Asajiro that yakuza are already out of date and that he hates their tendency to solve every problem through violence he is little more than a thug himself keeping a small band of yakuza onside to do his dirty work.

Yet there is something in what he says that the yakuza belong to an earlier age and are unable to travel into the new post-Meiji society men like Normura are building. Insiting that Japan must embrace international trade, Nomura builds piers as a kind of outreach to a new world and does so for the good of the people rather than himself, living up to an old yazkua ideal in trying to ensure prosperity for all. Kiyotatsu is already distancing himself from the gangster way of life, explaining to a travelling gambler to whom he grants hospitality that he does not allow gambling in his home and believes that modern gangsters should find new ways to live, but is constantly tarred by the yakuza brush unable to fully escape the legacy of his tattoos. When Asajiro is appointed the new head of the clan it comes as quite a shock to the young Haruo who is outraged having believed it was his birthright to succeed his father. Ever noble, Asajiro suggests that he succeed as the head of the clan and Haruo as the heir to the legitimate business saving him from a sordid yakuza existence. 

Even this cannot save the clan from destruction in the light of Hoshino’s avaricious greed forcing Asajiro on a bloody path of revenge while forced to give up the woman he loves because of his code of duty. Asajiro’s kindness is signalled by his decision to buy a geisha for three days so she can visit her dying father in the countryside but Hatsue (Junko Fuji) remains otherwise entirely trapped. Her contract is bought out by boorish assassin Karasawa (Toru Abe) who treats her cruelty and buys her complicity in insisting that should she disobey he will turn on Asajiro. Asajiro’s eventual arrest makes it clear that he is not a man who can survive in the new times because his brand of nobility is clearly out of fashion even as he takes revenge on an increasingly corrupt society by standing up against the duplicitous Hoshino ironically taking a leaf out of Haruo’s book that by appeasing men like Hoshino they only enable their own oppression. Kato’s characteristic low level photography reflects the anxiety of the times dwarfing these old-fashioned men with an awkward modernity they are ill-equipped to survive.


The Story of a Man Among Men (修羅の群れ, Kosaku Yamashita, 1984)

The ninkyo eiga, chivalrous tales of noble gangsters standing up for the little guy with decency and honour, had been Toei’s mainstay throughout the 1960s but a decade later the image of righteous yakuza had been well and truly imploded by the advent of the jitsuroku or “true account” movie which drew inspiration from real life tales of post-war gangsterdom using voiceover narration and onscreen text for added authenticity as it proved once and for all that there was no “honour and humanity” to be found in the gangster life only nihilism and futility. Still, the ninkyo, like many of its heroes, proved hard to kill as 1984’s Story of a Man Among Men (修羅の群れ, Shura no Mure) perhaps proves. A throwback to an earlier era with its infinitely noble hero and unexpectedly if not quite happy then defiantly positive ending, Kosaku Yamashita’s manly drama nevertheless adopts some of the trappings of the jitsuroku in its infrequent use of voiceover and emphasis on concrete historical events. 

The hero, Ryuji Inahara (Hiroki Matsukata), is like many heroes of post-war gangsterdom an orphan though his story begins in the mid-1930s as he’s recruited by a friendly yakuza at a karate dojo. As his teacher explains, Ryuji has already been offered a job with the police but given the chance to join the other side instead immediately agrees, explaining that his life’s ambition has been to gain revenge against the force that ruined his father and destroyed his family, gambling. He chooses to do this, however, not by destroying gambling dens everywhere but by becoming a gambler himself determined to be a winner which is, it seems, a textbook example of having learned the wrong lesson. Still, his noble gangster cool stands him in good stead in the yakuza world where he quickly earns the loyalty of other men, rapidly advancing up the ranks to head his own gang by the crime heyday of the mid-1950s. 

As the title implies, this is a story of a man, a very manly man, among other men. The gangster world is intensely homosocial and founded on ideas of brotherhood and loyalty. Thus, Ryuji finds a surrogate father figure in fellow gangster Yokoyama (Koji Tsuruta) who constantly gives him advice on what it is to be a proper man. “Don’t be a fool, don’t be too smart, and most of all don’t be half-hearted” he advises, later adding “you can’t be a man if you’re dirty about money”, and “taking action isn’t the only way to be a man. It takes a man to have patience.” (this last one as Ryuji hotheadedly discharges himself from hospital to get revenge on a punk who got the jump on him outside a shrine). To be a man, Ryuji intervenes when he sees some less than honourable young toughs hassling an old couple running a dango stand at the beach and the young woman from the caramel stall next-door, throwing his entire wallet on their counter to make up for the damage in what will become something of a repeated motif. His manliness earns him the eternal devotion of the young woman, Yukiko (Wakako Sakai), who eventually becomes his devoted wife against the will of her concerned mother who is nevertheless brought round on realising the love she has for him because of his intense nobility. 

Indeed, Ryuji lives in a noble world. He’s a gambler by trade but only because he hates gambling and is trying to best it. He doesn’t participate in the seedier sides of the yakuza life such as drugs or prostitution and is also in contrast to jitsuroku norms a humanist who defiantly stands up against racism and xenophobia, taking another gambler to task for using a racial slur against a Korean opponent while opting to befriend the “foreign” gangs of Atami when eventually put in charge of the lucrative area rather than divide and conquer. This is apparently a lesson he learned from his flawed but goodhearted father who hid a Korean man and his daughter from the pogroms after the 1923 earthquake because “we’re all the same human beings”. Spared the war because of an injury to his trigger finger, Ryuji kicks off against an entitled son of a gang boss for acting like a slavedriver while working at a quarry but earns only the respect of his superiors further enhancing his underworld ties because of his reputation as a standup guy willing to stand up to oppression. 

Such an intense sense of uncomplicated righteousness had perhaps been unseen since the ninkyo eiga days, and Ryuji’s rise and rise does in that sense seem improbable as his goodness only aids his success earning him the respect of over 1000 foot soldiers even as he finds himself in the awkward position of having to exile one of his most trusted associates for getting too big for his boots and disrespecting the yakuza code. His children also suffer for their connection to the gangster underworld, but are reassured that their father is a good man if with the subtle implication that he has damned them as his father did him. Shot with occasional expressionist flourishes such as crashing waves or a midnight sky, A Story of a Man among Men is not free from manly sadness and indeed ends on the sense of a baton passing from one era to another but does so with an unexpected sense of moral victory for its righteous hero who vows to bring his manly ideas with him into a new age of gangsterdom. 


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Brutal Tales of Chivalry (昭和残侠伝, Kiyoshi Saeki, 1965)

brutal tales of chivalry posterBrutal Tales of Chivalry (昭和残侠伝, Showa Zankyo-den) – a title which neatly sums up the “ninkyo eiga”. These old school gangsters still feel their traditional responsibilities deeply, acting as the protectors of ordinary people, obeying all of their arcane rules and abiding by the law of honour (if not the laws of the state the authority of which they refuse to fully recognise). Yet in the desperation of the post-war world, the old ways are losing ground to unscrupulous upstarts, prepared to jettison their long-held honour in favour of a dog eat dog mentality. This is the central battleground of Kiyoshi Saeki’s 1965 film which looks back at the immediate post-war period from a distance of only 15 years to ask the question where now? The city is in ruins, the people are starving, women are being forced into prostitution, but what is going to be done about it – should the good people of Asakusa accept the rule of violent punks in return for the possibility of investment in infrastructure, or continue to struggle through slowly with the old-fashioned patronage of “good yakuza” like the Kozu Family?

Here is where we find ourselves in the 21st year of the Showa Era (1947) – the small marketplace in Asakusa is rife with black marketeers and illegal goods, but it’s still the only mechanism by which people are able to survive. The market is overseen by the elderly patriarch of the Kozu Family, Gennosuke (Tomosaburo Ii), who does his best to ensure a kind of “fairness” in its operation, at least in as far as yakuza rules extend. His territory is currently under threat from a rival gang – the Shinsei (literally “new truth”) who obey no such rules and are growing ever more ruthless in their quest to control the local area. Their big idea is to build an entirely new marketplace with a roof to make it a permanent and pleasant place for traders to do business – they will finance this through a kind of crowdfunding paid for by the merchants themselves who will also be paying protection money and kickbacks to the Shinsei. Everyone approves of the covered market project, even the Kozu, but if it means letting the Shinsei assume control is it a price worth paying?

This is a question which faces prodigal son Seiji (Ken Takakura) who returns from the war to find his city in ruins, Gennosuke murdered by the Shinsei, that he is now the new head of the Kozu, and that the woman he loved has been given away in a dynastic marriage to man from another minor clan. Before he died, Gennosuke was able to dictate two important instructions – that Seiji was to take over, and that the gang should proceed on a note of peace, avoiding violence or aggression where possible, leading by example rather than attempting to crush their new rivals. Seiji, having just returned from one battlefield is intent on following Gennosuke’s orders but how far can he really survive on the moral high ground when his opponents are content to fight dirty from down below?

The “Showa” era spanned some 60 years of turbulent Japanese history but in 1965 it was just under 40 years old and already beginning to generate the complicated feelings of nostalgia which are still attached to it today. Showa is right there in the Japanese title as if it were an age already passed but it’s clear in 1965 that something has shifted, one age has or is beginning to give way to another. The desperation of the post-war world with its empty, rubble strewn vistas and population filled with hunger and despair has ebbed away now that Japan is back on the world stage following the 1964 Olympics and the economy has as last begun to pick up. The young no longer fixate on the rights and wrongs of empire building, war and surrender but have begun to turn their attention towards the American occupation, social justice, and foreign conflicts. The young of 1947 were middle-aged in 1965, no one would begrudge them romanticising their youth, and so even if the world of Brutal Tales of Chivalry is a bleak one it still contains a kind of nostalgia for the kind of honourable gangster inhabited by Takakura who embodies traditional values some may feel are under represented in modern society.

Yet, for all that, there’s something subtly subversive in the film’s eventual suggestion that pacifism will only go so far and that one side or another must be banished from the battlefield through violence if peace is ever to prosper. Still, the struggle is a noble one in which honour is defined by strength of character and the selfless desire to ensure the well-being of others as much as it is to a blind observation of arcane rules and obsolete, meaningless ritual. The first in a long running series, Brutal Tales of Chivalry helped established Takakura’s iconic presence which eventually became synonymous with the “ninkyo eiga” as a personification of idealised Japanese masculinity, tough but caring even if passion is often repressed or redirected into violence. Remnants may be all that’s left of “chivalry” in the new Showa era, but there’s a degree of beauty in this brutality that refuses to die even as its era passes.


Now available on Region A blu-ray from Twilight Time (limited to 3000 copies only)

Original trailer (no subtitles)