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gangster dramas in its suggestion that even in the early days of the 20th century the yakuza were already somewhat out of date while the fancy capitalist who calls them so is not so far off from the corporatised gangsters of the high prosperity era.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 Though Hoshino sneers at Asajiro that yakuza are already out of date and that he hates their tendency to solve every problem through violence he is little more than a thug himself keeping a small band of yakuza onside to do his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.