A yakuza just out of jail emerges into a very different Japan in Kinji Fukasaku’s proto-jitsuroku gangster picture, Japan Organized Crime Boss (日本暴力団 組長, Nihon Boryoku-dan: Kumicho). A contemporary Oda Nobunaga is trying to unify the nation under his yakuza banner while fostering a nationalist agenda and colluding with corrupt politicians to prop up the 1970 renewal of the Anpo security treaty, but as it turns out some people aren’t very interested in revolutions of any kind save the opportunity to live a quiet life they once feared would elude them.
As the film opens, a narratorial voice explains that the nation has now escaped from post-war chaos, but Japan’s increasing prosperity has led to a natural decline of the yakuza which has seen some try to ride the rising tides to find new ways to prosper. Exploiting its control of local harbours, the Danno group has quickly expanded though Osaka and on to the rest of the nation thanks largely to its strategist, Tsubaki (Ryohei Uchida), and his policy of convincing local outfits to ally with them and fight as proxies allowing Danno to escape all responsibility for public street violence.
Perhaps strangely, the Danno group and others are acutely worried about optics and keen to present themselves as legitimate businessmen while using a prominent politician as a go-between to settle disputes between gangs. The yakuza already know they’re generally unpopular and fear that attracting too much attention will only bring them problems from the authorities. The politician needs Danno to look clean so that they can back them in opposing the protests against the Anpo treaty, while the yakuza organisation is later depicted as a militarised wing of the far right hoping to correct “misguided” post-war democracy while eradicating communism and instilling a sense of patriotic pride as they go. Of course, all of that will also likely be good for business while quite clearly marking these new conspiracy-minded yakuza as “bad”, hypocritical harbingers of a dangerous authoritarianism.
Tsukamoto (Koji Tsuruta), the recently released lieutenant of the Hamanaka gang, is conversely the representative of the “good” yakuza who still care about the code and are genuinely standing up for the little guy against the oppressive forces now represented by bad yakuza. Hamanaka had allied with Danno while Tsukamoto was inside and was thereafter targeted by the local Sakurada group who have joined the Tokyo Alliance of yakuza clans opposed to Danno who continue to fight them by proxy. After his boss is killed and tells him that joining Danno was a mistake, Tsukamoto’s first thought is to rebuild the clan which he does by remaining neutral, refusing to engage in Danno’s proxy wars while protecting his men from their violence as mediated by the completely unhinged, drug-addled Miyahara (Tomisaburo Wakayama) and the anarchic Hokuryu gang.
Miyahara comes round to Tsukamoto precisely because of his pacifist philosophy after he kidnaps one of his men and Tsukamoto stands up to him while making a point of not fighting back. As crazed as he is, Miyahara is a redeemable gangster who later also turns on Danno regretting having agreed to do their dirty work for relatively little reward. After a gentle romance with the sister of a fallen comrade, Tsukamoto, who lost his first wife to suicide while inside, begins to dream of leaving the life behind but as he and others discover there is no real out from the yakuza and the code must always be repaid. In failing to protect his clan he fails to save himself and becomes a kind of martyr for the ninkyo society taking on politicised yakuza and their lingering militarism.
Fukasaku takes a typical ninkyo plot of a noble gangster standing up for what he believes is right against the forces of corruption and begins to undercut it with techniques such as voiceover narration and onscreen text that he’d later use in the jitsuroku films of the 1970s which firmly reject the idea of yakuza nobility seeing them instead as destructive forces born of post-war chaos and increasingly absurd in a Japan of rising economic prosperity. Men like Tsukamoto are it seems at odds with their times, unable to survive in the new society in which there is no longer any honour among thieves only hypocrisy and self-interest.