Violent Streets (暴力街, Hideo Gosha, 1974)

“Nothing’s like it used to be anymore” sighs a woman who’s had to betray herself but has tried to make break for it only to discover there is no way back. Hideo Gosha’s Violent Streets (暴力街, Boryoku Gai) is like many films of its era about the changing nature of the yakuza in an age of corporatised gangsterdom. Now “legitimate businessmen” who claim to no longer deal in thuggery, their crimes are of a more organised kind though a turf war’s still a turf war even if you’re fighting from the boardroom rather than simply getting petty street punks to fight it for you in the streets. 

In a touch of irony, former yakuza Noboru Ando stars as a man who’s tried to leave the life behind but is pulled back into underworld intrigue when his former foot soldiers mount an ill-advised bid for revenge against the clan they feel betrayed them. After serving eight years in prison for participating in the last turf war, Egawa was given flamenco bar Madrid on the condition that he dissolve his family and attempt to go straight as a legitimate businessman. The Togiku gang has since gone legit and distanced itself from most of its old school yakuza like Egawa. But now a yakuza conglomerate from Osaka is moving in on their old turf and the Togiku want the Madrid back as a bulwark against incursion from the west which is why they’ve been sending the boys round to cause trouble in the bar. 

Egawa is the classic ex-gangster who wants to turn himself around but is largely unable to adapt to life in a changing society. He is technically in a relationship with a bar hostess who has a severe drinking problem in part exacerbated by his inability to get over his former girlfriend who left him and married the boss, Gohara, while he was in prison. His former foot soldiers attempt to convince him to get the gang back together and take revenge, resentful of having been used and discarded, but he tells them to let it go, that they’ve all got “honest jobs” and that they should try to live as best they can. Like him, the guys are ill-equipped to make new lives in the consumerist society and cannot move on from the post-war past. Hoping to engineer a turf war between the Osaka guys and Togiku, they kidnap a popular TV personality/pop singer (Minami Nakatsugawa) attached to a station which Togiku controls and frame a rival affiliated with the Osakans for taking her. 

This just goes to show the various ways in which newly corporatised yakuza have expanded their business portfolio, heavily participating in the entertainment industry moving beyond bars, clubs, and the sex trade into mainstream television and idol stars. Egawa’s old friend Yazaki (Akira Kobayashi) is his opposing number, just as caged but trapped within the confines of the new gangsterdom, reprimanded by his boss for raiding the rival studio’s offices and undoing the gang’s attempt to rebrand themselves as legitimate businessmen rather than violent street thugs. “I can’t stand being humiliated” he explains as Gohara points out he’s stepped right into their trap now giving the Osakans an excuse for retaliation. “The Togiku group is a defanged, domesticated dog” Yazaki barks, “I can’t pretend to be an obedient company employee forever and do nothing”. 

Neither man is able to progress into the new era of rising prosperity, both little more than caged animals thrashing around trying to break free but continually crashing into the bars. Just as Egawa’s old guys had tried to engineer a turf war hoping that the two gangs would take each other out and leave a vacuum they could fill, arch boss Shimamura (Tetsuro Tanba) flies above the city in a helicopter as the “worms fight among themselves” and observes the chaos below as he completes his silent conquest of the contemporary economy like some modern day Nobunaga of corporatised gangsterdom. 

Taking over the Togiku through a process of corporate infiltration and gradually ridding themselves of all the old school yakuza ill-suited to the shady salaryman life, the contrast between the world of cabaret bars and back street dives and Shimamura’s smart suits and helicopters couldn’t be more stark. A slightly sour note is struck by the use of a transgender assassin (Madame Joy) who performs a lesbian floorshow by day and kills by night while working with a bald sidekick who carries a parrot on his shoulder, her coldness bearing out the tendency of yakuza movies to associate queerness with sadistic savagery. Gosha rams his point home with the otherwise surreal scene of a pile of abandoned mannequins by a swamp that becomes a popular yakuza kill site homing in on the emptiness of their eyes and the uncanniness of dismembered bodies, mere empty shells just like the men who die in this literal wasteland. Egawa perhaps feels himself to be a man already dead long before being pushed towards his act of futile rebellion, somewhere between sitting duck and caged dog fighting for his life between the chicken coops of a moribund small-town Japan. Marching to a frenetic flamenco beat of rising passions and barely contained rage, Violent Streets leaves its former foot soldiers with nowhere to go but down while their duplicitous masters continue to prosper riding the consumerist wave into a new and prosperous future.


Violent Streets opens at New York’s Metrograph on Dec. 16 as part of Hideo Gosha x 3

Trailer (English subtitles)

Graveyard of Honor (仁義の墓場, Kinji Fukasaku, 1975)

“Like hell you’re free” the “hero” of Kinji Fukasaku’s Graveyard of Honor (仁義の墓場, Jingi no Hakaba) coolly snaps back in squaring off against a rival gang in a crowded marketplace. Perhaps a familiar scene in the jitsuroku eiga, a genre Fukasaku had helped usher into being and later solidified in the hugely influential Battles Without Honour and Humanity series. A reaction against the increasingly outdated ninkyo eiga and their tales of noble pre-war gangsterdom, the jitsuroku or “true account” movie claimed a higher level of authenticity, inspired by the real lives of notorious gangsters and depicting the chaotic post-war period as it really was, a Graveyard of Honor. 

Based on another true crime novel by Battles Without Honour and Humanity’s Goro Fujita, Graveyard of Honour charts the slow self-implosion of reckless gangster Rikio Ishikawa (Tetsuya Watari). In keeping with the jitsuroku mould, Fukasaku opens in documentary mode, onscreen text giving us Rikio’s pregnant birthdate of 6th August, 1924 before giving way to the voices of, we assume, real people who actually knew him when he was child. They describe him alternately as shy, an oversensitive crybaby, and an evil genius in waiting who was always different from the others and had a lifelong ambition to become a yakuza. They wonder if it was the chaos of the post-war world which turned him into a “rabid dog” but note that he was in fact just as crazy before the war and after.

A cellmate during his time in juvenile detention recalls that Rikio would often liken himself to a balloon, intending to rise and rise until he burst but his trajectory will be quite the opposite. A mess of contradictions, he repeatedly tells his remarkably understanding boss Kawada (Hajime Hana) that whatever it is he’s done this time it was all for the gang but all he ever does is cause trouble, picking fights with the rival area gangs in an obsessive need for masculine dominance over his surroundings. His trip to juvie was apparently down to getting into a fight defending Kawada’s honour, implying that he was “the sort of kid who genuinely respected his godfather”, yet it’s in transgressing this most important of unwritten yakuza rules that he damns himself. Beaten up as punishment for setting fire to the car of a gang boss he felt slighted him, Rikio is asked for his finger but gets so drunk psyching himself up that he eventually turns on his own side and is exiled from the capital for a decade. 

That gang boss, meanwhile, Nozu (Noboru Ando), is currently running for political office in Japan’s new push towards democracy. He eventually loses but only by a small margin, bearing out that in this extremely difficult post-war environment, the yakuza is still a respected, if perhaps also feared, force providing services which ordinary people are sometimes grateful for in that they provide a buffer against other kinds of threat. Meanwhile, the first of Rikio’s gang raids is undertaken against so called “third country nationals” a dogwhistle euphemism for Zainichi Koreans, Chinese, Taiwanese, and other citizens from nations colonised by Japan during in its imperialist expansion who entered the country as Japanese citizens but have now been “liberated” only to face further oppression while those like Rikio accuse them of looking down on and taking revenge against the Japanese for the abuse they suffered as imperial subjects. When both sides are arrested a racist policeman allows the yakuza to escape, thanking them for helping him round up all the Chinese businessmen who will now go to jail for illegal gambling allowing the local gangs to seize their turf. 

The greatest irony is, however, that the American occupation forces may be the biggest gang of all, willingly collaborating with Kawada in peddling blackmarket whiskey (amongst other things) from the local base. The yakuza is also in collaboration with the local sex workers who use their connections with American servicemen to facilitate yakuza business. When Rikio starts a fight with a rival gang in a local bar that threatens to spark a war, it’s the Americans who are called in as neutral third party mediator, Nozu being unable to fulfil that role in having an affiliation with Kawada. The Americans, however, merely issue a loudspeaker announcement for the gang members to disperse or face possible arrest, keeping the peace if somewhat hypocritically. 

Rikio, meanwhile, continues to flounder. Exiled from his gang, he becomes addicted to hard drugs and gets a problematic minion of his own, Ozaki (Kunie Tanaka), not to mention contracting tuberculosis. In a particularly morbid moment, he has his own gravestone carved, perhaps detecting that the end is near or at least that an ending is coming for him. In another somewhat inexplicable turn of his life, though a common trope in jitsuroku, he eventually marries the sex worker who fell in love with him after he raped her, presumably touched by his concern after he burned a hole in her tatami mat floor. Wearied by grief and already out of his mind, a final act of nihilistic craziness sees him approach his former boss for the turf and capital to form his own gang, crunching his late wife’s bones as hardened gang members look on in utter disbelief. 

Rikio’s desire for freedom, to be his own boss, is elusive as the red balloon we often see floating away away from him, free in a way he’ll never be. “Don’t these young people respect the code anymore?” Kawada exasperatedly asks on hearing that Rikio has broken the terms of his exile and returned only a year into his sentence. But Rikio’s tragedy may in a sense be that he understood the code too well. On the side of his tombstone he writes the word “jingi”, honour and humanity, full in the knowledge that such concepts in which he seems to have believed no longer exist in the cruel and chaotic post-war world which forces even true believers to betray themselves in a desperate bid for survival. “We all live by a code” his friend echoes, “there’s just no way around the rules”. 

A case of printing the legend, Fukasaku’s take on the life of Rikio Ishikawa may not quite be the “true account” it claims but is in its own strange way a tale of frustrated gangster nobility, a cry baby’s failure to become the man he wanted to be in the complicated post-war landscape. Capturing the confusion of the era through frantic, handheld camera Fukasaku nevertheless takes a turn for the melancholy and mediative in his shifts to sepia, the listless vacant look of a drugged up Rikio somehow standing in for the nihilistic emptiness of a life lived in honour’s graveyard. 


Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Bullet Train (新幹線大爆破, Junya Sato, 1975)

bullet train posterFor one reason or another, the 1970s gave rise to a wave of disaster movies as Earthquakes devastated cities, high rise buildings caught fire, and ocean liners capsized. Japan wanted in on the action and so set about constructing its own culturally specific crisis movie. The central idea behind The Bullet Train (新幹線大爆破, Shinkansen Daibakuha) may well sound familiar as it was reappropriated for the 1994 smash hit and ongoing pop culture phenomenon Speed, but even if de Bont’s finely tuned rollercoaster was not exactly devoid of subversive political commentary The Bullet Train takes things one step further.

A bomb threat has been issued for bullet train Hikari 109. This is not a unique occurrence – it happens often enough for there to be a procedure to be followed, but this time is different. So that the authorities don’t simply stop the train to find the device as normal, it’s been attached to a speedometer which will trigger the bomb if the train slows below 80mph. A second bomb has been placed on a freight train to encourage the authorities to believe the bullet train device is real and when it does indeed go off, no one quite knows what to do.

The immediate response to this kind of crisis is placation – the train company does not have the money to pay a ransom, but assures the bomber that they will try and get the money from the government. Somewhat unusually, the bomber is played by the film’s biggest star, Ken Takakura, and is a broadly sympathetic figure despite the heinous crime which he is in the middle of perpetrating.

The bullet train is not just a super fast method of mass transportation but a concise symbol of post-war Japan’s path to economic prosperity. fetching up in the 1960s as the nation began to cast off the lingering traces of its wartime defeat and return to the world stage as the host of the 1964 olympics, the bullet train network allowed Japan to ride its own rails into the future. All of this economic prosperity, however, was not evenly distributed. Where large corporations expanded, the small businessman was squeezed, manufacturing suffered, and the little guy felt himself left out of the paradise promised by a seeming economic miracle.

Thus our three bombers are all members of this disenfranchised class, disillusioned with a cruel society and taking aim squarely at the symbol of their oppression. Takakura’s Okita is not so much a mad bomber as a man pushed past breaking point by repeated betrayals as his factory went under leading him to drink and thereby to the breakdown of his marriage. He recruits two helpers – a young boy who came to the city from the countryside as one of the many young men promised good employment building the modern Tokyo but found only lies and exploitation, and the other an embittered former student protestor, angry and disillusioned with his fellow revolutionaries and the eventual subversion of their failed revolution.

Their aim is not to destroy the bullet train for any political reason, but force the government to compensate them for failing to redistribute the economic boon to all areas of society. Okita seems to have little regard for the train’s passengers, perhaps considering them merely collateral damage or willing accomplices in his oppression. Figuring out that something is wrong with the train due to its slower speed and failure to stop at the first station the passengers become restless giving rise to hilarious scenes of salarymen panicking about missed meetings and offering vast bribes to try and push their way to the front of the onboard phone queue, but when a heavily pregnant woman becomes distressed the consequences are far more severe.

Left alone to manage the situation by himself, the put upon controller does his best to keep everyone calm but becomes increasingly frustrated by the inhumane actions of the authorities from his bosses at the train company to the police and government. Always with one eye on the media, the train company is more preoccupied with being seen to have passenger safety at heart rather than actually safeguarding it. The irony is that the automatic breaking system poses a serious threat now that speed is of the essence but when the decision is made to simply ignore a second bomb threat it’s easy to see where the priorities lie for those at the top of the corporate ladder.

Okita and his gang are underdog everymen striking back against increasing economic inequality but given that their plan endangers the lives of 1500 people, casting them as heroes is extremely uncomfortable. Sato keeps the tension high despite switching between the three different plot strands as Okita plots his next move while the train company and police plot theirs even if he can’t sustain the mammoth 2.5hr running time. A strange mix of genres from the original disaster movie to broad satire and angry revolt against corrupt authority, The Bullet Train is an oddly rich experience even if it never quite reaches its final destination.


Original trailer (no subtitles)