Kinji Fukasaku was a director of popular genre films in Japan for forty years. While he tried his hand at just about every genre you can think of, including goofy international sci-fi blockbusters like Green Slime (1968), he’s probably most famous for his yakuza (gangster) films.
The common line on his yakuza films is that they deglamorize the yakuza. On the evidence of Yakuza Graveyard I’d say he deglamorized everybody. This is the story of a rogue cop named Kuroiwa (Tetsuya Watari, also the protagonist in Seijun Suzuki’s delirious Tokyo Drifter (1966)), who has been punished for his unorthodox methods and is now being given another chance in a new precinct. What he discovers is that the cops are in the pockets of the yakuza, and in fact have chosen to support one crime family over another in a gang war. When Kuroiwa becomes attached to the rival gang, the other cops turn against him.
The film reminded me at times of Dirty Harry (1971), except where Harry Callahan is somebody who fights both corrupt bureaucrats and filthy criminals to achieve rough justice, in Yakuza Graveyard there is no justice, there is only vengeance. Everybody is corrupt, including Kuroiwa, and everybody is a victim of injustice, poverty, and abuse. Fukasaku may deglamorize the life of the gangster, but he also depicts the people living the criminal life with a great deal of sympathy for the brutal lives that have deformed them.
Kuroiwa falls in love with Keiko, who is played by the great exploitation actress, Meiko Kaji. As in Kaji’s earlier film, Stray Cat Rock: Sex Hunter (1970), this one deals with racism too. Keiko is half-Korean and was thus subjected to a life of prostitution and heroin addiction before marrying a gang boss. The gang torpedo, Iwata, who befriends Kuroiwa after a fistfight by saying they could be jerk-off buddies, is full Korean. Kuroiwa himself was born to a Japanese father during the occupation of Manchuria and then brought back to be an outsider in Japanese society. This is a world of alienated outsiders crushed by corruption, greed, and hatred.
Fukasaku is said to have been influenced by the French New Wave, and his visual style includes bursts of chaotic handheld camera, freeze frames, solarized images, and extreme angles. His compositions for the widescreen are often very striking and eccentric, but also at times classical and subdued. He was capable of garish pop-art extravagance in the ’60s, but here his color scheme is as gritty and muted as any ’70s crime film.
The film is bursting with energy and distraught emotion. There’s nothing ironic or detached about it. It’s straight from the id and straight from the heart. I’ve enjoyed most of what I’ve seen by Fukasaku so far, but I clearly need to delve further into the yakuza films.