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Outlaw Appeal: The Yakuza in Film and Print
[2017.11.15] Read in: 日本語 | 繁體字 | ESPAÑOL |

Whether romanticized or realistic, yakuza films have a long history in Japan. Books and manga also help the public explore their enduring fascination with the nation’s gangs.

Outrage Coda, the final instalment in Kitano Takeshi’s yakuza trilogy, hit screens in Japan in October 2017. As the Japanese tagline to the first film Outrage (2010) put it, “everyone’s a villain” (zen’in akunin), and betrayal follows betrayal in the series’ gang conflicts. Outrage and Outrage Beyond (2012) together made more than ¥2.2 billion at the box office.

When Outrage Beyond was released, Kitano spoke to the film website Outside in Tokyo. “Japan’s yakuza films began with the golden age of ninkyō [chivalry] movies and stars like Takakura Ken and Tsuruta Kōji. Then there was director Fukasaku Kinji’s Battles Without Honor and Humanity series. . . . But this is where the evolution stopped.” Kitano saw his Outrage series as representing a new stage in the history of yakuza films.

Kitano Takeshi in Outrage Coda. (© 2017 Outrage Coda Production Committee)

The immensely popular yakuza films of the 1960s presented a nostalgic world of noble gangsters. These gave way to a new realism in the 1970s where stories were based on actual people and organizations. Most famous among these was Battles Without Honor and Humanity, the first in a series of films directed by Fukasaku.

A Yakuza Film Classic

Released in January 1973, the film starred Sugawara Bunta and took its narrative from a gang war that took place in postwar Hiroshima. It begins with the following monologue.

“A year after defeat, the savagery of war is gone, but new violence rises in the disordered land. To stand up against this lawlessness, people can only rely on their own strength.”

Francis Ford Coppola’s mafia film The Godfather, released half a year earlier, in July 1972, was a global megahit. It stung Tōei studio head Okada Shigeru into action, as can be seen in this interview published in the Kinema Junpō magazine in September 1972.

“I think what people want in 1972 is something with a strong sense of reality. Just like The Godfather. These movies have a different appeal from those produced through the star system. I’d like to make a big, realistic film at Tōei.”

The studio came up with Battles Without Honor and Humanity, which spawned four rapid-fire sequels by 1974. The record-breaking series continues to win new fans today.

US film critic Mark Schilling channeled his enthusiasm for the genre into his 2003 work The Yakuza Movie Book: A Guide to Japanese Gangster Films. He describes how yakuza films were initially looked down on by pundits, but that their directors have risen in critical esteem.

According to Schilling, the heroes of the ninkyō films were “the spiritual descendants of the silent-era gamblers who had upheld traditional values while slicing through crowds of opponents with swift, deadly swords. Their enemies, however, were not only the usual bad gangsters who flouted the gang code but also their corrupt allies in business, government, and the military. These heroes defended not only the gang boss or the occasional helpless widow but also the exploited workers of Japan’s belated industrial revolution.”

As the yakuza films of the 1970s opted for deeper realism, he continues, “the focus shifted to the postwar period itself, discarding much of the mythological baggage of the past. Now, the approach was that of the news cameraman, recording the carnage but refraining from judgment. A new hero appeared, whose loyalty was conditional and who lived for himself—and to hell with the consequences.”

The success of Fukasaku’s film took Tōei into an era of realism, but it did not last long. In 1973, Yamaguchi-gumi sandaime (Yamaguchi-gumi: The Third-Generation Leader), starring Takakura Ken, told an authentic yakuza story without even changing the names. The use of the autobiography of Yamaguchi-gumi leader Taoka Kazuo as source material drew the ire of the police, though, and intervention by the authorities cut the planned trilogy short after its second installment, bringing the age of realism to a premature end.

The Outrage series has brought the yakuza genre new popularity after long years in the box-office doldrums. It has a contemporary appeal, unlike the pure fantasy of ninkyō movies or the almost nonfictional nature of the realistic films that followed them.

A scene from Outrage Coda. (© 2017 Outrage Coda Production Committee)

The Outrage Coda poster. (© 2017 Outrage Coda Production Committee)

  • [2017.11.15]
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