Yakuza Graveyard (1976)
Director: Kinji Fukasaku
Writers: Kazuo Kasahara
Starring: Tetsuya Watari, Meiko Kaji and Hideo Murota

The Plot: Our film begins with a young man being hoisted out of a pachinko parlor after being hustled for some money by the Yakuza managers. While no one is looking, we are introduced to Kuroiwa (Tetsuya Watari) who grabs the young man’s pachinko balls. When Kuroiwa tries to cash them in, the gangsters start to hustle him in the same manner that they did the previous young punk. What they don’t know is that this is not a man to be trifled with. After giving up his money, Kuroiwa then follows the gangsters and shows them his badge and reveals that he is actually a cop. Kuroiwa places the punks under arrest, but is soon watching them hit the streets due to their yakuza ties. It turns out that Kuroiwa is a policeman with a haunted past. After a raid went down poorly, he found himself firing a bullet into the back of a yakuza after his partner had been shot in the shoulder. This landed Kuroiwa in a ton of hot water and has essentially ruined his career up until this point. Feeling indignant at his role in society, being a honest cop in a world of corruption, Kuroiwa is focused entirely on taking down the yakuza. However, as Kuroiwa ponders his life, he begins to find himself siding more with the yakuza than with the police department that he has swore his allegiance to.

The Review
Kinji Fukasaku is one of those legendary filmmakers that it took me a while to actually warm up to. This may be sacrilege, but when I first watched Outlaw Mobster, many years ago during my Japanese film infancy, I didn’t care for it. The slow pace, lack of immediate-gory-violence and the general maturity found in his films were all things that did not jump out to a teenage version of myself. As with all things though, you live, you learn and then you get Luv’s. When I finally decided to return to Fukasaku’s work a couple of years ago, I found a filmmaker who played some of the same tunes as my favorite contemporary Japanese filmmakers, but in a stripped-down punk rock version. His yakuza films were lean and gritty, but they were packed with rich characters who were far more than just “big glasses and a menacing grimace.” Yakuza Graveyard is the perfect example of what made Fuksaku’s crime tales so alluring, even though it came towards the end of his run in this genre, and it encapsulates all of the previously mentioned details into one tightly edited piece of seventies cinema. Although others may be drawn to different films from his massive list of titles, Yakuza Graveyard has quickly jumped up into my top three from this director’s “criminal” era.

Similar to Takashi Miike’s output, there’s a definite pattern within Fukasaku’s career that shows him focusing on “outsiders” and their place within society. Yakuza Graveyard simply uses the concept of half-blood characters as the main catalyst for finding a universal sense of brotherhood. The character of Kuroiwa is not a man who has found brotherhood in the police force, and he doesn’t see it in the mob, but he does see it in the other half-bloods who have found their way into this black and white/good and bad society that Kuroiwa is trapped within. Such is the case with many of Fukasaku’s leading men throughout his yakuza pictures. A fully developed genre-film director, Fukasaku’s work often resembles the arthouse aesthetic than it does the simple V-Cinema yakuza pictures that flood the markets today. Although his work may prove to be far bloodier than Akira Kurosawa’s, he does often delve into the same sincere character idiosyncrasies and simplistic narratives that the famed Japanese master did. Not that these two filmmakers could be any more different from one another than they most assuredly are, but both filmmakers had a knack for simplifying large situations and making them into a singular or internal issue. Yakuza Graveyard is a fine example of this. Unlike many yakuza films that you may see from this time and era, the characters aren’t simply flexing for the camera and playing up their onscreen bravado. These characters have layers and the subtext is rife within the picture, despite there being dozens of scenes of ritualistic yakuza violence.

Tetsuya Watari, in the role of Kuroiwa, doesn’t so much step onto the screen as he immediately erupts into the audience. A character that is so boisterous and exuding machismo that he doesn’t even have to say a word for the audience to understand that he is “the man.” This character of Kuroiwa is completely unorthodox, but he represents a unwavering belief in justice, regardless of what side of the law he finds himself. It could be argued that Yakuza Graveyard starts off as the Japanese version of Dirty harry, however, this is a cop who isn’t so indignant that he doesn’t understand the world around him. Where films such as Dirty Harry and Death Wish both represented a very black and white ideal version of the criminal element, where the bad guys were utterly evil an the good guys were filled with virtue, Fukasaku’s film likes to reside right in the middle ground. Inevitably, as the movie progresses, Kuroiwa becomes one with the criminal world that he has swore to arrest. Through the character of Keiko (played by Meiko Kaji) and her friend who is the leader of the Nishida clan (also a half breed, and played by Hideo Murota), he finds himself becoming a honorary member of the yakuza. Although the instincts that they have tried to teach him through police work tell him to not play these friends too close, he finds with this group the family that he has never had. They are mixed breeds like himself, and together this trio find that they are the only ones that they can depend upon in the crooked Japanese society.

The character of Kuroiwa is the definition of a rebel within the system. He spends his offtime sitting around listening to extremely loud English speaking rock music while drinking heavily and wearing sunglasses inside. As a jaded viewer, a part of me wants to question just why this character is so “utterly cool,” and in another film, I probably would. If someone other than Fukasaku were directing such scenes, I would look at this character who is typically non-conforming, but still desperately clinging to stylistic conventions (sunglasses at night, in a dark room), and I would call such a character cliche. However, Fukasaku harnesses a performance from Watari that is so raw and animalistic that this never seems like a character who is full of false bravado. Kuroiwa doesn’t do what he does in order to look cool, he instead seems to be a man on the verge of a total breakdown. He isn’t a flawless character, not by a longshot, he’s a man for whom death and life are important things and living with the death of a man is something that has left him haunted. This, along with his half-breed status (He is of Chinese descent), has him near to a breaking point. This character, who is rife with dramatic tension, seems to be hanging on to his sanity by a thread. As the movie presses along, that thread becomes more and more tenuous.

The Conclusion
There’s so much more to say about the film. Watari’s performance is stoic and over-the-top in one scene, and then quiet and humble during the next. A well-rounded character, he blew me away in this film. Meiko Kaji’s character is a bit more on the dramatic, and shows her shedding her “tough” image in a performance that shows her at her most vulnerable. All around, Yakuza Graveyard is incredible. I had to debate on the issue, but I feel the need to give it my highest approval. It gets a five out of five. This is everything that a yakuza picture can be, but so often is not. If you have not seen it, pick it up immediately.