Yakuza film

Yakuza film (Japanese: ヤクザ映画 Hepburn: Yakuza Eiga) is a popular film genre in Japanese cinema which focuses on the lives and dealings of yakuza, Japanese organized crime syndicates.

Battles Without Honor and Humanity
Film poster for Battles Without Honor and Humanity (1973)

Early films

In the silent film era, films depicting bakuto (precursors to modern yakuza) as Robin Hood-like characters were common. They often portrayed historical figures who had accumulated legends over time as "sympathetic but lonely figures, forced to live an outlaw existence and longing, however hopelessly, to return to straight society."[1] Kunisada Chūji was a popular subject, such as in Daisuke Itō's three-part A Diary of Chuji's Travels from 1927. During World War II, the Japanese government used cinema as wartime propaganda, and as such depictions of bakuto generally faded. Mark Schilling named Akira Kurosawa's Drunken Angel from 1948 as the first to depict post-war yakuza in his book The Yakuza Movie Book : A Guide to Japanese Gangster Films, although he noted it does not follow the genre's common themes.[2] The Occupation of Japan that followed World War II also monitored the films being made. However, when the occupation ended in 1952, period-pieces of all types returned to popularity. A notable modern yakuza example is 1961's Hana to Arashi to Gang by Teruo Ishii which launched a series that depicted contemporary gang life including gang warfare.[3]

"Borderless Action" and Ninkyo eiga

The studio Nikkatsu made modern yakuza films under the Mukokuseki Action (無国籍アクション Mukokuseki Akushon) or "Borderless Action" moniker, which, unlike other studios in the genre, borrowed heavily from Hollywood gangster films. These are typified by the Wataridori series that started in 1959 and star Akira Kobayashi and, in most installments, Joe Shishido.[4]

A subset of films known as Ninkyo eiga (仁侠映画) or "chivalry films" then began to thrive. Most were created by the Toei studio and produced by Koji Shundo, who became close with actual yakuza before becoming a producer, and despite his denial, is said to have been one himself.[5][6] Set in the Meiji and Taishō eras, the kimono-clad yakuza hero of ninkyo films (personified by Kōji Tsuruta and Ken Takakura) was always portrayed as a stoic honorable outlaw torn between the contradictory values of giri (duty) and ninjo (personal feelings). Sadao Yamane stated their willingness to fight and die to save someone or their boss was portrayed as "something beautiful."[7] In his book, Schilling cited Tadashi Sawashima's Jinsei Gekijo: Hishakaku from 1963 as starting the Ninkyo eiga trend.[8] Ninkyo eiga were popular with young males that had traveled to cities from the countryside in search of jobs and education, only to find themselves in harsh work conditions for low pay. In their book Yakuza Film and Their Times, Tsukasa Shiba and Sakae Aoyama write that these young men "isolated in an era of high economic growth and tight social structures" were attracted to the "motifs of male comrades banding together to battle the power structure."[9]

Shundo supervised Takakura and helped Toei sign Tsuruta, additionally his own daughter Junko Fuji became a popular female yakuza actress starring in the Hibotan Bakuto series.[10] Nikkatsu made their first ninkyo eiga, Otoko no Monsho starring Hideki Takahashi, in 1963 to combat Toei's success in the genre. However, today Nikkatsu is best known for the surreal B movies by Seijun Suzuki, which culminated with the director being fired after 1967's Branded to Kill.[11] Likewise, Daiei Film entered the field with Akumyō in 1961 starring Shintaro Katsu. They also had Toei's rival in the female yakuza genre with Kyōko Enami starring in the Onna Tobakuchi series.[12]

In 1965, Teruo Ishii directed the first installment in the Abashiri Prison series, which was a huge success and launched Takakura to stardom.

1970s and Jitsuroku eiga

Many Japanese movie critics cite the retirement of Junko Fuji in 1972 as marking the decline of the Ninkyo eiga.[13] Just as moviegoers were getting tired of the ninkyo films, a new breed of yakuza films emerged, the Jitsuroku eiga (実録映画, "actual record films"). These films portrayed post-war yakuza not as honorable heirs to the samurai code, but as ruthless, treacherous street thugs living for their own desires. Many jitsuroku eiga were based on true stories, and filmed in a documentary style with shaky camera. The Jitsuroku genre was popularized by Kinji Fukasaku's groundbreaking 1973 yakuza epic Battles Without Honor and Humanity.[7] Based on the events of real-life yakuza, the film starring Bunta Sugawara spawned four sequels and another three part series.

Fukusaku biographer Sadao Yamane believes the films were popular because of the time of their release; Japan's economic growth was at its peak and at the end of the 1960s the student uprisings took place. The young people had similar feelings to those of the post-war society depicted in the film.[14] Schilling wrote that after the success of Battles Without Honor and Humanity, Takakura and Tsuruta received less and less roles at the direction of Toei's president. Soon after, Shundo retired, although he would later return.[15]

Decline and home video resurgence

Takeshi Kitano has received international praise for directing, writing and starring in yakuza films.

In the 1980s, yakuza movies drastically declined due in part to the rise of home video VCRs. One exception was the Gokudō no Onnatachi series starring Shima Iwashita, which was based on a book of interviews with the wives and girlfriends of real gangsters.[16] In 1994, Toei actually announced that The Man Who Shot the Don starring Hiroki Matsukata would be their last yakuza film unless it made $4 million US in home video rentals. It did not and they announced they would stop producing such movies, although they returned a couple of years later.[17]

But in the 1990s, the low-budget direct-to-video movies called Gokudō brought a wealth of yakuza movies, such as Toei's V-Cinema line in 1990. Many young directors had freedom to push the genre's envelope. One such director was Rokurō Mochizuki who broke through with Onibi in 1997. Directors such as Shinji Aoyama and Kiyoshi Kurosawa started out in the home video market before becoming regulars on the international festival circuit. Though the most well-known gokudō creator is Takashi Miike, who has become known internationally for his extremely violent, genre pushing and border crossing (yakuza movies taking place outside Japan, such as his 1997 Rainy Dog) films in the style.[18]

One director who did not partake in the home video circuit is Takeshi Kitano, whose existential yakuza films are known around the world for a unique style. His films use harsh edits, minimalist dialogue, odd humor, and extreme violence that began with Sonatine (1993) and was perfected in Hana-bi (1997).[19]

Prominent actors

Selected films


  1. ^ Schilling 2003, p. 21.
  2. ^ Schilling 2003, pp. 314.
  3. ^ Schilling 2003, pp. 22–23.
  4. ^ Schilling 2003, pp. 30–31.
  5. ^ Schrader 1974, p. 3.
  6. ^ Schilling 2003, p. 26.
  7. ^ a b Jitsuroku: Reinventing a Genre (DVD). Home Vision Entertainment. 2004. 10:26 minutes in.
  8. ^ Schilling 2003, p. 25.
  9. ^ Schilling 2003, pp. 24–25.
  10. ^ Schilling 2003, pp. 26, 29.
  11. ^ Schilling 2003, p. 31.
  12. ^ Schilling 2003, p. 32.
  13. ^ Schilling 2003, p. 33.
  14. ^ Jitsuroku: Reinventing a Genre (DVD). Home Vision Entertainment. 2004. 3:35 minutes in.
  15. ^ Schilling 2003, p. 34.
  16. ^ Schilling 2003, p. 35.
  17. ^ Schilling 2003, p. 36.
  18. ^ Schilling 2003, p. 36–38.
  19. ^ Schilling 2003, p. 39.
  20. ^ a b c d "The 25 Best Yakuza Movies". Complex. 2011-12-02. Retrieved 2015-12-05.
  21. ^ "Risk separates stars from actors". The Japan Times. 2010-03-14. Retrieved 2015-12-05.
  22. ^ "Gangster film star Hiroki Matsukata reels in giant tuna". Tokyoreporter.com. 2009-11-27. Retrieved 2015-12-05.
  23. ^ "R.I.P. Bunta Sugawara, of Battles Without Honor & Humanity and Spirited Away". The A.V. Club. 2014-12-02. Retrieved 2015-12-05.
  24. ^ "Ken Takakura dead: Japanese actor known for stoic roles passes away aged 83". The Independent. 2014-11-18. Retrieved 2015-12-05.
  25. ^ "Film, TV actor Yamashiro dies at 70". Kyodo News. Japan Times. 2009-08-15. Retrieved 2009-08-23.


Afraid to Die

Afraid to Die (からっ風野郎, Karakkaze Yarō, A Man Blown by the Wind) is a 1960 Japanese yakuza film directed by Yasuzo Masumura and starring Yukio Mishima.

Ambition Without Honor

Ambition Without Honor (仁義なき野望, Jingi naki yabō) is a 1996 Japanese yakuza film directed by Takashi Miike. It was followed by Ambition Without Honor 2 in 1997.

Ambition Without Honor 2

Ambition Without Honor 2 (仁義なき野望2, Jingi naki yabō 2) is a 1997 Japanese yakuza film directed by Takashi Miike. It is the sequel to Ambition Without Honor (1996).

Blues Harp (film)

Blues Harp is a 1998 Japanese yakuza film directed by Takashi Miike.

Crime film

Crime films, in the broadest sense, are a cinematic genre inspired by and analogous to the crime fiction literary genre. Films of this genre generally involve various aspects of crime and its detection. Stylistically, the genre may overlap and combine with many other genres, such as drama or gangster film, but also include comedy, and, in turn, is divided into many sub-genres, such as mystery, suspense or noir.

Drunken Angel

Drunken Angel (醉いどれ天使, Yoidore Tenshi) is a 1948 Japanese yakuza film directed by Akira Kurosawa. It is notable for being the first of sixteen film collaborations between director Kurosawa and actor Toshiro Mifune.

Family 2 (film)

Family 2 is a 2001 Japanese yakuza film directed by Takashi Miike, released on home video as the sequel to his earlier film Family.

Graveyard of Honor (2002 film)

Graveyard of Honor (新・仁義の墓場, Shin Jingi no Hakaba, lit. "New Graveyard of Honor") is a yakuza film directed by Takashi Miike. It is a remake of Kinji Fukasaku's 1975 film of the same name, which is based on the life of a real-life yakuza member.

Juzo Itami

Juzo Itami (伊丹 十三, Itami Jūzō), born Yoshihiro Ikeuchi (池内 義弘, Ikeuchi Yoshihiro, May 15, 1933 – December 20, 1997), was a Japanese actor, screenwriter and film director. He directed ten films, all of which he wrote himself.


Kikoku (鬼哭, distributed as Yakuza Demon in USA) is a Japanese yakuza film directed by Takashi Miike. The film reunites Miike with Riki Takeuchi, who stars as the main character.

Kinji Fukasaku

Kinji Fukasaku (深作 欣二, Fukasaku Kinji, 3 July 1930 – 12 January 2003) was a Japanese film director and screenwriter who rose to prominence for his association with the Japanese New Wave.He is known for directing the Japanese portion of the Hollywood war film Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970), yakuza films including the seminal Battles Without Honor and Humanity (1973), samurai period pieces such as Shogun's Samurai (1978), the space opera Message from Space (1978), the fantasy film Samurai Reincarnation (1981), and his controversial final film Battle Royale (2000). He was also known for his trademark, cinema verite-inspired shaky camera technique, which he used extensively in many of his films from the early 1970s.In 1997, he received the Purple Medal of Honor from the Japanese government for his work in film.

Masahiro Shinoda

Masahiro Shinoda (篠田 正浩, Shinoda Masahiro, born March 9, 1931) is a Japanese film director, originally associated with the Shochiku Studio, who came to prominence as part of the Japanese New Wave in the 1960s.

Sabu (director)

Sabu (サブ, Sabu, born November 18, 1964) is the pseudonym of Japanese actor and director Hiroyuki Tanaka (田中博行, Tanaka Hiroyuki).

Sadao Nakajima

Sadao Nakajima (中島貞夫, Nakajima Sadao) is a Japanese film director and screenwriter (born 8 August, 1934) known for his work in yakuza films and jidaigeki.

Sympathy for the Underdog

Sympathy for the Underdog, known in Japan as Bakuto-Gaijin Butai (博徒外人部隊, "Outlaw Gambler-Foreign Legion"), is a 1971 Japanese yakuza film directed and co-written by Kinji Fukasaku and starring Kōji Tsuruta and Noboru Ando. It is director Fukasaku's (Battles Without Honor and Humanity, Battle Royale) last film featuring Kōji Tsuruta. Complex named it number 8 on their list of The 25 Best Yakuza Movies. Home Vision Entertainment released the movie on DVD in North America in 2005.

Takashi Miike

Takashi Miike (三池 崇史, Miike Takashi, born August 24, 1960) is a Japanese filmmaker. He has directed over one hundred theatrical, video and television productions since his debut in 1991. His films range from violent and bizarre to dramatic and family-friendly.

The Man in White

The Man In White (許されざる者, Yurusarezaru Mono) is a 2003 Japanese yakuza film directed by Takashi Miike.

The Yakuza

The Yakuza is a 1974 neo-noir drama film directed by Sydney Pollack, with a screenplay by Paul Schrader and Robert Towne from a story by Leonard Schrader. The film is about a retired American detective (Robert Mitchum) who returns to Japan after several years away in order to rescue his friend's daughter, kidnapped by gangsters. Following a lackluster initial release, the film has since gained a cult following.

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