Thursday, February 4, 2010

Jingi No Hakaba (Graveyard Of Honor) 1975


Nihilism is a difficult concept to capture in the gangster genre. The gangster film itself is most often a vehicle used by filmmakers to challenge the tenets of capitalism or revel in the kinetic energy of the caper. The yakuza films that Kinji Fukasaku directed between the 1960’s and 70’s are famous for attacking Japan’s rapid attempts at modernization but what set them apart from the rest of the yakuza-eiga being made at that time was the bleak and nihilistic mood that permeated every frame of his films. Just as it is impossible to make an anti-war film without inadvertently glorifying the violence in combat it is equally difficult to make a gangster film that doesn’t in some way celebrate the hipness of the criminal underworld. The jitsuroku-eiga pictures that Fukasaku directed though come the closest to demystifying the aura of the yakuza. In films like Bakuto Gaijin Butai (Sympathy For The Underdog), Gendai Yakuza: Hito-Kiri Yota (Street Mobster), and the Jingi Naki Tatakai (Battles Without Honor And Humanity) series Fukasaku pointed his camera at Japan’s underbelly and brought into focus a world populated by people incapable of adjusting to the new reality of postwar Japan where money trumps honor and loyalty is a commodity you can purchase in bulk if you ally yourself with just the right people.

After the completion of the epic five-part Jingi Naki Tatakai (Battles Without Honor And Humanity) series Kinji Fukasaku could have rested on his laurels and churned out cookie-cutter genre pictures for the rest of his career and still guaranteed himself a place in the pantheon of great Japanese directors, he chose instead to follow up his yakuza epic with a nihilistic masterpiece titled Jingi No Hakaba (Graveyard Of Honor). The film starred Tetsuya Watari as the real-life yakuza character Rikio Ishikawa. Unlike the yakuza protagonists found in earlier Fukasaku films, many of them starring the legendary Bunta Sugawara, the character of Rikio Ishikawa is an unforgivable psychopath. Whereas in the earlier jitsuroku-eiga pictures the yakuza protagonists would fight under the banner of avenging a fallen friend or were themselves a victim of the inherent inequalities of a newly prosperous Japan there is no rhyme or reason to why the character of Rikio Ishikawa does the things he does. It’s a telling detail that the voiceover narrator in the film makes it a point to tell the audience that Ishikawa has become a legend in the criminal underworld and that stories of his exploits are still whispered about in yakuza circles. In effect Ishikawa has transformed from a mere man to an elemental spirit. Ishikawa, in the film, embodies the unbridled violent potential of the yakuza. Without clan ties or the bonds of brotherhood to hold him back Ishikawa is not hindered by the façade of social propriety and is ruled only by his pleasure principle, psychologically speaking he is all id without the complementary ego and super-ego to curb his self-destructive tendencies.


Fukasaku turns the character of Rikio Ishikawa into a death angel. Every person that he has some relationship with seems to inevitably become a victim of violence. Unlike typical crime pictures where you have a loose cannon cop, who plays by his own set of rules, wreaking havoc throughout the film all in a vain attempt to clean up the streets Fukasaku foregoes the clichés of the Dirty Harry pictures and places the responsibility of avenging angel on the shoulders of a psychopathic junky. In effect what better way to illustrate the violent, exploitative, and cruel nature of the yakuza and the ludicrousness of the yakuza code itself then through the eyes of a fellow member of the caste. Whereas the yakuza protagonist of the ninkyo-eiga would never be caught dead without a neatly pressed suit, a freshly shaved face, and finely quaffed hair Ishikawa is the antithesis of this. You would never mistake Ishikawa for the baby-faced tough guys played by Akira Kobayashi or Jo Shishido. Tetsuya Watari plays the character of Rikio Ishikawa as a man with a constant enigmatic expression on his face. Unable to read the motives behind his actions Ishikawa becomes otherworldly. In fact during the scene where Ishikawa goes and kills his friend Imai he dons a long black rain slicker, in effect connecting Rikio to a grim reaper. And it’s interesting to note that in the film Ishikawa seems imbued with a supernatural aura living through several violent attempts on his life as if some force were keeping Ishikawa, the tainted angel, alive till he completed the job handed down to him.

A running motif that Fukasaku incorporates throughout the film is the image of a dangling red balloon. This motif is connected to Ishikawa, who in the film even describes himself as a balloon rising higher and higher until he finally bursts. It’s obvious that the string tethering the balloon to the earth is meant to be representative of Ishikawa’s life. To illustrate the connection between Ishikawa’s life and the balloon string during the final confrontation with the Kawada gang at the cemetery Fukasaku slows down the action and draws attention to one of Ishikawa’s attackers accidentally slicing an adjacent red balloon free from its anchor followed by juxtaposing shots of Rikio being savagely attacked and footage of the newly freed balloon slowly ascending to the sky linking the balloon’s upward flight with that of a soul trying to escape from its mortal coil. Ultimately though what is Fukasaku trying to say with the red balloon motif? Are the balloon’s attempts to escape from the earth meant to have some spiritual significance? To try and answer that question it is pertinent to look towards the field of psychology. During psychology’s infancy Freud postulated that human beings are driven by two instincts: Eros, which is representative of the life instinct, and Thanatos, which is conversely a person’s death drive. As a psychological concept Freud theorized that in opposition to our need to create and nurture Thanatos is the opposing force undoing all that we’ve built. This self-destructive behavior is a natural human inclination to return to a pure inanimate state where there exists no happiness but also where we are free from the burden of suffering. The red balloon struggling to get free can be seen as a summation of all of Ishikawa’s actions in the film, his cruelty was a mask to hide some unknown trauma and the pain he inflicts to those around him can be seen as attempts to get those who cared about him to retaliate and finally end his suffering.


Although ostensibly a gangster picture Fukasaku never shied away from mixing genres and adds a romantic subplot to the Ishikawa narrative. Of course the romance in the story is anything but conventional. Chieko, the woman who has the misfortune of capturing Rikio’s attention, is more victim than love interest. Contrary to the gun molls found in other gangster pictures Chieko is an unlikely spouse and accomplice. Her passive and demure personality contrasts with other female characters in the film that are relegated to roles like prostitute or junky. Her first meeting with Rikio involved Ishikawa breaking into her room and, under the threat of death, forcing her to hide him from the cops and stash the loot he stole from “third nationals”. Subsequent encounters afterwards followed a similar pattern of abuse and exploitation with Rikio either raping Chieko or forcing her to prostitute herself to make money for him. And yet with all the brutality that Chieko must endure from Rikio there are moments of odd tenderness that he shares with her like when he gently wipes the blood from her mouth after one of her tubercular coughing fits or during one of the sickest romantic gestures that cinema has to offer Ishikawa consumes one of his wife’s cremated bones. The act itself is done out of a need to cajole the boss of the Kawada gang to give him money to start his own gang, but Ishikawa’s action also shines a light on his inability to communicate his feelings. Consuming Chieko’s bones became Rikio’s final way of possessing her. Throughout the film whether in the company of his friends, like Imai, or his wife, Chieko, Ishikawa always exhibited the traits of an emotionally stunted personality. His malignant narcissism has kept him from not only being able to read other people’s emotions but also contributed to his anti-social behavior. The consumption of Chieko’s bones to the average person may be seen as strange, but for a man who lacks empathy this is the closest thing to him telling his wife that he loves her.

Typical of the films of Kinji Fukasaku during that period Jingi No Hakaba (Graveyard Of Honor) makes extensive use of color filters, sepia tone, Dutch angles, photographic slideshow, handy-cam shots, freeze frames, slow motion, and documentary footage all to tell, what many would derisively call, a genre picture. Fukasaku and his cinematographer Hanjiro Nakazawa shot the picture in a mockumentary style utilizing real locations and were as true to the facts as cinematically possible. Watching the film one can’t help but feel a connection between Fukasaku’s grim nihilistic jitsuroku-eiga picture and Woody Allen’s directorial debut Take the Money and Run. Although the two films are from opposite sides of the genre spectrum both can be classified ostensibly as crime pictures. The only difference being that Woody Allen treats the material as comic fodder while Fukasaku brings out the inherent tabloid sensibilities of the story. Of course that’s not to say that Fukasaku’s yakuza narrative is devoid of comedy. In fact Jingi No Hakaba (Graveyard Of Honor) and Take the Money and Run both stand as perfect examples of Rabelaisian comedy. Like the works of Francois Rabelais Woody Allen and Kinji Fukasaku’s respective films revel in the grotesqueries of contemporary living and both embrace the type of crude and vulgar humor that many comedians dabble in today but few ever really elevate to such absurd proportions. An example of this vulgar absurdity in Fukasaku’s film can be seen during Ishikawa’s standoff with the police. Surrounded on all sides by not only the cops but also the might of the Imai and Kawada gangs, not to mention having to deal with a partner in crime constantly complaining about their short supply of dope. What would have been a routine gun battle explodes into a rock fight as each group tries to capture Ishikawa. Although completely outnumbered it is his opponents that cower in fear as a bloodied Ishikawa charges into battle. The manic activity coming from all the characters in the scene elevates a generic action scene into absolute bedlam and upturns all notions of the brave and stoic yakuza found in the ninkyo-eiga pictures of the past. Rikio Ishikawa is not some knight-errant of the people but rather a feral cat who pounces on the weak. Instead of offering simple solutions by painting Ishikawa as the singular villain in the film Fukasaku tells his audience that in the corrupt world that we live in there are no such things as heroes or villains, but just the dichotomy of exploited and exploiter.

1 comment:

emile said...

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