Ever since the advent of cinema filmmakers and the film going public have been complicit in elevating the gangster archetype to near mythic proportions. As far back as Edwin S. Porter’s 1903 classic American Western The Great Train Robbery all the way down to David Chase’s magnum opus The Sopranos, society has had a deep and almost parasitic relationship with gangsters and outlaws. Although we as a society value law and order above chaos and anarchy we all occasionally fantasize about letting it all go so that we can entertain our darker appetites. The American gangster film allows the movie going public to scratch an itch that would nonetheless end in either death or jail for anyone who dared attempt to challenge the status quo. We project ourselves onto the gangsters and outlaws we see on the screen and although we may sympathize with the protagonist, the audience does get a cheap thrill as they watch the outlaw hero meet there bloody demise. American audiences may love their rebels, but order must be kept and the status quo must not be irreparably damaged. In effect the gangster figure is worshipped more for the image it projects rather than the reality it inhabits.
Japanese filmmaker Kinji Fukasaku is a figure in cinema that could never be accused of valuing surface image above reality. In the 1960’s and 70’s he made a series of jitsuroku-eiga, documentary style yakuza stories, beginning in 1964 with Okami to buta to ningen (Wolves, Pigs and Men) and culminating with Hokuriku dairi senso (Hokuriku Proxy War) in 1977. During this 13 year stretch Fukasaku confronted, attacked, and demolished the image of the stalwart yakuza protagonist. His films were populated not with knight-errants on a mission to cleanse the streets; in fact his heroes were usually the villains you would find in earlier ninkyo-eiga. The Fukasaku protagonist was part of Japan’s forgotten class during the nation’s postwar economic boom. Suffering through Japan’s defeat in the Second World War and having to deal with the humiliation brought about through the Occupation the Fukasaku protagonist helped rebuild the nation’s economic infrastructure after the war but never got to share in its wealth.
Gendai Yakuza: Hito-kiri Yota (Street Mobster) was already part of a successful film franchise before Kinji Fukasaku had stepped into the director’s chair in 1972. The Gendai Yazuza (Modern Yakuza) series began in 1969 as an attempt by Toei Studios to reinvigorate the flailing yakuza genre by offering audiences gripping stories of postwar gang life. Each of the films in the series starred model turned actor Bunta Sugawara, a man who would become a major collaborator in Fukasaku’s films. For their first collaboration though Sugawara would step into the role of Isamu Okita, a low ranking thug in the city of Kawasaki. And as a way to distinguish his entry into the Gendai Yakuza (Modern Yakuza) series Fukasaku focused less on the dichotomy between giri and ninjo and more on the hypocrisy of everyday life in postwar Japan seen through the lens of a gritty crime drama. By devoting his film to telling the story of a chinpira, a petty street thug with no real power and no immediate affiliation to a specific clan, Fukasaku is indirectly declaring his allegiance not to the status quo but with the forgotten casualties during Japan’s race towards economic prosperity.
Bunta Sugawara’s portrayal of Okita, cinematically speaking, is a character that has one foot firmly planted in the past, harkening back to James Cagney’s bravura performance as Tom Powers in The Public Enemy, and the other foot pointed towards the future, specifically with contemporary gangster classics like Goodfellas and The Sopranos. Although the Japanese yakuza and American gangster exist in two separate worlds, with each group having their own distinct codes and rituals, both sub-cultures do require their members to sever their ties to legitimate society and pledge loyalty to their respective bosses. Okita overturns that tradition though by having no affiliation at all to anyone but himself. His personal philosophy can be summed up by a quote lifted directly from the film’s third act when, in an attempt to rally his gang together and continue fighting Okita bluntly points out that “Once a dog learns the taste of defeat, it never bites again.” This statement perfectly encapsulates the type of man Okita really is. In fact at the start of the film during one of Fukasaku’s signature photomontage sequences Okita, in voiceover narration, informs us that he was born on August 15, 1945, the day Japan lost the war. And anyone who’s seen a fair share of Fukasaku’s oeuvre can attest to just how important Japan’s defeat in the Second World War and the country’s subsequent Occupation figures into Fukasaku’s cinema. Films like the Jingi Naki Tatakai (Battles Without Honor and Humanity) series, Kimi ga Wakamono Nara (If You Were Young: Rage), Gunki Hatameku Motoni (Under the Flag of the Rising Sun) and Jingi no Hakaba (Graveyard of Honor) all deal, in varying capacity, with the atrocities perpetuated by the Japanese during the Second World War and the fallout after the country’s defeat.
In many ways Okita is the prototypical Fukasaku protagonist. Not just because the actor playing him, Bunta Sugawara, would become synonymous with the jitsuroku-eiga genre that Fukasaku had helped establish, but because like all Fukasaku protagonists Okita is an angry young man lashing out at a society that would rather sweep all of its social problems under the rug rather than deal with them. Just as Cagney’s Tom Powers clawed his way out of the immigrant ghetto slums through the use of brute violence Okita also sees no other way to get what he wants except through intimidation and force. The main difference though between Cagney’s Prohibition-era antihero and Sugawara’s postwar outlaw is that The Public Enemy was a social commentary film made to attack the American government’s ridiculous attempt to curb alcohol consumption within its borders. The film accomplished this task by having a charming and likable actor portraying a psychopathic criminal that represented all the violence, corruption, and death that Prohibition wrought on the entire country. Thus American audiences were in a constant state of flux, between attraction and revulsion, whenever Tom Powers appeared on the screen. Okita, on the other hand, is a character that from the beginning we have no empathy for. He is a rapist, murderer, and bully with no real definitive motive for his actions. Even when Okita gets the support of the Yato gang and is rewarded with some territory to control he grows uneasy with having to kowtow to another authority figure. This anxiety and listlessness within Okita’s personality seems only to subside when he’s fighting, and the root of all of this pent-up aggression can be seen as stemming from the moment of his birth; the day Japan lost the war.
The environment that Okita was born into was that of a defeated and starving country. And for many Japanese this traumatic event in their country’s history had not yet been fully dealt with; rather the issues of war crimes and the black-market days of the Occupation were things better left forgotten. Having been unable to fight in a war that would ultimately have a great influence on his own life; Okita’s belligerent attitude to any authority figure other than himself can be seen as a reaction to the new order in Japanese society which valued money over honor and survival over friendship. If Fukasaku’s later film, Jingi no Hakaba (Graveyard of Honor), was an attempt by the director to explore the psychopathology of the yakuza protagonist and the Jingi Naki Tatakai (Battles Without Honor and Humanity) series was an allegory for the geopolitical machinations going on not only in Japan but the entire world from the 1940’s all the way through the 1970’s then Gendai Yakuza: Hito-kiri Yota (Street Mobster) can be seen as an examination of the damaged Japanese psyche after the war as it dealt with the slow death of traditional values and the rise of Westernization.
The embodiment of this new Japan would have to be Boss Yato, played by reformed yakuza turned actor Noboru Ando. He is a man that, by his own admission, was just like Okita: angry, violent, and hungry for power. The main difference though between the both of them is that Yato has found a way to reconcile his personality with the new corporate sensibility brewing in Japan. Although Boss Yato does save Okita from the Takigawa clan on two separate occasions; the second time occurring after Okita suffers from an almost fatal gunshot wound; he is not really the stoic yakuza boss we believe him to be. The Yato clan’s alliance with Okita is predicated on the belief that the hotheaded Okita’s natural disposition towards trouble will result in the Takigawa clan’s dissolution. Thus, all of Yato’s altruism is really just a mask to hide his desire to take over the Kawasaki underworld. This is a recurring theme in many of Fukasaku’s jitsuroku-eiga; those at the top, in the case of Gendai Yakuza: Hito-kiri Yota (Street Mobster) that would be Boss Yato, use those at the bottom of the social ladder, specifically Okita and his punk gang of chinpira, to fight proxy wars for them. And when the battle is over and the dust finally clears there are no memorials for those who fought on either side; those who died will most likely be forgotten; the only evidence that they ever existed being a few charred photos, their names etched into a concrete wall, and a dark red stain on the ground.
Of course not everything in Fukasaku’s films is completely pessimistic. His treatment of male-female relationships is refreshing in that he doesn’t reduce the female “love interest” into the cliché role of girl-next-door or femme fatale. Instead, he creates female characters that are products of their environment not just their gender roles. Okita and Kimiyo are a fairly typical Fukasaku couple, their relationship hinging primarily on a victim-victimizer mentality. Kimiyo’s narrative arc begins with her as a victim of a brutal rape, coincidentally perpetrated by a gang of thugs that included Okita, after which her rapists sold her into prostitution. Her reunion with Okita finds her jaded and resigned to her lot in life and for the most part she has made the best of a very bad situation. It is only after she recognizes who Okita really is that her fire and spirit returns and she slashes at Okita with her pocket switchblade. Her hatred and indignation have finally boiled over, but when she finally confronts her attacker, in the abandoned building where she was dragged into and raped no less, she abandons her ideas for revenge. Kimiyo, confronted with the man who raped her and in the very place she was raped, has a quiet epiphany; anger and hatred just begets more anger and hatred. Instead of attacking, Kimiyo seduces Okita. And by having sex with Okita in the very spot where she was raped Kimiyo is reliving the trauma of her rape except this time she has the control; being both the initiator of the act and the object of Okita’s desire. Of course this doesn’t mean that Kimiyo and Okita live happily ever after. There is just too much stacked against Okita for him to ever have anything more than a few intimate moments with Kimiyo, but within those moments that he shares with her we are privy to the last dying embers of a man’s humanity.
Ultimately though what keeps cinephiles returning to Fukasaku’s films is his ability to marry avant-garde film techniques with tried and true genre conventions, and in the process creates, for the viewer, a visceral experience. When talking about Fukasaku’s work, especially his jitsuroku-eiga, it’s important to note how vital the documentary aesthetic plays in the visual style of his films. Gendai Yakuza: Hito-kiri Yota (Street Mobster) was shot on location in the city of Kawasaki and Fukasaku’s decision to not be studio bound allows audiences to get a sense of the world that Fukasaku is building within the film. In fact, there is a very newsreel like quality when watching many of his yakuza films, as if the viewer were tuning in to watch a broadcast news piece rather then a movie. Of course that’s not to say that Fukasaku’s style hinges on a detached objective viewpoint. You may not have any empathy for the people in his films but there is no shortage of pathos that an audience can feel for the disenfranchised masses that Fukasaku regularly sides with. Even though he castigates his yakuza characters for being cruel and cowardly he does imbue them with enough humanity to keep his protagonists from devolving completely into archetypical genre behavior. Just as Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets was a film about what that director saw on a day-to-day basis in his neighborhood in Little Italy, Gendai Yakuza: Hito-kiri Yota (Street Mobster) translated Fukasaku’s visual and aural experiences during the Postwar period into a bleak cinematic document of a time when innocent lives were blindly sacrificed to fuel an entire country’s economic growth. In Kinji Fukasaku’s films violence is not there just to titillate the audience; it exists because when you strip a person of love, compassion, and the everyday comforts we take for granted they will inevitably revert into something akin to a feral dog; vicious, territorial, and remorseless pack hunters. Sadly, as the have-nots grow to outnumber the haves Fukasaku’s films prove not just to be groundbreaking genre works but a prescient indictment of consumerism, capitalism, and political corruption.