Saturday, February 27, 2010

Irezumi Ichidai (Tattooed Life) 1965

As a cinema stylist Seijun Suzuki has no rival. Loyal only to his own artistic whims Suzuki’s filmography is replete with pictures that bear his trademark stamp. Categorized by many film scholars as subversive it is important to note that although many of his films undermine the predetermined genre conventions of the yakuza or crime picture it would be more accurate to place him with cinema’s great fetishists; i.e. Alfred Hitchcock, Wes Anderson, Quentin Tarantino, and Wong Kar-Wai. Each frame in a Seijun Suzuki picture is carefully constructed. And it’s no exaggeration to state that a major part of what made Suzuki such a critical darling in the film community was the art direction. In fact, many of his films stretching as far back as the 1963 picture Akutaro (The Bastard) till the completion of Kenka Erejii (Fighting Elegy) in 1966 all had the same production designer, Takeo Kimura.

In Suzuki’s own words: “It was with Kimura that I began to work on ways of making the fundamental illusion of cinema more powerful.” And so it was with Kimura’s help that many of the visual tropes that would later be identified as trademark Suzuki were made possible because of Kimura’s great eye for detail. Of course this acuity for dynamic frame compositions and a pathological disregard for cinematic convention would ultimately lead to Suzuki being blacklisted by every major film studio in Japan; many of whom were not amused by his art house pretensions.

This antagonism between Suzuki and Nikkatsu studios can be traced to the director’s disdain for the assembly-line mentality that his bosses had when it came to directing a Nikkatsu B-picture. As Tony Rayns states in Branded to Thrill: The Delirious Cinema of Suzuki Seijun, “In his own eyes, the visual and structural qualities of his ‘60s genre films sprang from a mixture of boredom (‘All company scripts were so similar; if I found a single line that was original, I could see room to do something with it’) and self preservation (‘Since all of us contract directors were working from identical scripts, it was important to find a way of standing out from the crowd’).”

The first signs of the growing strain between Suzuki and Nikkatsu began in 1965 during production of his thirty-sixth film, Irezumi Ichidai (Tattooed Life). Although ostensibly a ninkyo-eiga Suzuki uses the structure of the “chivalry film” itself to not only show the limitations of the yakuza genre but also the shortcomings of the culture that gave birth to this specific brand of cinema. Saddled with a conventional pulp narrative Suzuki is merciless as he not only deconstructs the yakuza persona but also attacks the Japanese mindset during their most imperialistic.

It is no coincidence that Suzuki places the plot of Irezumi Ichidai (Tattooed Life) within the context of the Showa era. For those not familiar with Japanese history the Showa era corresponds to the reign of Emperor Hirohito who ascended to the throne in 1926 and ruled, be it only as a figurehead, till 1989. The Showa period encompassed several important milestones in Japan’s history. And under Hirohito’s reign, Japan during the first half of the twentieth century would be torn asunder by ultra-nationalistic elements within the government ultimately culminating in the country’s eventual defeat by Allied forces during the Second World War.

Suzuki sets his story in year one of the Showa era, and he makes it explicitly apparent to his audience that Manchuria is a nation that will play an important role in Japan’s imperialist ambitions. In the film Suzuki has his two protagonists Tetsu (Hideki Takahashi) and Kenji (Kotobuki Hananomoto) trying to flee Japan for Manchuria to escape reprisal from a rival gang after a series of killings leaves both brothers guilty of murder. By setting the action within a Japanese port town Suzuki creates an image of Manchuria as some sort of far-off intangible Promised Land. Similar to the classic Hollywood picture Casablanca the port town in the film not only becomes the final way station before they can reach Manchuria but also just like the Michael Curtiz picture the main thrust of the story revolves around finding someone trustworthy enough to help them gain safe passage to freedom.

Unlike Casablanca though Irezumi Ichidai (Tattooed Life) never devolves into nationalistic propaganda. In fact Suzuki’s film is very disparaging of Japan at the start of the Showa era. While Curtiz divided his characters into two camps, those working for or against the Nazis, Suzuki eschewed such simplistic generalizations. Instead of defining his characters through their political affiliations Suzuki illustrates that ultimately both the good guys and the bad guys in the film are not just culpable for their own fate but the entire country’s as well.

The con artist Yamano Senkichi (Hosei Komatsu) is the embodiment of the ultra-nationalist. Sporting a white three-piece suit and never at a loss for words his respectable attire belies his criminal nature. He survives by hustling those desperate to get to Manchuria out of their hard earned money by offering them false hope. It’s no coincidence that Suzuki has Yamano Senkichi constantly espousing nationalist rhetoric like “Asian Liberation” to rationalize the subjugaton of the neighboring countries that surround Japan. Although the war in the Pacific was several years away Suzuki illustrates through the actions of Yamano Senkichi that people don’t suddenly just have a desire to go to war, it is a predilection cultivated by well-dressed con men that know exactly what to say to mobilize the masses.

Also, within the film’s narrative the yakuza themselves no longer take on the role of honorable outlaws. The rival yakuza in the film become something akin to a secret police force or, in the case of the Kanbe family, independent corporate contractors. Concepts like giri and ninjo are useless in this new yakuza order. The peddlers and gamblers of the old order have now been replaced with murderers and spies; which in hindsight were the main tools that the fascists would use to stay in power. The only conventional yakuza in the film are a one-armed old man who works at the Yamashita work camp and Tetsu. Although Tetsu does fall into the conventions of previously romanticized yakuza protagonists Suzuki infuses the narrative with a nihilist streak. Tetsu seems to have a certain degree of self-awareness in the story. It is almost as if he knew his fate even before the first reel of the film had started playing. His time at the Yamashita work camp, romance with Midori, and dreams of living in Manchuria were nothing more than just side trips before his eventual fate.

To understand this ever-present nihilism in the ninkyo-eiga and jitsuroku-eiga one must look towards an old yakuza saying: “The path of a true man leads to red clothes or white clothes.” The white signifying the color of the robes one wears after death, and the red correlating to the prison jumpsuits that all yakuza will eventually don at least once in their life; with this type of thinking it’s no wonder that a yakuza’s fate is never a happy one. Like any true cine-fetishist though Suzuki is never content with being confined to circumscribed genre conventions. Those familiar with the films of Seijun Suzuki will recognize the stylistic debt that Irezumi Ichidai (Tattooed Life) owes to Suzuki’s early color experiments in pictures as diverse as Yaju No Seishun (Youth of the Beast), Kanto Mushuku (Kanto Wanderer), and Nikutai No Mon (Gate of Flesh).

All of Suzuki’s color films in the 1960’s are dependent on three key factors: bold monochromatic colors, artificial lighting, and a theatrical mise-en-scene. Suzuki color-codes various props in Irezumi Ichidai (Tattooed Life) like the omnipresent red boots that the titular villain in the picture wears or Tetsu’s metallic grey pistol for two reasons. The first is to create shots that catch the viewer’s eye. And the second reason being that it offers audiences a visual shortcut to the narrative. Thus as we watch the movie we know that the bad guy wears red boots, Yamano is the one wearing a white suit, and Kenji is easily recognizable with his black cloak draped over his shoulders.

In regards to lighting design Suzuki and his cinematographer, Kurataro Takamura, use contrast to not only delineate what time of day it is but also to establish atmosphere. The sun dappled exteriors of the Yamashita work camp contrasts with the dark cavern like space of the Ikari bar as a way to lend these locations a unique personality. Suzuki’s obsession for capturing specific visual moods overrides the conventions of Western storytelling, which place a greater importance on narrative cohesion. For Suzuki, the cine-fetishist, mood and atmosphere will always trump the filmmaker’s obligation to tell a story.

And as far as scene compositions are concerned one of the purest examples of Seijun Suzuki’s dynamic mise-en-scene can be found in Tetsu’s final showdown with the Kanbe family. Instead of relying on the aesthetics of documentary realism Suzuki opts to shoot the scene in an expressionist style. He narrows the color palette to only a handful of primary pigments: the black background, Tetsu’s white kimono, and the monochromatic fusuma that divides Kanbe headquarters into a series of corridors and secret passages. Also by reducing the area of dramatic action to a spare collection of props and scenery Suzuki turns Kanbe headquarters into an abstract space. The camera’s constant movement as it tracks Tetsu as he fights wave after wave of opponents allows the viewer to be an active spectator as they watch the kinetic action on the screen. In short, Suzuki turns the ritual of the duel into a scene straight out of the Theater of the Absurd.

A key factor to appreciating the cinema of Seijun Suzuki is an understanding that in his films people, places, and objects are not confined to the cinematic frame. Time and space are bent to his artistic specifications. As a product of the Japanese studio system Suzuki would never veer too far from commercial film genres, but within the confines of genre Seijun Suzuki found a canvas that afforded him the resources to be able to share with audiences his unique perspective of the world.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Ankokugai No Bijo (Underworld Beauty) 1958

Maverick. Rebel. Iconoclast. These are all words used to describe Japanese director Seijun Suzuki. Championed by a slew of filmmakers, critics, and cinephiles his work not only challenged Japanese notions of proper behavior, sexuality, and gender roles but his films attacked the very core of Western storytelling techniques. Many of his best films forego the safety net of a classic three-act story structure preferring instead to build his pictures out of flamboyant set pieces, idiosyncratic characters, and a loose improvisatory shooting style that often frustrated viewers who were weaned on predictable Hollywood fare. Like his American counterparts, Frank Tashlin and Samuel Fuller, Suzuki never lost his anarchic spirit even if that meant alienating his audience.

Before the elevation of his work to auteur status though Seijun Suzuki was just another fledgling director for Nikkatsu studios. Working first at Shochiku as an assistant director Suzuki spent seven uneventful years not doing anything particularly worthwhile. It was only after Nikkatsu studios reopened its doors and put a call out to all the major studios for new talent that Suzuki was lured away from Shochiku with the promise of advancement and a substantial pay raise. Although relegated to directing B-pictures for Nikkatsu the low budgets and quick production turnaround taught Suzuki how to make the most of the resources available to him. In fact, the great maverick director needed the stability and security of the Japanese studio system in order to develop his unique brand of postmodern surrealism.

To describe a Seijun Suzuki film one must first establish that Suzuki’s cinema is one where any expectations for narrative plausibility must be thrown out the door. His is a cinema of sensation; both in the tabloid sense of the word and as the feeling one would get while standing in front of an action painting by either Jackson Pollock or Franz Kline. To appreciate one of Suzuki’s pictures it helps to be familiar with the genres he is toying with. In fact several of his films seem more like parodies of well-established genres. The only difference being that most film parodists are only concerned with getting a laugh whereas Suzuki is constantly asking his audience to question the intentions of the film artist working in a commercial business. To put it simply, if film is an art then why must the filmmaker be a servant to the audience, and if it is the filmmaker’s role to be just an entertainer then why are they only allowed to use the same tired techniques that have been around since the days of Griffith to tell a story? Finally one must also take into account when discussing Suzuki’s work that as groundbreaking and borderless as his cinema is a Seijun Suzuki picture is indebted to Japanese culture and the complicated history it’s had with the West ever since the Second World War.

For his seventh feature Suzuki not only adopted the Cinemascope frame but he also appropriated the aesthetics of German Expressionism. Ankokugai No Bijo (Underworld Beauty) is a crime drama that, in terms of style, outclasses many of the American noirs that Suzuki borrows from. The basic premise for the story comes straight out of the B-picture playbook: just released gangster Miyamoto, played by Michitaro Mizushima, retrieves a trio of diamonds he hid away before going to jail as a way to repay a debt he owes to his friend Mihara (Hideaki Nitani), who was crippled during the heist to steal them. Of course like any true crime drama betrayal is always an ever-present danger and usually punctuates the end of the first act. In Suzuki’s picture betrayal comes in the form of Miyamoto’s old gang who’ve embraced Western capitalism while at the same time adopting the faux-traditions of the yakuza code. Unlike the typical characters found in the American crime pictures of the 40’s and 50’s Miyamoto is neither alienated from his surroundings nor is he in some quest to right a wrong. Instead he is motivated by the Japanese concept of giri, which when translated into English means duty or social obligation. Since it was Miyamoto who dragged Mihara into helping him pull off the heist then it is Miyamoto who must assume personal responsibility for Mihara’s crippling. Even after Mihara’s death the debt Miyamoto owes cannot be canceled it is only transferred from Mihara to his younger sister Akiko, played by Mari Shiraki.

With the exception of Mihara the character of Miyamoto is the most traditional character in the story. Whereas his old gang flaunt pricey suits and an array of high-powered submachine guns and pistols Miyamoto looks like he just stepped out of a Warner Bros. gangster picture. His outfit echoes James Cagney’s costume in White Heat, his fedora links him to the detectives of the private eye genre, and his gait echoes the confident stride of Humphrey Bogart. By linking Miyamoto to the idealized tough guy archetypes of Cagney and Bogart Suzuki makes it plainly obvious to the viewer that Miyamoto is a walking anachronism. In 1950’s era Japan when the economic miracle was still several years away and the streets were clogged with US service men, a constant reminder to the Japanese populace of their humiliating defeat during the war, the concepts of giri and ninjo were looked upon as unrealistic virtues to follow. By making the character of Miyamoto a synthesis of Western genre tropes and Eastern virtues the actor Michitaro Mizushima and director Seijun Suzuki create a distinctly Japanese character that was created out of the social and psychological tensions brewing in Japan at that time.

Other then Miyamoto the only other multi-dimensional character in the film is Akiko. Like many auteurs, Suzuki has a set number of stylistic and thematic obsessions that he constantly returns to in film after film. Akiko is a typical Suzuki female in that she uses her body, more specifically her sexuality, to survive and this trait in effect makes her a much stronger and more independent character compared to her male counterparts who are hampered by their greed or blind devotion to social codes. In fact, Akiko can be seen as the prototype for later Suzuki females that you’d find in Nikutai No Mon (Gate of Flesh), Shunpu Den (Story of a Prostitute), and Koroshi No Rakuin (Branded to Kill). Instead of wearing a traditional Japanese kimono or yukata Akiko is dressed in tight black capri pants, matching long sleeve turtleneck, a white smock-frock jacket, and ballerina shoes. She is the epitome of modern fashion and in fact minus a black beret she is decked out in full beatnik regalia. Just as Miyamoto’s costume identifies him with the 30’s tough guy archetype Akiko’s modish fashion statement links her with the juvenile delinquency films that were popular in America, Europe, and Japan during the 1950’s. Unlike the female characters in those films though Akiko is not riddled with angst. In a way Akiko represents the new Japanese spirit of revitalization. Even though she has lost her entire family, just as many Japanese families had during the war, she retains her optimism and independence. The trauma of loss does not crush her spirit, but rather fuels her to overcome the obstacles in her way and become even stronger.

Also, unlike the female characters found in American romantic comedies or juvenile delinquency pictures Suzuki establishes right off the bat that Akiko is sexually active and doesn’t make a big deal about it. Whereas an American film of that time might demonize its female characters for engaging in premarital sex, show them to be suffering some clash of conscience, or punish them in some way Suzuki foregoes such melodramatic affectations. In the film Akiko dances, drinks, flirts, models for, talks to, and enjoys the company of American soldiers, Japanese playboys, and her phony artist/sculptor boyfriend not because of some sanctimonious quest to find a husband but because she is full of life and she won’t allow society to have sole control of her sexual organs. Suzuki shows through the character of Akiko that the new Japan born from the ashes of the Second World War would do well to not repeat the country’s previous mistakes in relegating women to second-class status. Instead of being defined by the men in her life Akiko makes decisions based on her own needs and wants. As a result of this Akiko is the most self-actualized person in the film. In fact the final scene of the film has a positively radiant Akiko standing on the balcony of Miyamoto’s hospital room smiling as she comments on the beauty of the weather and asking him if he doesn’t share the same sentiment about the day. She looks far off into the distance, ruminating about her future. To the top left of the frame hangs a birdcage with two songbirds sitting on a perch, content. Akiko has moved past the trauma of losing her brother and almost getting killed and is now ready to make a second go at living her life. Just as the Japanese during the postwar era would not allow themselves to be defined by the tragedies they’ve lived thru Akiko can only look optimistically forward towards the future, no matter how shaky it may be.

An interesting theme that Suzuki has running throughout the picture is the bastardization of the arts through commerce, in particular the visual arts and to be even more specific the cinema. The character of Arita, played by Shinsuke Ashida, is the personification of avarice and also an example of the artist poseur. In fact out of all the characters in the film Suzuki reserves all his hatred and contempt for Arita. Whereas Miyamoto’s old gang is portrayed as ruthless killers their actions are framed within the context of the crime drama. The Oyane gang serves as a dramatic foil for Miyamoto. And so their cruelty is always proportionate to Miyamoto’s innate humanity. Arita, on the other hand, is an absurdly vulgar and despicable figure in the story. His greed inadvertently leads to Mihara’s death, the crude vivisection of Mihara by Arita to retrieve the diamonds, and his feeble attempts to seduce and then assault Akiko all in a bid to capture at least one of the diamonds for himself. It’s a telling detail that Suzuki makes Arita a mannequin sculptor. The job bridges both the artistic world of Renaissance sculptors like Michelangelo and Donatello and the crude Consumerism that at the time was just starting to take hold of in Japan. One can see the character of Arita as being a narrative device that Suzuki is using to comment on Nikkatsu studios viewpoint of the director being a mere factory worker churning out cheap flashy product to attract window shoppers into their stores, or in Suzuki’s case movie theaters. Arita’s singular drive to get a hold of the diamonds can be seen as a parallel to the commercial filmmakers blind ambition of scoring box office success with audience pleasing dreck. Both accomplishments would result in a certain amount of economic security, but the pursuit of either action leads to an individual’s gradual corruption. For Suzuki, an artist with no regard for the visual and narrative intricacies of film and was in it only for the money is a far greater evil than the killers and yakuza thugs that populate his films.

Although remarkably restrained for a Seijun Suzuki picture Ankokugai No Bijo (Underworld Beauty) does offer the viewer flashes of auteurist brilliance. Just as he does in later films Suzuki frames his shots by using pillars, window frames, alleyways, and the stark architectural outlines of the surrounding urban environment as a makeshift proscenium arch. The artificial mise-en-scene lends the film an unreality that hearkens back to classic Japanese theater, specifically kabuki. The highly stylized drama of the kabuki play complements the Expressionist lighting that Suzuki and his cinematographer, Wataro Nakao, establish throughout the film. Nakao and Suzuki borrow heavily from Fritz Lang’s oeuvre and Karl Freund’s trademark lighting design. And the play of shadow and light helps elevate visually unexciting scenes into wonderfully enthralling tableaus. The final showdown at the Oyane gang’s headquarters is refreshing because of the decision to leave the viewer in the dark during a majority of the shootout. Every so often we see the flash of a light bulb being shot out, the metallic glint coming from the barrel of a gun, or maybe shafts of light cutting thru the inky darkness. By manipulating the information we get, Suzuki and his cinematographer make a tired convention of the crime drama into visual eye candy for cinephiles privy to the cinematic treats that watching a Seijun Suzuki film can offer.

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.