Last week saw the end of the first season of Tokyo Vice, the neo-noir drama from HBO Max and Michael Mann that follows American expatriate reporter Jake Adelstein as he investigates the criminal conspiracies sprouting out of Japan’s dark underbelly. And at the center of the show’s intrigue and action are the yakuza, the organized syndicates that make up Japan’s criminal underworld.
But of course, that eight-episode series was the latest in a long line of yakuza-centered storytelling, a tradition that goes back decades. The advent of the yakuza genre was in Japanese cinema’s golden age, starting from the end of the American occupation in 1952 to the end of the 1960s, which, much like Hollywood’s parallel age, was ruled by a studio system. Different studios mass-produced many different program features, and jidaigeki period dramas set in Meiji-era Japan (1868–1912) were among some of the most popular. A lot of the earlier screen depictions of yakuza were here in Toei’s formulaic ninkyo eiga (“chivalrous spirit films”), often portraying the yakuza as chivalrous outlaw heroes caught between duty and emotion.
Around the same time, a second, more modern kind of yakuza film took form at studios like Nikkatsu, more inspired by American gangster films. These movies would explore gangsters in the modern postwar era through a far less idealized lens, often treating them as fools and anti-heroes.
Pigs & Battleships (1961)
A gritty satire set in American-occupied Tokyo, Pigs & Battleships follows Kinta, a chinpira (low-level thug) in charge of the Himori yakuza group’s pork-distribution hustle. While his pregnant girlfriend, Haruko, begs him to leave the gang, he disagrees, not wanting to become a “slave of the wage.” But when the syndicate begins to fall apart and he learns his friends set him up as the fall guy for a murder, he becomes dead set on getting out of the figurative (and literal) pigsty he’s trapped in.
Pigs & Battleships is loaded with comedy but is in essence a tragedy. It speaks to a growing materialism that director Shohei Imamura saw in his fellow countrymen, while also calling out the hushed-up cruelties of the American occupation of Japan. A classic touchstone of the canon proving that while the genre could often be used to peddle mass-produced schlock, the yakuza film could also be a potent conduit for social commentary. Streaming on Criterion Channel.
Youth of the Beast (1963)
Disgraced former detective Joji Mizuno gets out of jail only to find his former partner is dead, and so he joins up with the yakuza organization he believes is responsible. Soon, he is playing two different factions in a yakuza war against each other. But how long can his charade last? Youth of the Beast emerged from the borderless action subgenre of yakuza films heavily influenced by American movies, and lead actor Joe Shishido — a man notorious for having attained success as an action star only after getting cheek implants that gave him a bearing not dissimilar to a chipmunk — was just as willing to model himself after Hollywood stars. Director Seijun Suzuki was a contract director tied to the Nikkatsu studio and required to churn out several B movies a year. But growing tired of the formulaic nature of the work he was assigned, he began to punch up the scripts he was given and implement his own idiosyncratic ideas. Youth of the Beast isn’t too grounded in realism; the film’s bigger ambition is style, with each neon flourish accentuating the charms of the crime genre in ways rarely seen before. Streaming on Criterion Channel.
Graveyard of Honor (1975)
Kinji Fukasaku is perhaps the director best known for popularizing the anti-hero image of the modern yakuza film in the 1970s, particularly pioneering the jitsuroku eiga (“actual record films”) subgenre with his Battles Without Honor and Humanity series. And while his follow-up existed within that same true-crime lens, Graveyard of Honor charts the true story of madman yakuza Rikio Ishikawa, from his chaotic beginnings to his equally chaotic demise. The film opens with photos of the real Rikio as well as interviews with those who knew him, all painting an image of a true rebel without a cause.
When questioned as to whether the trauma of coming of age during World War II made Ishikawa the mad dog he is, one interviewee simply states “he was always crazy.” This image of a human tsunami is further illustrated through the rest of the film by its frenetic camerawork and buckets of blood, as Rikio proves unwilling to discern enemy from friend, destroying the life of everyone around him and finally his own. In no small terms, it represents the crystallization of the modern yakuza movie. For rent on Amazon.
Minbo (or The Gentle Art of Japanese Extortion) (1992)
Director Juzo Itami, most famous for his screwy ramen western Tampopo, was a satirist who deftly used humor to better illustrate the many ills in Japanese society.
Itami was particularly ruthless in Minbo, a comedy centered around a plucky lawyer (Nobuko Miyamoto, Itami’s wife and constant collaborator) who helps an upscale hotel ward off a swarm of yakuza hoping to extort money from it via trumped-up civil disputes. A reflection of the anti-yakuza crackdown of its time, the gangsters here lack any of the honor or cool often associated with them in pop culture, instead depicted as nothing more than craven, thuggish bullies out to scam honest citizens. In that spirit, Minbo offers perhaps the least flattering depiction of Japanese organized crime ever committed to screen, while making a uniquely incisive comment on the often conflict-averse nature of modern Japan.
It’s worth noting that this film has an intriguing if tragic connection to Tokyo Vice. After Minbo was released in Japan, members of the Goto-gumi, a subsidiary of one of the country’s largest yakuza organizations, orchestrated an attack on Itami, viciously beating him and slashing his face. This is the same yakuza organization that the real Jake Adelstein wrote about coming up against in Tokyo Vice (the book). Adelstein also allegedly uncovered the truth behind the filmmaker’s suspicious death as murder framed as suicide. Grim stuff. Streaming on Criterion Channel.
In the ’90s, yakuza films began to be less defined by genre conventions and more by each filmmaker’s individual style. At the time, Japan’s most famous comedian was making the transition from being known exclusively as TV funnyman Beat Takeshi to multi-hyphenate filmmaker and action star Takeshi Kitano, who would craft his visual language around meditative stillness and abruptly punctuating violence. This is clearest in his masterpiece of yakuza escapism, Sonatine, which he wrote, directed, edited, and starred in.
The story follows Murakawa, a tired, middle-aged Tokyo yakuza who would like to retire. He is sent by his boss on a mission to Okinawa to resolve a conflict between rival gangs, but upon arriving, nothing is what it seems, and Murakawa and his underlings are forced to flee to a remote beach. Here, his demeanor entirely changes, and he straddles a line between playfulness and suicidal ideation that confuses his men. In a sense, he is just a man looking for a way out. If you only watch one film on this list, let it be Sonatine. For rent on Amazon.
Takeshi Kitano made many films within the yakuza milieu, including coming-of-age stories (Kids Return), road movies (Kikujiro), and a whole film about a bunch of grandpa yakuzas on the town (Ryuzo and the Seven Henchman). But perhaps one of his most underappreciated offerings is Brother, the one film Kitano made in America. In it he plays Yamamoto, a yakuza forced to flee to Los Angeles after his clan is disbanded. He reunites with his younger half brother, Ken, only to find he too is embroiled in gang activity. So rather than pack it in and retire, Yamamoto forms a new yakuza crew with his half brother and his Black friends, dead set on dominating L.A. or to die trying.
As a film about a yakuza coming to America, Brother forms a neat parallel with Tokyo Vice, a show about an American that comes to the yakuza. Similarly, Yamamoto’s foreignness is emphasized with him being very much lost in translation at the film’s start. But as it goes on, he deepens connections with his L.A. crew (who all call him aniki), in particular Omar Epps’s character, Denny. Plus, there’s a scene where a random L.A. drug dealer is made to commit yubitsume. Streaming on Tubi.
Why Don’t You Play in Hell? (2013)
Why Don’t You Play in Hell is a yakuza movie about making a yakuza movie. An absurdist criminal odyssey with a mishmash of parallel (seemingly unrelated) stories — a feud between two warring yakuza clans; the adventures of an overeager but underperforming group of guerrilla filmmakers called the Fuck Bombers; and a romance involving the would-be starlet daughter of one clan’s oyabun — that eventually collide in spectacular fashion. Though the story takes place over the course of 10 years and, well, sounds rather messy, it’s an incredibly tight ride that never once stops before reaching a bombastic fever pitch in its blood-drenched and cocaine-dusted final act. Streaming on Tubi.
The Blood of Wolves (2018)
Hiroshima, 1988. Fresh-faced, university-bred junior detective Shuichi Hioka is partnered with the crass and unorthodox Shogo Ogami as his senior. The two officers investigate the murder of a yakuza-connected bookkeeper, but the deeper they get into the case, the less sure Hioka is that he can trust Ogami, who not only dresses and acts like a thug but is rumored to be in the pocket of the mob himself. The Blood of Wolves is a modern pastiche of Toei’s classic jitsuroku films that knows its references. It’s a cop-versus-yakuza story with all the violence, profanity, and immorality of Fukasaku’s Battles series (the highlight perhaps being the moment when an orchiectomy is used as an interrogation technique), depicting a hard-boiled city where the cops are just as dirty as the yakuza and willing to stoop to the same lows to meet their goals. Streaming on AMC+.
First Love (2019)
Leo is a quiet, lonely boxer who wanders the streets of Tokyo in shock after having been diagnosed with a brain tumor. Monica is a call girl indentured to the mob who uses drugs to quiet traumatic visions of her abusive father. In one of cinema’s most oddball meet-cutes, the two cross paths when Leo instinctually punches out a cop trying to frame Monica for the theft of a large shipment of narcotics, embroiling the two in a conflict between the Japanese yakuza and Chinese triads, with each faction out for the couple’s blood.
Though filmmaker Takashi Miike’s oeuvre includes more than 100 feature films spanning many genres in the 30-odd years since his debut, he is perhaps most well known internationally for his use of grotesque imagery and excessive gore. His most infamous movies, like Audition and Ichi the Killer, reach such a crescendo of gonzo violence that they make Eli Roth look like Ken Burns. Which makes it all the more surprising that Miike strikes such an even balance of thrilling violence, uproarious comedy, and surprising sweetness in First Love. Calling to mind Tarantino’s True Romance, it’s a romantic comedy of errors between young misfits caught up in a criminal imbroglio and bolstered by an ensemble of memorable characters, most notably a hyperconfident but graceless yakuza cleaner whose hunger for power initiates the entire messy fiasco and provides many of the film’s biggest laughs. Streaming on Peacock.
Under the Open Sky (2020)
Fresh out of a lengthy prison sentence, former yakuza Mikami is eager to walk the straight and narrow, but he struggles to fit into a society that may not want him. Though honest and hardworking, his impulsive nature and unwillingness to back down from his beliefs intimidate and put off those around him, like the TV producer he hopes will get him in contact with his long-lost mother. In the end, it becomes a question of whether Mikami will stick out a losing battle or take the easy path back to a criminal life. Director Miwa Nishikawa, a protégé of Shoplifters filmmaker Hirokazu Kore-eda, is keenly interested in examining the ways in which anti-yakuza laws inhibit the rehabilitation of former members and impede their reentry into society. It’s a quiet, poignant drama about trying to cope and survive in a system that has set you up to fail.