Yakuza Law (Cert 18)
1 Disc Blu-ray (Distributor: Arrow Video) Running Time: 96 minutes approx.
“The Yakuza are groups of men bound by ironclad rules.”
So boasts the legend at the start of this film, which may very well be true but it does also give the “King of Cult” Teruo Ishii an opportunity to fill our screens with gallons of blood and numerous gruesome torture scenes! Like Ishii needs a reason but I digress…
This triptych opus from 1969 explores the concept of the laws adhered to by the Yakuza spread across three different generations, beginning with Edo era Japan. The first rules under scrutiny are “Never steal” and ”Never mess with another man’s woman”, both of which are duly broken and the subsequent punishment is not very pleasant.
It begins with a bloody battle between rival clans, with the cowardly Mamushi hiding in the bushes then attacking a dead body to make it look as if he had been in the thick of it. This duplicity works as Mamushi is given a bonus by the boss for his efforts whilst a young lad too scared to fight is admonished for letting the family down. Before he can be punished, Tsune steps up and takes the blame, cutting his little finger in penitence.
Meanwhile, Tomozo (Bunta Sugawara) is promoted to run the family’s casino but is secretly in love with his boss’s concubine Oren, which Mamushi discovers, along with the fact Shohei has been pilfering the gambling profits to help buy a girl named Setsu from her abusive master. Mamushi sets everyone up against each other but it all ends tragically with plenty of bloodshed, sacrifice, and severed body parts.
For this particular tale, the moral regards the concept of brotherhood and the overriding maxim of the Yakuza is all for one, and one for all. As the noose of fate draws ever closer around the necks of the protagonists, Tomozo curses the pettiness and inflexibility of the Yakuza laws in the hands of a tyrant like their boss; Shohei counters than being a Yakuza means a place to belong “We are born alone but we die together” he proffers.
Skipping forward to the Meiji period, the mandate being broken in this tale is bringing trouble to the family who face expulsion and punishment if they dare return to the fold. In this case, it is Ogata (Minoru Oki) of the Arakida family whose attempt to kill the boss of the Koda clan fails, taking only his severed hand. But because Ogata acted of his own volition, he is expelled from the Arakida then arrested for killing a man in a later fight.
Three year later Ogata leaves prison, disappointed no-one was there to greet him except Amamiya of the Koda clan. They get into a scuffle which Ogata prevails, but soon realise both are at odds with the Arakida; however Ogata’s old flame Sayo is now with Amamiya since she was told Ogata was dead. This uneasy alliance is compromised when they are set up by new Arakida boss Iwagiri.
Despite his early unlawful acts, it is hard not to root for Ogata since he has been royally screwed by everyone, yet remains too indoctrinated to the creeds he swore to honour to fight against them. Sealing his own fate even though he was a pawn in the games of others, this provides an interesting contrast to the ethos expounded upon in the previous story.
Finally, we jump forward to the modern day (well 1969) for a convoluted fable regarding the betrayal of a Yakuza family through the leaking of secrets. The theft of gold from the Hashiba family sparks unrest within the criminal underworld with half the loot hidden away. The Hashiba reclaim half, leaving people within and outside of the clan to double cross each other to get it.
Hashiba member Shimazu kills his boss to take over the clan and solidify his claim to the money but doesn’t bank on framing a sharp-shooting bounty hunter (Teruo Yoshida) he tries to frame for the murders to backfire. With everyone out to screw over everyone else, the only person anyone can trust is themselves.
Apologies for the glib summary but barely any character names are mentioned, and the loyalties of the various factions are never made clear enough to discern who is zooming who. That everyone covers at least one genre trope, the lack of distinction between them is made harder by their uniformed “gangster” attire.
Of the three tales, this is the most action packed, thus the most violent. Samurai swords have been replaced by guns but the spilling of claret remains unabated, and the torture meted out increasingly inventive. Before, a finger was cut off or an eye cut out; now faces are seared with cigarette lighters, bodies dunked in the sea via a helicopter, and people are buried in cement or squished in a car crusher.
In keeping with the shift to contemporary times, the exploitation level rises – women are no longer the chaste maidens of the Edo period, now they are sexy vixens in the thick of the duplicity as the men, wearing less clothing. To modern eyes, a girl willingly being the prize of a shooting contest will appal but she is a Yakuza moll with a plan up her … well not sleeve as she doesn’t wear much but you get the drift.
Teruo Ishii isn’t what you would call a subtle filmmaker given his history of sexually fused gore fests, but he does show flashes of panache and restraint in this time-jumping trilogy, most notably in the two historically set arcs, at least until the violence erupts. That we’ve come so far with practical effects dates the quality of the gory visuals but this is a minor issue given the gorgeously pristine transfer of this new Blu-ray release.
Yakuza Law might superficially be all blood and guts but look beneath this and you’ll find a smart dissertation on the askew code of honour of the Japanese criminal fraternity.
Audio Commentary by Jasper Sharp
Erotic-Grotesque and Genre Hopping: Teruo Ishii Speaks
First Pressing only:
Illustrated Collector’s Booklet
Rating – *** ½
Man In Black