Radiance Films releases director Kinji Fukasaku’s crime drama “Yakuza Graveyard” on Blu-ray for the first time.

Photosensitivity Warning: During an interrogation scene late into the film a brief but prolonged flashing sequence occurs. 

Within crime stories, there is a specific subgenre born from Japan: yakuza films. These stories center on the lives or operations of members of a yakuza organization, whether looking at specific individuals or the organization as a whole. One of the most prolific filmmakers of the genre is Kinji Fukasaku, who helmed the five-film Battles without Honor & Humanity series (1973-1974), New Battles without Honor & Humanity I (1974) and 2 (1975), as well as films like Graveyard of Honor (1975) and Cops vs. Thugs (1975). Now making its way to Blu-ray for the very first time, courtesy of Radiance Films, is Fukasaku’s 1976 release Yakuza Graveyard (Yakuza no Hakaba: Kuchinashi no Hana), a gripping tale of violence and interpersonal deception whose presentation of pain grows deeper when one is aware of the historical context of the film. Now, thanks to Radiance, cinephiles can explore Fukasaku’s project along with a few bonus features to deepen the experience.

After being transferred away for two years as part of a demotion post-shooting incident, Kuroiwa Ryu (Tetsuya Watari) is reinstated as a police investigator working the yakuza beat. As the streets grow increasingly violent with the threat of a war between rivals Nishida and Yamashiro, Kuroiwa finds himself walking an unexpected line that places him right next to the new head of the Nishida, Iwata Goro (Tatsuo Umemiya), and the controller of the purse, Matsunaga Keiko (Meiko Kaji). As alliances form and crumble around him, Kuroiwa will be tested in ways he’d never expected when he joined the force.

Though there is room for cultural analysis in a regular release review, pointing out the significance of historical context is vital with some brand-new releases, whether they are restorations or just first-time editions. Despite the arguments by many that folks should turn off their brains or that art wasn’t always political, a film like Yakuza Graveyard may be a straight-forward action crime drama, but it’s dripping with historical resonance. So let’s take a moment and look at the film from the entertainment perspective before exploring the historical context.

Watari plays Kuroiwa as a boiling pot, looking for any excuse to spatter anyone, doing incredible harm in the process. We first meet him as he sets up some Nishida members to be followed before confronting them, beating them up, and planting evidence of a shooting on one of them. When he’s talking to his superiors some time later, he’s pacing while punching a fist, louder and louder, harder and harder, into an open palm. Kuroiwa is a man who needs to be moving, who welcomes any excuse to brawl, as though there’s a sucking wound in his soul that he can only ignore when he’s in motion. In terms of a slightly corrupt police force dealing with gang-related violence, Kuroiwa seems like the perfect individual to be on the yakuza beat, a weapon to be pointed and allow it to do any kind of damage. With cinematographer Tôru Nakajima’s free-hand style invoking cinéma vérité, the audience frequently feels like they’re right in the thick of whatever brawl or gunfight is going down before us. Unlike the frantic tossing of a camera that accompanies modern films, there’s a specificity here where the shaking of the camera isn’t to hide poor action choreography, but to convey the sense of the chaos that erupts with the violence. Though there is one shot in which Kuroiwa grabs someone and slams them to the ground in which the camera tilts in a similar fashion before visibly correcting (rather than hide the perspective shift with an edit), a technique still used in modern cinema to add a visual flourish that also conveys the intensity or power of a physical altercation.

What’s unexpected is the brotherhood that Kuroiwa finds within the new head of the Nishida and how this shifts the way the man wants to live his life. It’s here that the script from Kazuo Kasahara (Battles without Honor & Humanity series/Graveyard of Honor) expresses its depth and complexity, not just by presenting a character whose choices have lead him toward a path of unending violence, but a desire for change, for stability, for acceptance, and the star-crossed place it’s found. If one finds themselves caring for Kuroiwa in a way that Watari suggests the character himself never can, there is heartache on the horizon. But as there was going to be pain no matter where one looks or what one does, Kasahara provides an opportunity for the ache to receive a slight shine wherein one might feel like Kuroiwa at least tries to make good on a life of constant maliciousness.

If one were to watch the film on its face, with only the above to consider or ruminate on, Yakuza Graveyard is a fine film delaying in the morally complex aspects of life where few are wholly good or evil. But it’s the awareness of what was going on in Japan post-World War II that adds extra depth. As expressed in the included essay by Mika Ko, “’Zainichi Koreans’ in Japanese Yakuza films,” there was a specific class system created by the Japanese when they brought Koreans into their country to work when Japan claimed ownership of the country from 1910-1945. There’ve been several conflicts between the two countries prior to this for more than a century, but this stated period resulted in what is known as zainichi Korean, defined as someone who is of Korean decent that either were forced to live in the country or came of their own volition. When World War II concluded, Korea was freed from Japanese control and Korean residents could leave, except, as is common with any people removed from their homes of any generation, either returning was impossible or not desired. Those who stayed, the zainichi, were looked down upon by the Japanese, often the subject of violence as a result. In the United States, we see this frequently in the race relations between Indigenous peoples as well as other people of color, an impressive display of cognitive dissonance on the part of White America given the number of people this country either forced to come or invited to come and then betrayed. The point here is that Keiko and Iwata are both zainichi, yet are respected members of the Nishida, with their heritage not a concern for the clan. Additionally, when brotherhood is offered to Kuroiwa by Iwata, when asked if Iwata’s pure Korean blood makes a difference, Kuroiwa explicitly states that it is of no matter to him. There’s not much discussion of race in the picture, something that suggests that it may not be a prevalent or significant part of the story, yet it is always present. When one is aware of the context, the actions that Kuroiwa engages in take on an entirely new meaning with increased subtext than if one is unaware. This isn’t exclusive to Yakuza Graveyard as the newfound awareness of zainichi Koreans shifts my perception of the character Akira Kido (Satoshi Tsumabuki) in director Kei Ishikawa’s A Man, a character whom is stated to be a Korean-Japanese individual and is not entirely welcomed, even by his wife. In my viewing, I thought this to be a way to make specific the background discord of racial disparity in modern Japan, when, in reality, it’s emblematic of a systemic disparity. Art is political, always.

As for the release itself, Radiance has proven itself as a premium physical media boutique. The liner is reversible, with both new and original artwork, and the OBI strip is once more removable (should you not want the details of the release distracting from the art. The case is once more clear so that buyers can see the reverse art and information display without having to take out the liner, making the choice to keep or flip easier. The included 32-page essay booklet includes cast and crew information, the aforementioned new essay by Ko, two older essays, and transfer notes/credits. In between all of this are production stills from the film. Of the two previously released essays, Kasahara’s “Could Rice Still Fall From the Screen?” feels particularly prescient as he, the writer of this film and others, explores his frustrations with the end of the studio era and the trouble he, as a writer, is having with being paid appropriately for his work due to the traps within the industry that keep writers’ wages low. As the Writer’s Guild of America is on week three of their current strike, reading Kasahara’s words from 1976 conveys how the issues of today have been going on a long time and are not merely a U.S. issue. (Writer strikes have happened in the U.S. as early as 1952, for instance.) For a different learning experience, there are two brief featurettes, one a 12-minute video essay and the other a 15-minute exploration by filmmaker Kazuya Shiraishi (The Blood of Wolves/Kamen Rider Black Sun) that’s described as “Appreciation,” which audiences can explore past the included essays.

As for the transfer itself, according to the liner notes, the High-Definition master to create this first-time Blu-ray was provided by Toei Company Ltd, the original distributor of the film. Keeping in mind that this isn’t a restoration but a HD release, it’s not as clean as a 2K or 4K restoration, but there’s nothing to complain about. The image is as clean as can be expected for a film from 1975 and the audio is crisp. Should any color grading or audio work be done to advance the film further, I have no doubt it would be splendid, but, for what we have here, there’s no complaints. Between the packaging and the display of the film, buyers are going to be happy.

Between this release and Big Time Gambling Boss (1968), Radiance is starting to establish itself as a purveyor of yakuza stories worthy of wider attention placed in packages deserving of display. Whether you’re a Fukasaku completionist, a yakuza fan, or just generally curious, you’re going to walk away satisfied with Yakuza Graveyard.

Yakuza Graveyard Special Features:

  • High-Definition digital transfer
  • Original uncompressed mono PCM audio
  • Appreciation by filmmaker Kazuya Shiraishi (2022, 15 mins)
  • The Rage and the Passion – A visual essay by critic Tom Mes on Meiko Kaji and Kinji Fukasaku’s collaborations (2022, 12 mins)
  • Gallery of promotional imagery
  • Easter Egg
  • Trailer
  • Newly improved English subtitle translation
  • Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Time Tomorrow
  • Limited edition 32-page booklet featuring new writing on the film by Mika Ko on the representations of Koreans in the yakuza film, and newly translated re-prints of a contemporary review and writing by screenwriter Kazuo Kasahara
  • Limited edition of 3000 copies, presented in full-height Scanavo packaging with removable OBI strip leaving packaging free of certificates and markings

Available on Blu-ray from Radiance Films May 16th, 2023.

For more information or to purchase, head to MVD Entertainment Group.


Categories: Films To Watch, Home Release, Home Video, Recommendation, Reviews

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