Blu-ray Release: May 16, 2023
Audio: Japanese DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 Mono
Run Time: 95:53
Director: Kinji Fukasaku
When he falls for the beautiful wife of the jailed boss of the Nishida gang, things start to spiral out of control for detective Kuroiwa (Tetsuya Watari). In a world where the line between police and organized crime is vague, he finds himself on the wrong side of a yakuza war when his superiors favor Nishida's rivals, the Yamashiro gang. (From Radiance’s official synopsis)
In 1973 and 1974, already more than a decade into his directing career, Kinji Fukasaku made a groundbreaking, five-part gangster epic known as Battles without Honor and Humanity (1973-74). After the series was finished and the box office receipts were counted, Fukasaku was typecast at Toei Studios as the champion of yakuza (aka: jitsuroku) drama, action, and violence. While he had always worked in the crime genre, the success of Battles without Honor and Humanity ensured that his next nine movies were yakuza or yakuza-adjacent crime tales, including a New Battles without Honor and Humanity trilogy (Japanese: Shin Jinginaki tatakai, 1974-76), Graveyard of Honor (Japanese: Jingi no hakaba, 1975), and Cops vs. Thugs (Japanese: Kenkei tai soshiki boryoku; aka: Police vs. Violence Groups, 1975).
Released towards the end of the run – before he temporarily left the genre to work on jidaigeki dramas, modern comedies, and a few sci-fi and fantasy films – was Yakuza Graveyard (Japanese: Yakuza no Hakaba: Kuchinashi no Hana; aka: Yakuza Burial: Jasmine Flower, 1976), which reteamed Fukasaku with Graveyard of Honor star Tetsuya Watari. Despite featuring similar titles and the same lead actor, it is not a sequel, but the two films are interesting companion pieces, because Watari plays a disillusioned and self-destructive yakuza in one and an equally disillusioned and self-destructive cop in the other. Graveyard of Honor is also sort of a gritty, modern Japanese answer to Prohibition-era Hollywood gangster biographies, while Yakuza Graveyard is a Japan’s answer to the gritty Hollywood antihero cop formula fronted by Don Siegel’s Dirty Harry (1971) and William Friedkin’s French Connection (also 1971). Fukasaku delivered the same raw, nihilistic, and relentless experience that audiences had expected, but not without putting his own subversive twists on each formula.
Yakuza Graveyard presses the handheld vérité look well beyond Friedkin’s already frenetic extremes, creating a relentless experience characterized by oppressively claustrophobic environments, a constant threat of violence, and borderline indiscernible handheld camera work. But what’s more significant is the aching sadness of it all and the fact that its moral conclusion is practically the antithesis to vigilante stories, like Dirty Harry. Hiring Watari to portray a cop, even a dirty one, was in itself a minor act of rebellion on the part of the star and director. Before Fukasaku was crowned king of crime movies, Watari had already made his name on another series of pioneering yakuza movies, beginning with Seijun Suzuki’s Tokyo Drifter (Japanese: Tōkyō nagaremono, 1966) and continuing through the six Outlaw: Gangster VIP (Japanese: Burai yori daikanbu, 1968-69) movies, directed by Toshio Masuda, Mio Ezaki, and Keiichi Ozawa. He’d be known as the main character’s adopted father in the Yakuza video game series many years later, but, at the time of Yakuza Graveyard, both he and Fukasaku felt that he needed a break from typecasting. Apparently satisfied with the role of hardboiled lawman, Watari immediately signed on to act as a better-behaved police sergeant named Raisuke Kuroiwa on 132 episodes of The Big City (Japanese: Daitokai, 1976-79), a TV detective drama.
Yakuza Graveyard also reteams Fukasaku and Watari with actress Meiko Kaji, though the two men worked with her at very different moments in her career. She had a bit part (her first under her given name) alongside Watari in Keiichi Ozawa’s Outlaw Gangster VIP 2 (Japanese: Daikanbu - burai, 1968), then appeared in both Battles without Honor and Humanity: Deadly Fight in Hiroshima (Japanese: Jingi Naki Tatakai: Hiroshima Shitō-hen, 1973) and New Battles without Honor and Humanity: The Boss's Head (Japanese: Shin Jingi Naki Tatakai: Kumicho no Kubi, 1975), fresh off of star-making parts in the Stray Cat Rock (1970-71) and Female Prisoner Scorpion (1972-73) series. Here, she’s a more demure figure and doesn’t get a lot of screen time, but she has a few moments to shine.
Outlaw Masters of Japanese Film by Chris D., including Fukasaku interview (IB Taurus, 2005)
Despite decades of Fukasaku gangster movie re-releases, the only official US Yakuza Graveyard DVD was released by Kino way back in 2006. It’s weird, too, because it appears to also be owned by Toei, who has already leased a ton of Fukasaku titles to Arrow. Radiance’s Blu-ray, which is being released in the US, Canada, and the UK, represents the film’s Blu-ray debut, as well as, I believe, its HD debut in general. The 2.35:1, 1080p transfer is in keeping with Arrow’s Toei discs, which makes sense, since Toei themselves supplied the HD scans directly to both companies. Cinematographer Toru Nakajima’s compositions fit the Fukasaku rough ‘n tumble mode (the two had worked together on some of the New Battles without Honor and Humanity movies), alternating between raw, naturally-lit handheld scenes and more stylized and moodily lit expositional scenes, which obviously look cleaner and are a better sampling of what the disc is capable of. There’s a slight fuzziness to the whole thing, but textures and grain are still impressive for type and the cooled palette, which emphasizes blues, grays, earthy tones, is consistent throughout.
Yakuza Graveyard has only one audio option, the original Japanese in uncompressed DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono. The film’s frenzied, hyper-naturalistic style leads to a very loud, super-stuffed mix that quite often overwhelms the capabilities of the single channel analogue source. This means there is distortion at high volume levels, but not because the material has been badly preserved or reproduced. Notably, though, dialogue hiss is minimal and the sound floor is low without obvious clipping. Fukasaku’s regular composer Toshiaki Tsushima supplies another finger-snappin’ surf guitar and jazz ensemble score that sounds really nice throughout – along with an extended appearance from the swampy blues-rock song “Pretty Sue” by Japanese brand Creation – even as effects and dialogue are peaking.
Of Wolves and Men (14:36, HD) – A new 2022 appreciation of Fukasaku with filmmaker Kazuya Shiraishi (The Blood of Wolves, 2018) that covers Fukasaku’s collaborations with Kazuo Kasahara and their research, the making of the Toei yakuza formula, repeating themes throughout his gangster movies, and what Yakuza Graveyard does differently.
The Rage and the Passion (12:10, HD) – A new visual essay by critic and Unchained Melody: The Films Of Meiko Kaji (Arrow Books, 2017) author Tom Mes on Kaji and Fukasaku’s three collaborations as actress and director.
The images on this page are taken from the BD and sized for the page. Larger versions can be viewed by clicking the images. Note that there will be some JPG compression.