APES ON FILM: “If you are betrayed, endure.”—Kinji Fukasaku’s YAKUZA GRAVEYARD

Posted on: May 19th, 2023 By:

Lucas Hardwick
Contributing Writer


Welcome to Apes on Film! This column exists to scratch your retro-film-in-high-definition itch. We’ll be reviewing new releases of vintage cinema and television on disc of all genres, finding gems and letting you know the skinny on what to avoid. Here at Apes on Film, our aim is to uncover the best in retro film. As we dig for artifacts, we’ll do our best not to bury our reputation. What will we find out here? Our destiny.


5 out of 5 Bananas
Starring: Tetsuya Watari, Meiko Kaji, Tatsuo Umemiya, Kei Satô, Hideo Murota
Director: Kinji Fukasaku
Rated: Not Rated
Studio: Radiance Films
Region: All
BRD Release Date: May 15, 2023
Audio Formats: Japanese: DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 Mono
Video Codec: MPEG-4 AVC (27.00 Mbps)
Resolution: 1080p
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
Run Time: 97 minutes


Post World War II Japanese films, for the most part, either deal with Japan’s response to how that war ended for the country (Kaiju films for example), the nation’s relationship with its history of isolation (period Samurai films), or are heavily influenced by western filmmakers (Kurosawa films). What’s not so accessible are the films that contend with Japan’s more contemporary internal turmoil in the form of the often complicated and always violent yakuza films.

Kuroiwa gets an old friend for a new boss.

At the outset, it’s easy to equate yakuza with what we know about western gangsters and the mafia, but yakuza are a little more complex than those more traditional institutions. Yakuza’s origins date back to the mid-Edo period (1603-1868) and at that time, it was partitioned into two groups: tekiya who often peddled stolen goods, and bakuto who were notorious for their involvement in gambling. Later, the tekiya clans began participating in everyday commerce and would be formally recognized by the Edo government. The bakuto clans that consisted of much lower social classes would become more infamous for their association with illegal gambling.

To comprehend the dynamic of the relationships and unrest between the yakuza and the Japanese authorities in Kinji Fukasaku’s 1976 film YAKUZA GRAVEYARD, it’s important to understand the connection Japan has with these organizations. Yakuza consists mostly of lower financial and social class individuals, many of them of Korean and Chinese descent. Also, the legally gray status enjoyed by yakuza establishes a perplexing foundation that underscores the contentious circumstances amongst clans within the institution itself, its members, and the Japanese administration.

Tatsuo Umemiya as “Iwata.”

Fukasaku’s YAKUZA GRAVEYARD employs the organization’s vast and muddled history to its fullest extent, involving all the aforementioned conflicting elements that make the yakuza a rich, diverse venue for terrific and troubling character studies. While the plot of the film is incredibly dense and nearly impossible to keep up with – moving at a breakneck pace – the story centers on police detective Kuroiwa (Tetsuya Watari) who is caught between two warring clans: one in a weakened state and the other with connections to his police bosses. Kuroiwa, who is of Manchurian descent, is also haunted by his past in the form of a prostitute who he’s beholden to after having killed her pimp.

Relationships become even more fluid and problematic when Kuroiwa makes friends with the Nishida clan’s full-blooded Korean, Iwata (Tatsuo Umemiya), and a romantic connection with half-Korean Keiko (Meiko Kaji), a.k.a. Lady Snowblood), the wife of an imprisoned Nishida boss. On the work side of things, Lieutenant Hideaka (Hideo Murota), an old friend of Kuroiwa’s, becomes the detective’s direct supervisor, reporting to the police chief who has ties to the opposing Yamashiro family. Making matters even more volatile, Hideaka applies the pressure to Kuroiwa when it comes to undoing his new Nishida clan friends. All of this occurs inside an hour and a half with an ass-beating happening about every five minutes.

Meiko Kaji as “Keiko” administers drugs to Detective Kuroiwa.

The story is quite a bit to process, but viewers needn’t fret too much about that. This tale is all about the emotional beats. The plot unfolds in the grim, brooding performances of Tetsuya Watari and Meiko Kaji as they react to a world closing in on them with fewer and fewer places to maintain their loyalty. Being outsiders themselves, Kuroiwa and Keiko long to have a place to belong to, but with a police force that betrays not only Kuroiwa himself but also allies with the opposing clan of the one he’s become so close to, and Keiko being rejected by her imprisoned husband, the two find they only have each other to turn to.

YAKUZA GRAVEYARD is less about the mechanics of loyalty and betrayal and the brutal violence begat by those institutions, and ultimately about what allegiance means to a sector of minorities who only ever sought to be part of something. It’s a surprisingly tragic tale of a group of people that have otherwise always been considered interloping and unworthy of inclusion into broader society, and at every turn they take to belong to something—whether it be their job, their family, their marriage, or the very nation they live in—they are once again abandoned.

The violence in Fukasaku’s film arrives at regular intervals and typically in the form of good old fashioned unapologetically unchoreographed beatings that play almost cathartic to the dirty dealings happening between those brutal moments. Fukasaku’s handheld visual approach amplifies the knuckle-busting action and comes across as a release from, and a parallel to the anxiety felt by many of the film’s characters.

The world of the yakuza is familiar turf for director Fukasaku. Just a few years prior to YAKUZA GRAVEYARD, the filmmaker was responsible for the five films that make up the BATTLES WITHOUT HONOR AND HUMANITY series that chronicles real stories of the yakuza adapted from newspaper articles. Those movies, along with YAKUZA GRAVEYARD, are in the tradition of the “true account” films from Japan that are based on real events.

Tetsuya Watari as “Kuroiwa.”

Radiance Films presents YAKUZA GRAVEYARD in high definition on Blu-ray Disc. This limited edition release includes an interview with Japanese filmmaker Kazuya Shiraishi, The Rage and the Passion—a visual essay by critic Tom Mes, a promotional image gallery, and a 32-page booklet featuring writing from Mika Ko on the representation of Koreans in the yakuza film, and newly translated writing from the film’s screenwriter Kazuo Kasahara.

YAKUZA GRAVEYARD is a difficult story to connect with, not only because of how steeped it is in a very niche sector of modern Japanese urban culture, but also because of the pace at which it’s delivered. Clearly a film made almost exclusively for Japanese audiences, beneath the surface is a fundamental search for belonging that we can all relate to and sympathize with, and to get us there relies on our own understanding of human emotions. Highly recommended.



When he’s not working as a Sasquatch stand-in for sleazy European films, Lucas Hardwick spends time writing film essays and reviews for We Belong Dead and Screem magazines. Lucas also enjoys writing horror shorts and has earned Quarterfinalist status in the Killer Shorts and HorrOrigins screenwriting contests. You can find Lucas’ shorts on Coverfly.

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