Wednesday, November 24, 2010


Toei Studio boasted that Kinji Fukasaku's biopic of legendary mad-dog yakuza Rikio Ishikawa was three years in the making. Given the director's productivity, including the explosive five-films-in-two-years burst that resulted in the Battles Without Honor or Humanity series, a three-year production process suggests to me only that Fukasaku had the Ishikawa story on the back burner for a while, and that it wasn't a high priority with him. The finished product shows that; it's the weakest Fukasaku film I've seen to date.

Graveyard of Honor starts promisingly in semi-documentary style. A narrator presents recordings supposedly made from interviews who knew Ishikawa when he grew up in the 1930s. This segues into a scenario very familiar to fans of the Battles series; Ichikawa (Tetsuya Watari) was another one of those thugs who rose out of the refugee camps to be recruited by yakuzas. Unlike the other yakuza protagonists of Fukasaku's films, Ishikawa has no redeeming qualities whatsoever. He is a total mad dog, distinctive only for his drug addiction and his virtually complete lack of deference to his criminal elders. He is pure reckless aggression, but in no way interesting to anyone who isn't a hardcore yakuza buff or a historian of Japanese crime.

Fukasaku uses his familiar gimmick of filming Ishikawa's origin in black and white, but if the entire story's a thing of the past, why convert to color? Below, money is no object to Rikkio (Tetsuya Watari)

Neither Fukasaku nor Watari invest the main character with the tragic depth they found for the fictional protagonist of their later collaboration, Yakuza Graveyard. The best they can hope for is to make Ishikawa an object of morbid fascination, and they nearly do that by showing him chomping on his cremated girlfriend's bone fragments in a crucial scene. They may not have wanted to do more. For all I know Ishikawa is presented as he was, and it may be the lack of dramatic nuance that disappoints me about this film. We're apparently supposed to take it literally when an acquaintance recounts Ishikawa describing himself as a balloon that must expand until it explodes. Fukasaku even inflicts a literal reminder of the metaphor when Ishikawa appears to be mortally wounded. He sees a balloon floating over the city and reaches toward it like the Frankenstein Monster reaching for the sun. That would have been a bathetic way to end the picture, but history gave the director a more gruesome finish. Ishikawa somehow survived the shooting, only to kill himself by jumping from a prison rooftop some years later. Fukasaku films this unflinchingly, arranging the effect so Watari himself can appear to land and burst with a great splash of blood. It's a startling finale but neither fully convincing nor satisfying.

Fukasaku's global reputation benefited from the flourishing of the DVD market in the last decade and the interest generated by his controversial swan song, Battle Royale. Many of his key films are available, though many others remain largely unseen in America and may now only appear in the greymarket. There's a lot to choose from, but my advice is to leave Graveyard of Honor somewhere near the bottom of your list.


Ben said...

I've currently got this one sitting towarss the top of my 'to watch' pile, and was hoping it would be a good launching point for a trip through Fukasaku's filmography. Hmm. Oh well.

Sure I read somewhere it was one of his best, but maybe I'm confusing it with "Yakuza Graveyard".

Thanks for the tip-off anyway - my expectations are duly lowered.

Samuel Wilson said...

Ben: It depends on what you're looking for from Fukasaku. If it's uncompromising violence and bleakness, Graveyard of Honor might not be so bad as an introduction to the director as long as you realize that nearly everything else you'll see from him is better. Yakuza Graveyard is definitely a better film, as is Cops and Thugs. You should try one of his stand-alone films before attempting Battles Without Honor and Humanity, though that's not how I did it.

Johnnycitystar said...

I'm shocked you didn't like Graveyard of Honor. what was it that turned you off about this film?