Yakuza War AKA Yakuza keibatsu-shi: Rinchi! AKA Yakuza Torture History - Lynching AKA Record of Yaku
Blu-ray B - United Kingdom - Arrow Films
Review written by and copyright: Paul Lewis (12th June 2019).
The Film

Yakuza Law (Ishii Teruo, 1969)

Synopsis: The Edo period. After a run-in with two rival yakuza factions, a young yakuza, Shinkichi, is branded a coward after the boss of his family inspects Shinkichi’s sword and finds it free from damage. Shinkichi is defended by an older yakuza, Tsune, who claims that he swapped swords with Shinkichi. Tsune is motivated by an instinct for protection for Shinkich and his sister Oren, who is clearly regarded with lust by the boss. The head of the clan instructs Tsune to cut off his finger as atonement for his ‘sin’ of cowardice, despite Oren’s pleas that Tsune be forgiven.

Meanwhile, another yakuza, Shohei, is involved in a relationship with a girl, Setsu. Setsu’s ailing father disapproves of her relationship with Shohei, unaware that Shohei has been helping Setsu pay for the medication her father needs. Shohei is placed in the ringer, however, by his ‘brother’ Mamushi: Shohei and Mamushi have been collecting protection money for the clan, but Mamushi has been stealing some of this money, implicating Shohei in the taboo of stealing from the yakuza family which employs him.

The hotheaded Shinkichi causes trouble for the family by harassing an elderly female street vendor. In response, the boss of the clan orders that Shinkichi be drowned in the river. Oren begs for her brother’s life, saying she will do anything; in response, the boss rapes Oren. Oren visits Tsune to apologise for the trouble caused by her reckless brother. Oren and Tsune embrace. However, Mamushi sees Oren entering Tsune’s home.

Things come to a head when the boss realises the money that Mamushi and Shohei have collected, from a gambling den run by Tsune’s friend Tomozo, is less than it should be. To save his skin, Mamushi implicates Tsune and Tomozo in the theft of this money. Susceptible to the Machiavellian influence of Mamushi, the boss pursues vengeance against Shohei, Tsune and Tomozo.

The Taisho period. Ogata Shuji, a member of the Arakida family, is released from prison, where he has served three years for his attack on a rival clan, the Koda group. However, whilst Ogata has been in prison, his former ally, Iwagiri, has used his wiles to take control of the Arakida family, ruling it with an iron fist, and for a time, also ‘stole’ Ogata’s lover, Sayo. Sayo eventually left Iwagiri for another lover, Amamiya.

Upon Ogata’s release, Amamiya attacks him, seeing Ogata as a rival for Sayo’s affections. Ogata overcomes Amamiya and, realising the younger man is in severely ill health, shows mercy towards him. As this story draws to a close, Ogata is forced to defend himself against Iwagiri, and discovers that, unexpectedly, Amamiya may prove to be his greatest ally.

The modern day Showa period. The Hashiba building has been robbed; gold has been taken. Various yakuza factions are after the ‘goodies’. A low-ranking yakuza, Fukase, is fingered as the suspect in the robbery. He is tortured by the boss of the Hashiba family. Fukase, it seems, had turned traitor and joined the rival Omura group. The members of the Hashiba clan become consumed with smoking out and eliminating anyone who might be a traitor. This power vacuum allows the cruel Shimazu to seize control of the family, murdering the existing boss of the Hashiba group and framing another yakuza for the crime.

When Shimazu’s control of the Hashiba clan is threatened by a young woman, Harumi, and her lover, Shimazu has the couple drowned in concrete, the block containing their bodies dumped in the ocean. However, in framing the other yakuza for the murder of the Hashiba boss, Shimazu has made a very deadly enemy, and this ambitiously duplicitous yakuza also does not reckon on his own allies being as duplicitous as he is.

Critique: Essentially a portmanteau picture, each story focusing on an aspect of the yakuza code, the three stories that comprise Yakuza Law (also released in English under the title The Yakuza’s Law: Lynching) take place in different eras and begin with brief scenes in which these aspects of yakuza ‘law’ are presented via onscreen text and reinforced through the voice of an offscreen narrator. Underscoring the manner in which the stories carry us through various periods in Japanese history (in the case of the first segment, the Edo period; in the case of the second, the Taisho period; and in the case of the third, the modern-day Showa period), the third dictum is presented via a tight closeup of a (then-)modern typewriter as this final ‘law’ is bashed onto the page by the type hammers.

Aside from simply being set in different eras, the three stories also trace the development of the yakuza genre – from the jidaigeki (period drama) to the mukokuseki akushon (‘Borderless Action’) stylings of the final segment – which like contemporaneous yakuza pictures features Westernised gangsters who hang around in American-style strip clubs. Where earlier, period-set films (jidaigeki) about the yakuza would often feature Westernised villains and paint the yakuza code in a positive light, the ‘internationally’ flavoured mukokuseki akushon pictures of the late 1960s, with their modern day urban settings, would often be more morally confused and more explicitly critical of the yakuza code – leading into the more overtly nihilistic approach of the jitsuroku (‘actual record’) pictures. The jitsuroku is most usually associated with Fukasaku Kinji’s Battles Without Honor and Humanity series of the 1970s; these films would offer a quasi-documentary aesthetic alongside stories which claimed to be ripped from the headlines and which would emphasise the yakuza ranks as filled with backbiting and the self-serving instincts of its members. (For example, see our review of Arrow’s Blu-ray release of Fukasaku’s 1975 film Cops Vs Thugs.) The three segments of Yakuza Law broadly follow the development of this paradigm within the genre of yakuza cinema, offering a fascinatingly self-referential approach to the material.

The first story, set in the Edo period, focuses on a yakuza dictum which states that ‘In the world of the yakuza there are two rules: one should not steal or have affairs with married women’. This ‘law’ is explored through the parallel stories of Shohei, who is implicated in stealing from the yakuza family by his ne’er-do-well ‘brother’ Mamushi, and Tsune. Tsune’s ‘sin’ is in caring for Oren, which leads him to feeling responsible for her reckless brother Shinkichi; Tsune is implicated in ‘stealing’ Oren from the boss after Mamushi sees Oren entering Tsune’s home. Mamushi implicates Tsune and his friend Tomozo in stealing money, which Mamushi himself has taken, from the clan. Tsune continues to try to protect Oren and her brother, at great personal risk to himself. Though Tsune is utterly honourable, he is persecuted by the boss of his family for Tsune’s supposed ‘transgressions’. At one point, Shohei kills Mamushi, after catching Mamushi as he attempts to rape Setsu. Afterwards, Shohei converses with Tsune. They discuss fleeing from the region, Tsune telling the younger yakuza he should ‘run away and never come back to this world and its stupid rules’. ‘There are some good things about the code too’, Shohei insists in response, emphasising the fraternity of belonging to a yakuza family: ‘We are born alone, but we die together’.

The second story, set in the Taisho period, begins with a narrator reading another yakuza ‘law’: ‘Those who make trouble for the boss and his family shall be expelled. Those who return shall be punished’. This dictum is examined through the story of Ogata, a member of the Arakida family who is released from prison after serving three years for the murder of the boss of the Koda group (an action depicted in an extended flashback). Ogata’s actions allowed Iwagiri, a duplicitous yakuza within the Arakida clan to rise to power. During Ogata’s time in prison, Iwagiri convinced Ogata’s lover, Sayo, that Ogata had been killed, and Iwagiri turned Sayo into his moll. However, Sayo left Iwagiri for a new relationship with Amamiya. During Ogata’s time in prison, Iwagiri has turned the Arakida family into a fiercely destructive organisation: upon his release from prison, Ogata sees Iwagiri’s goons terrorising the employees of a drinking establishment. In response, Ogata comments, ‘Since when does the Arakida family go round bothering innocent people?’ When Iwagiri has Ogata’s hands broken as punishment for Ogata’s ‘transgressions’ against the family – whose ascendance took place during Ogata’s time in prison and was facilitated by Ogata’s attack on the Koda group – Ogata notes in his dialogue the unjust nature of the yakuza code: ‘I risked my life for the Arakida family’, he reminds them, ‘but the yakuza law says I have to be punished’.

The third and final segment begins with a typewriter hammering out another yakuza law: ‘Those who destroy the family organization, or those who leak secrets for whatever reason, will be eliminated’. In this story, the members of the yakuza are at their most venal. The Hashiba clan is desperate to seek out and eliminate traitors within its ranks. In an early scene, a presumed traitor is tortured in front of a group of yakuza. His face is burnt with a flame, his eyeballs made to burst; cutaways reveal the other members of the group taking sadistic delight in this spectacle, thrilling at the brutal treatment of their former ‘brother’. (One might wonder if this scene was in some way an influence on the similarly-staged scene of blowtorch torture in Lucio Fulci’s later, equally brutal polizesco picture Contraband, 1980.) Brutal violence begets even more cruel violence; this story is characterised by a seemingly never-ending cycle of cruelty. This segment features a heavy international flavour, the Westernised yakuza hanging out in strip clubs and nightclubs which feature pounding jazz, their feuds being settled in beautifully-staged raging gun battles that wouldn’t seem out of place in a Hong Kong Heroic Bloodshed film of two decades later; the climactic showdown has a Sergio Leone-esque quality to its staging. As one of the characters, Omaru, observes in reference to Shimazu: He is ‘like a frenzied cat, jumping all over the place’. The same could be said of the story: the layers of cross and double cross in this segment, however, can make the narrative difficult to follow.

Director Ishii Teruo had a career which spanned 22 years (from 1957 to 1979) in its first incarnation, Ishii later reviving his work as a filmmaker in a shorter series of mostly self-produced pictures between 1991 and 2001. Ishii was reputedly something of a non-conformist, unafraid of challenging taboos, and his name is perhaps most closely associated with the ero-guro (‘erotic grotesque’) films of the late 1960s. Though many of Ishii’s films remain unreleased in good English-friendly versions, his most high-profile/infamous picture is perhaps the genre-bending Horrors of Malformed Men (1969), which Arrow have also recently released on Blu-ray. Characteristic of Ishii’s work, Yakuza Law is filled with combative imagery from the outset. The opening credits montage presents a litany of cruelties (from the present day): a man is roasted on a spit; another man’s eyelids are held open and magnified light is directed into them; another man is crushed in the bucket of an earth-mover; another man is buried alive in sand; another man is towed behind a car; another man has an electric drill put through his hand; another man is branded on the forehead with a hot iron. These incidents of violence are almost Sadeian, and the manner in which they are presented, via a montage which does not seek to explain or contextualise the violence, might remind one of de Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom (1785). Ishii’s film emphasises the brutality of the world of the yakuza, showing that there truly is no honour among thieves, and emphasises the level of back-biting amongst yakuza who are endeavouring to rise to the top – resulting in more honourable members of yakuza clans (such as Ogata, in the second story) being persecuted and treated cruelly.

Video

Yakuza War is presented in 1080p using the AVC codec. Photographed in an anamorphic widescreen process, the film is presented in its intended 2.35:1 aspect ratio. Uncut and with a running time of 96:23 mins, the film fills approximately 27Gb of a dual layered Blu-ray disc.

Arrow’s Blu-ray presentation of Yakuza War is commensurate with Arrow’s other Blu-ray presentations of Japanese films shot on 35mm colour stock from the same era. The film’s photography makes strong use of shorter focal lengths which, like the lenses used in many similar Japanese productions, have the effect of increasing depth of field but also demonstrate some optical ‘disturbances’ such as noticeable barrel distortion and optical vignetting. That said, taking accommodation of the photographic ‘quirks’ on display in the original photography (which are no greater or lesser than other similarly-produced Japanese films of this vintage), Arrow’s presentation of the main feature is very good. Detail is pleasing and consistent throughout the presentation, and contrast levels are good too – with subtle gradation into both the toe and shoulder, and some very well-defined midtones. Colour is naturalistic and, again, has a strong consistency to it – noticeable, particularly, in the bright red blood which flows in the film’s more graphic moments. Finally, the encode is solid and ensures the presentation retains the structure of 35mm film. In sum, the presentation is very good and also very film-like.



Full-sized screengrabs are included at the bottom of this review. Please click to enlarge them.

Audio

Audio is presented via a LPCM 1.0 track (in Japanese, naturally). This is rich enough and shows range where it needs to (eg, in the gunshots in the final segment). Some slight distortion is heard here and there, especially in scenes featuring music; but it’s nothing too detrimental. The optional English subtitles are easy to read and make sense grammatically.

Extras

The disc includes:
- An audio commentary by critic Jasper Sharp. Sharp offers an insightful commentary track which considers the positioning of Yakuza Law within the career of Ishii Teruo. Sharp suggests that the diversity of Ishii’s career has been overshadowed by some of the more sensationalistic pictures. Sharp points out some of the more notable actors in the picture and reflects on their careers, and he discusses some of the rituals depicted in the film (including the ‘cutting of fingers’).

- ‘Erotic Grotesque and Genre Hopping’ (47:40). This is an archival interview with Ishii Teruo, recorded in the early 2000s, which is billed by Arrow as being ‘newly edited’. Ishii speaks in Japanese; optional English subtitles are provided. Ishii talks about his career as a whole, and he talks about specific influences on his work. The interview was filmed in a public location and there’s lots of background noise; the segments of the interview are broken up with the questions posed to Ishii, which are presented via onscreen titles.

- Image Gallery (2:00).

Overall

Feeling very much like a precursor to Fukasaku’s jitsuroku films, especially in the final segment which is set in the then-present day, Yakuza Law offers a cynical and nihilistic examination of the ‘code’ of the yakuza. In the three segments, honourable characters become embroiled in the machinations, and subjected to the sadism, of less dishonourable members of their yakuza families – who seek to uphold the ‘laws’ outlined at the start of each segment. In tracing, through each segment, the three eras Japanese society (the Edo, Taisho and Showa eras), in its movement from the first to the third segment Yakuza Law also selfconsciously mirrors the development of the yakuza film from the jidaigeki (period films) of the pre-mid 1950s to the tail end of the era of mukokuseki akushon (Borderless Action) and mudo akushon (‘mood’ action) at the end of the 1960s, which led in to the bleak and nihilistic jitsuroku films of the 1970s. Ishii Teruo’s films, at least those which have been released in English-friendly versions, tend to confront taboos head-on, and Yakuza Law is no exception. Thematically, it’s a challenging picture, and it’s equally combative in its violence – which emphasises the sadism of the more venal characters in each section. The film begins with a 120 Days of Sodom-esque litany of cruelties, and even more cruel fates are exposed as the story progresses. The net effect is something that feels very Grand Guignol at times, and in the final segment the deliberately over-the-top gunplay is strangely reminiscent of the types of gunplay that one might associated with the much later Hong Kong ‘Heroic Bloodshed’ films (such as Jing Wong’s God of Gamblers, 1989).

Anyone with an interest in Japanese yakuza films of this era, especially viewers who are fans of the jitsuroku pictures of Fukasaku Kinji, will find Yakuza Law a very welcome addition to their collection. The pleasing presentation of the main feature is supported by some excellent contextual material in the form of the interview with Ishii and the excellent commentary by Jasper Sharp.


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