Japanese Cinema of the Sixties


Yakuza are members of transnational organized crime syndicates originating in Japan. What does one imagine when hearing the word "yakuza"? Father-son relationships between the head of the gang (who has an authority above exception) and other members, self-devotion, honor, samurai code, "sharp suits", strong traditions. There is another side of the coin: drug-dealing, racketeerings, backings, gambling business, sex trafficking, real estate scams. The special arrangement between clansmen – in the situation when someone not-so-pleasant militates against the yakuza clan, then other members must strike back. No exclusions. Everything is delicate and strict.

by Lera Grebennikova


These traits of yakuza itself defined the movie industry in Japan of the 60-70s. As it existed historically there was no need to make up stories. Life itself pulls the trigger of the movie genre boom. Roughly speaking, that era was the time of something like a "new Japan wave", because all new waves started like this. It pushed back boring classical movies by Akira Kurosawa, cliched stand shots by Yasujiro Ozu. New wave led to real creative upheaval. That was new Japanese individualism, free of the traditional boundaries.

Yakuza-eiga (jap. ヤクザ映画, literally – gangster movies) is a genre of movies with yakuza theme. It began to emerge in the early 1960s and continued to flourish until the 1970s. The genre gained additional impetus by making the characters suffer a constant conflict between their duty towards their yakuza brothers and their own human nature. Eventually, the leading actor of such films would abandon his humanism to exact violent vengeance upon clans of evil yakuza, usually perishing in the end, having slaughtered every one of them.

On the «КЛАССИКА ЯПОНСКОГО КИНО: ЯКУДЗА» festival The Art of The Cinema («Искусство кино») made a retrospective of 3 movies: A Colt Is My Passport ('Koruto wa Ore no Pasupōto', 1967) directed by Takashi Nomura; Violent Cop ('Sono otoko, kyōbō ni tsuki', 1989), also known as 'Warning: This Man is Wild', directed by Takeshi Kitano and starring him, and Tokyo Drifter ('Tōkyō nagaremono', 1966) directed by Seijun Suzuki.

These are good examples of 60-70s genre movies.

There is one interesting detail that is worth mentioning. The Nikkatsu studio, Japan's oldest major movie studio, was known for modern yakuza films inspired by Hollywood gangster films. 2 out of 3 movies in the festival list are made in Nikkatsu(Tokyo Drifter and A Colt Is My Passport). And, as a result, you can see how these films have been soaked in that special style, humor, and skepticism, borrowed from Hollywood. Those movies are not "serious", you can watch some moments with a tender smile or almost laughing out loud.
Tokyo Drifter (1966)
Seijun Suzuki had the effrontery to blend the noir with pop art and Japanese cultural knicks and knacks. All in all, it's an absolutely independent (also entertaining) film with its unique character and manner.

Suzuki caught the tempo and peculiarities of the 60-70s. Being a person of visual thinking, he made something like kabuki theater, but with yakuza. This movie's plot consists of samurai legends and stories, but instead of katanas, Suzuki used pistols like it would be in Hollywood movies.
To be honest, it's that kind of movie that does not ask to take it seriously. It's a totally jazzy gangster film with stylized violence and trippy colors. Suzuki has constructed a wonderfully buoyant Japanese discotheque time capsule crammed with a swatch, lock, or secretion of just about every brand of mod culture.
A Colt Is My Passport (1967)
Violent Cop (1989)
This movie by Takashi Nomura is still a part of the "yakuza-eiga" movement and a cool gangster movie about the boss and his partner, running from the problems of their yakuza past. It is full of peculiarities of their relationships with that special romantic feeling of honorable and loyal sympathy between the characters. Close smalltalks about the life and the death, duty, character's attempts to find their own places in this cruel system. About the infinite fight: yakuza once – yakuza forever.
Violent Cop is a fascinating cinematic experience, primarily because it takes the built-in stereotipical traits of a crime film and reverse-engineers them into a strange hybrid. Mixing laborious long takes of walking with spine-tingling rushes of ultra-violence, this movie is an unsettling but ultimately cool experiment. Not to mention that fact of experimental format, a lot of people called the style "Tarantino's" and the camera moves as "Ozu's". It can be interpreted like this because of the cultural background of those times.
Takeshi Kitano's works in the genre of yakuza films are pure nostalgia, accompanied by a warm grin: the director builds his scenes like comic gags, and his characters are well over 50. The very first frame in the very first film is a close-up of a toothless tall old man – isn't that unusual and eccentric?

There the director made the story follow the rules: let the crime happen and then extract street justice. Violence is an organic part of life in that movie. And since this is a late (but still) yakuza-eiga film, the topic is no longer ridiculed. On the contrary, it is gaining more and more dramatic and serious turns.

Perhaps, Violent Cop is a slightly different movie because it came out later. Plus, this is Takeshi Kitano's debut in the cinematic field.
The epoch of Japanese sixties can be described as troubled times. Along with its psychedelic acid colors of izakayas, popuris and cathouses, earworming chartbusters, people still remember the dark side of the moon. About the yakuza business: dead people, cold eyes and frightening thoughts. This is an important and dangerous part of Japanese culture that is worth remembering and apprehension. Japanese cinema of the sixties made the real show out of this for not being scared – because fear hath a hundred eyes, but life goes on.
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