Arrow Video: Graveyards of Honor (1975-2002) - Reviewed

It goes without saying late Japanese filmmaker Kinji Fukusaku and young provocateur Takashi Miike are two sides of the same coin.  Both insanely prolific, working in lower budgeted fare and often turning their cameras on the yakuza underworld, the two directors are very much legends in their own times.  Only a matter of time before the two distinguished and idiosyncratic filmmakers would eventually cross paths in the form of the dark and foreboding yakuza masterpiece Graveyard of Honor.

Based on the novel by yakuza expert Goro Fujita, both movies (one based on a true story with the other a loose reinterpretation of the story altogether) depict a sociopathic and self-destructive yakuza on the brink of a full blown downward spiral including but not limited to heroin abuse and serial murder.  Neither film gets to the heart of what drives either of these yakuza madmen towards their demise so much as it simply watches their dissolution.  Hard and heavy, edgy and ultraviolent, both movies are an uncompromising gaze into the face of the id with an omniscient voiceover narrator barely managing to make sense of it all.
The Kinji Fukusaku film and the Takashi Miike film, though decades apart, are kindred spirits in the ways they completely deglamorize the yakuza way of life and manage to gradually drain the viewer dry emotionally.  Despite the similarities in content and tone, both filmmakers approach the tale very differently with both features arguably underrated gems of the yakuza subgenre.  Fukusaku fans will find all of the director’s trademark motifs throughout the picture while Miike fans are in for a shock at just how raw and unforgiving his version of the story is.
Bringing both films together for the very first time restored in high definition, Arrow Video presents the aptly named Graveyards of Honor which offers both films with a wealth of unique supplements.  These films won’t be for all tastes or even yakuza film die-hards.  Both films dramatize psychopaths in the Hell of their making and neither film leave much of a safety net beneath the viewer.  These are rough and raw nonjudgmental character studies made by distinctive auteurs at the peak of their creative powers.  With this, let us take a closer look at what makes these filmmakers’ deeply disturbed gangsters tick with Graveyards of Honor.
Graveyard of Honor (1975)

Set in postwar Japan during the height of the American occupation, Kinji Fukusaku’s widescreen period piece starring yakuza film legend Tetsuya Watari as real-life yakuza maniac Rikio Ishikawa right away feels like a dangerous place to be.  With the same hyper-stylized cinematography by Fukusaku, Graveyard of Honor shifts wildly between jarring dutch angles, hand-held camerawork, freeze frames, alternating between color and black-and-white and aggressively tight framing that would make Paul Greengrass blush.  The timing of the film is key with the American occupation forcing many Japanese to wipe the sociological slate clean, leaving ample room for a new kind of yakuza violence that could come from nowhere.
What will catch viewers off guard immediately with Graveyard of Honor is the tone of the piece.  The atmosphere and mood is electrically charged with anger and frustration, augmented by the film’s bumpy camerawork which gives you the impression that you’re being bounced around in a prison cell of sorts.  The film’s funky original score by Toshiaki Tsushima creates a requiem of sorts, indicating early on our protagonist is doomed to dive headfirst into the pit.  The netherworld of the yakuza way of life is brutally shaken by the arrival of Rikio Ishikawa, a hedonistic self-absorbed madman who proceeds to burn every bridge while threatening to ignite an all-out war between disparate yakuza clans angry over Ishikawa’s destructive behavior.

Tetsuya Watari, best known for Tokyo Drifter and the Outlaw Gangster VIP film series, gives the performance of his career as Rikio Ishikawa.  Watari has been something of a titanic heart throb in Japanese film and watching him slowly turn pale and disheveled as his mental state and addiction to heroin takes him over can be very hard to watch.  Neither Fukusaku or Watari seem terribly interested in picking the brain of Ishikawa, trying to understand what’s driving the behavior, instead simply bringing him to life onscreen and letting viewers make their own judgments.
Fukusaku’s film isn’t necessarily user friendly but it remains a compelling portrait of a real-life yakuza who went so far off the rails no one can really put their finger on why.  A quintessential yakuza picture and among the very best of Fukusaku’s pictures, Graveyard of Honor will dispel any notions of the yakuza lifestyle as anything but dangerous.  No one seems to know what made Ishikawa such a flamboyantly violent yakuza but Fukusaku’s film does try to shed some light on what it must have been like to be in the same vicinity of a madman.
Graveyard of Honor (2002)

Pretty clearly Kinji Fukusaku from top to bottom was an overt influence on the work of Takashi Miike.  Though most know the director for his final film Battle Royale, it was with his yakuza films in the 1970s where the director made his mark.  Around the 2000s, Miike’s career began on a very similar path to Fukusaku’s though Miike would often dabble in fantasy and wackier elements which presented the yakuza world as a heightened magical reality.  Looking at films like Fudoh: The New Generation, Ichi the Killer, Dead or Alive and Gozu, Miike’s yakuza efforts tended to be launching pads for the director to dive into the absurd and ridiculous.  Stylistically all of these films were very colorful, shot and edited in a way that was reminiscent of Fukusaku but nonetheless contained the frenetic energies of Shinya Tsukamoto. 
In 2002 however, Miike all but wiped the slate clean with his reimagining of Goro Fujita’s novel Graveyard of Honor, one of the directors few uncompromising yet straightforward yakuza pictures that wasn’t designed to elicit nervous laughter.  Here, Miike and actor Goro Kishitani in the role of Rikuo Ishimatsu, take viewers on a dark and depressing journey deep into the headspace of the id.  Far heavier and more realistically violent than any of Miike’s other films, shying away from the goofy ultraviolence of his other works instead vying for stark authenticity, this version of Graveyard of Honor opens on a melancholic note which never subsides until the end credits roll.
Surpassing the two-hour mark, far slower in pace and more modestly photographed than the caged animal look of Fukusaku’s film, Miike’s Graveyard of Honor is a dead serious descent into Hell with some of the ugliest depictions of heroin abuse ever depicted in a Japanese film.  While the Fukusaku film was somber, the moody low-key jazz score by longtime Miike collaborator Koji Endo sets the mood immediately as truly downbeat.  Before the film really begins, we’re told right away the film’s central character commits suicide, setting the stage for a flashbacking journey with Ishimatsu who rose to the top of his yakuza clan as quickly as he threw it all away.
Unlike Tetsuya Watari’s yakuza which was tinged with the actor’s star power as well as his strong performance of a gangster coming apart at the seams, from beginning to end Goro Kishitani completely inhabits the role of Ishimatsu as an unpredictable ticking time bomb that could go off without warning at all times in any second.  Kishitani’s dimly lit vacant eyes and his monotone voice presents something of a robotic yakuza on the brink of malfunctioning beyond anyone’s understanding or control.  In other words while Watari gave a great performance, Kishitani feels like the real unexpurgated thing.

Miike fans will spot many familiar faces in the ensemble cast of hapless characters desperately trying to figure out what to do with Ishimatsu before he kills them next for no conceivable reason.  Fans accustomed to the director’s mixture of surrealism, comedy and horror bordering on the cartoonish are in for a brutal shock as absolutely none of it is to be found here.  What we get instead of the screwball antics in his Dead or Alive films is a sobering bucket of ice cold water to the face, rudely waking viewers up to compelling yet draining work while also flexing his creative muscles showing he can do something completely different than what we’re used to and still come away successful artistically.
Moreover, Miike’s film feels less like one of his typical works and more like a lovingly made tribute to the films of Kinji Fukusaku.  Many sequences repeat key visual motifs such as Ishimatsu banging his bloodied hands on a glass window or even dipping into the dutch angles characteristic of Fukusaku’s works.  But even then this is neither Miike redoing Fukusaku nor is it Miike doing what viewers have come to expect from him.  It is a quiet yet powerfully raw yakuza picture that leaves viewers feeling as though they have emerged from the eye of a storm.  There’s never been a Miike film quite like this before and it is unlikely we’ll see one like it ever again.

--Andrew Kotwicki