over the years, Yakuza The films have undergone an evolution, moving from the feel-good high values ​​formula to a realistic, naturalistic depiction of the Japanese criminal world, finally transcending genre boundaries to become commercial blockbusters, which some might see as lightening themselves to fit in modern superhero-obsessed cinema. The constant core that remains throughout the genre is the hyper stylized violence, the beautiful Japanese tattoos hidden under elegant suits, the strong development of internal hierarchies, and the strict code of honor.

The history of the yakuza genre begins with Nikkatsu’s “Boundless Motion” (meaning American film noir filled with French exoticism and possessed by the Japanese, resulting in unique cinematic flavors) and Toei’s Ninkyo Iga “Gentleman Movies”. But in the 1970s, fantasy fatigue brought an end to the age of heroes, and came the yakuza anti-heroes and true crime, semi-documentary films.

Update June 7, 2023: This list has been updated with more great movies about the yakuza.

Movies about gangsters used to wow audiences, but more recent entries seem to have lost their luster. Once studios stopped focusing on making yakuza movies exclusively, only a handful of them have been made in recent years. Even Takashi Miki, the prolific director, admits in an interview with Film School that he dismisses the yakuza movie genre as dead. It’s never too late to enjoy great movies and become a fan of the genre, so here’s a list of the top yakuza movies from every period.

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12 Minbo no onna (or The Gentle Art of Japanese Blackmail) (1992)


minbo is a bit of an oddity in the arrangement as the movie does nothing to glamorize the Yakuza the way many movies in the arrangement do. Directed by Jūzō Itami, Menbu is a story about the staff of a high-class hotel in Japan. Kobayashi, the general manager, hopes to win a lucrative contract for the hotel to increase the prestige of the site. However, a group of Yakuza have taken a liking to his hotel to conduct most of their business on the premises.

Hoping to get rid of them, Kobayashi delegates the task to his subordinates, who lack the backbone to do the job, until they meet Mahiru Inoue, a lawyer who knows how to deal with these criminals. The film was critically acclaimed and successful in its home country of Japan. So much so that it led to the director’s end, with the rumor mill saying his suicide in 1997 was actually a hit by the Yakuza, who were offended by their portrayal in the film.

11 Rage (2010)

Warner Bros. Pictures Japan.

Takeshi Kitano is one of the most creative characters in Japanese cinema. The man made a name for himself as a comedian in the Land of the Rising Sun, but he only achieved international recognition for playing hardened criminals in most of his films. anger Trilogy is an action drama that depicts the complexity of Yakuza relationships. Kitano plays Otomo, a man assigned by his underboss to keep a gang of Murasi-gumi in line.

The rival gang plants one of Otomo’s crew members in one of his nightclubs to justify the war against him. Unaware of his fallout with Oyabun, Murase makes a series of mistakes that bring him down even further with his family, and it is up to Otomo to make sure this man knows where he is. The entire trilogy is full of trickery and deception, as several players move in to take control of the clan, with Otomo being the wildcard keeping everyone on their toes, as his tendencies for relentless violence go unchecked, leaving a long trail of corpses in his wake.

10 Killer Ecchi (2001)

Killer ecchi
Media Blasters

Directed by Takashi Miki, Ichi, the killer It only has the distinction of being the only film in the ranking based on the manga of the same name. However, the premise of this movie feels sadder than anything I’ve read in American comic books. Ichi looks like a drool, a low-ranking soldier in the ranks of the yakuza, a fellow at most. This is the image we got of him in the first part of the movie. When he drops the shoe, it is revealed that Ichi is Jijii’s secret weapon, the daring Yakuza’s enforcer on dreaming big.

Related: Akira Kurosawa: The Best Films of His Middle Period

Ichi is a seriously unstable individual. His fragile mind is prone to manipulation, which Gigi uses to implant false memories into his brain and keep him in check. However, his leash only goes so far, as Ichi’s inherent violence is unleashed with slight provocation. In the end, Jijii ends up in the same place as Ichi, with delusions that lead to his downfall and a maddening loss in the world without any control.

9 Outside (2018)

From outside

Some of the best takes on Yakuza dynamics come from Western filmmakers. in From outsideThe audience gets a great story from director Martin Zandvliet. In the story, an American soldier named Nick Lowe serves time in Japan after the Pacific War and manages to get an early release after he defends a Yakuza member in prison. He is quickly hired as an assistant doing enforcer work for Shiromatsu. His notoriously violent behavior was soon noticed by the clan chief who granted him a seat as a member.

The story explores multiple xenophobic themes and how the homogeneous nature of Japanese society is incredibly xenophobic. Nick quickly discovers that his fellow yakuza does not welcome him; It is not desirable. Jared Leto does a great job playing Nick with a Japanese all-star crew by his side. The end of the story delves into signature Yakuza tropes as Shiromatsu’s bold decision has consequences that must be paid off.

8 Yakuza (1974)

Warner Bros.

No film explores the nuances of yakuza culture from an American point of view better the yakuza. This little masterpiece was produced and directed by Sydney Pollack. Robert Mitchum plays the main lead of the film, Harry Kilmer. The story is set after the Pacific War, in which Kilmer is stationed as a Navy SEAL and intervenes to save a woman named Echo, who is smuggling medicines for her young daughter. Kilmer loves Eko, so he stays in Japan to protect her.

Eiko’s brother returns and discovers that Eiko has bonded with the enemy, causing Giri to be bound by the Kilmer, a Japanese concept of lifelong commitments. Ken despises her sister for putting him in this position, leaving her to join the Yakuza. Years pass, and Kilmer returns to Japan to rekindle his relationship with Eko. However, he soon finds himself entangled in a web of intrigue, with the Yakuza out to get him for being an intruder.

7 Monster Youth (1963)

Beast Youth

Beast Youth It seems to follow the classic early yakuza structure quite faithfully, with thugs, drugs, and femme fatales. However, it was the film that began the slow ouster of its director, Seijun Suzuki, from the Japanese film industry. Tired of traditional films, Suzuki played with plot, dialogue, and format, creating a sharp meta-narrative by having the film acknowledge its own ingenuity.

He would continue to cannibalize yakuza film for the next few years until he was ostensibly kicked out and blacklisted from the Japanese studio system. misunderstood upon release, in retrospect, Beast Youth It became a symbol of standing up to the regime and one of the most important actions during the Japanese university protests of the 1960s.

6 Pale Flower (1964)

Psycho, Yakuza

Director Masahiro Shinoda pioneered the shōchiku new wave of independent filmmaking, pale flower Being one of the most important action films. The plot in this feature becomes secondary to aesthetics; It’s essentially a neat philosophical tale of existential anguish set in a semi-surreal story about a middle-aged nonconformist yakuza.

Commander Ryo Ikebe becomes very popular through Toei’s Tales of brutal chivalry series, which made the film’s approach even more controversial, as it contradicted a major studio’s formula of the genre. Much praised by critics, pale flower It’s even included in Roger Ebert’s list of the greatest movies ever made.

5 Battles Without Honor and Humanity (1973-1976)

Battles without honor and humanity
Toei Corporation

Film writers Naoto Mori and Yukio Todoroki discussed how yakuza films made a 180-degree turn from heroes to anti-heroes: “The masculine aesthetic of dashing bravery lost gravity, becoming overly idealistic and empty,” both creators and viewers felt the formula was disingenuous and over-the-top glamorous yakuza, So they switched to more realistic and satirical images. A staple of this genre is, of course, A battle without honor and humanitya masterpiece by Kinji Fukasaku and Bunta Sugawara, the phenomenal director and actor duo.

4 Sonatine (1993)

Shoshiko Daiichi Kogyo

In the 1980s, when Japan went through economic changes, its film industry had to rearrange itself. Yakuza films began to diversify and deconstruct, through a major qualitative shift from the canons of the genre to the individual style of the director. Inquiry likens filmmaker Takeshi Kitano’s postmodern approach to yakuza movies to Hideaki Anno’s treatment of mecha anime in his style. Neon Genesis Evangelion.

Both understood genre intrinsically, and created something profoundly subversive and divisive. SonatinIts performances are comically deadpan, devoid of the loud, expressive choreography of classic yakuza movies, and end up with a somewhat generic premise as a transgressive experiment.

3 Cemetery of Honor (1975/2002)

Honor Cemetery
Toei Corporation

This entry is a bit of a cheat, as it offers two movies for the price of one. However, it does show the creeping problem of the 2000s – the emergence of the film industry’s over-reliance on remakes, focusing on hit titles rather than creating unique content. the original Honor Cemetery is a semi-documentary punk film about the real-life yakuza Rikio Ishikawa who ended his life at the age of 30. This film is the culmination of the grim, naturalistic realities of the brutal world of the yakuza in cinema, a willful rejection of stylized cinematography and movie magic of the desperation and murderous chaos of a criminal’s life.

Related: Drive My Car and other best Japanese films in recent years

The 2002 version stands out from the original with its gallows sense of humor. It contains Takashi Miike’s trademark gonzo violence and addresses the breakdown of traditional values ​​with wry laughter.

2 The Blood of Wolves 2018 movie with subtitles

wolf blood
Toei Corporation

The late 2000s sees filmmakers trying to revive yakuza movies as a genre, albeit at a lesser pace than ever before. These stunning films update Toei’s gritty, hard-boiled film format. wolf blood It is a “blood-filled love letter” to yakuza films of the 1970s and, at the same time, an expression of the creator’s personal artistic vision and style.

Filled with gratuitous violence and dark humor, neither a boring replica nor a parody, this film delved into the genre’s heritage, but rather than deconstructing it, it modernized and thus revived it. Even a little bit.

1 First Love (2019)

the first love
Toei Corporation

According to Takashi Miki, the first love Not an attempt to artificially extend the life of the yakuza species but a way to go out with a bang. The genre, in this case, is used as a means of social commentary to tell the stories of “invisible” people, who have been left to the wayside in society.

This is the awkward love story of a terminally ill boxer and a traumatized sex worker, in which teen angst is brought to life through cartoonish bloodshed and intense drama. A commercial film that acts like a genre movie that no one has interesting stories to tell, this is a tribute to Japanese low-budget indie films and B cinema from pulp maestro Takashi Miki.


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