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It's like Batman meets West Side Story!
Though Hollywood has a firm foothold among the A-listers of world cinema, some believe that Japanese gangster films are equivalent or superior to American ones. Films about yakuza, or Japanese gangsters, are deeply imbued with a code of honor and feature subtle moral questions. The characters are rarely one-dimensional; Japanese directors delve into the personalities to create rounded characters with conflicts and idiosyncrasies. We often find ourselves feeling perverse sympathy for some of the most incorrigible yakuza. The resulting films are deeper and more personal than the average American crime film.
Director Kinji Fukasaku has a reputation for being edgy and violent, even within the yakuza genre. Unfortunately, although Graveyard of Honor has commendable qualities, it lacks the sophistication of character that makes for a great yakuza film.
Facts of the Case
Graveyard of Honor details the life of Rikio Ishikawa (Tetsuya Watari, Yakuza Graveyard). Ishikawa went from a bright but troubled youth to a life of crime, and gained some notoriety as a ruthless heavy in a yakuza gang. Ishikawa has never had a sense of honor, and even his fellow thugs are nervous around him. When a drunken indiscretion shoves Ishikawa over the line, he finds that both sides of the law are out to get him.
Graveyard of Honor still earns respect when placed in a historical context, although it isn't as visceral or engaging today. Though I have a healthy respect for Japanese cinema, this movie did not captivate me the way other yakuza films have in the past.
Part of the problem is Graveyard of Honor's off-kilter camerawork, which I've learned to associate with madcap comedy. The camera tilts at steep angles, making the street nearly vertical, with a diagonal figure or two in the corner. Scenes of mayhem are enhanced through extreme close-ups of whirling flesh, scattered confetti, and an occasional beer bottle. The resulting vibe is strongly reminiscent of Adam West and Burt Ward vamping it up in the 1960s Batman series. Not since then have I seen such vivid diagonality on the screen. The effect is used most during chaotic street brawls, which leaves us with the vague idea that a bunch of people are running toward each other. It feels dated and it keeps us at arm's length from the violence.
Graveyard of Honor also goes the other way, treating us to a couple of beatific standoffs in which gangs square off and then pose with their guns, staring at each other's poses with smirks of condescension. It reminded me of a cheesy version of West Side Story. These scenes are probably meant to be pregnant with tension and explosive potential, but I didn't feel it.
Another dated mechanism is the mockumentary style of the introduction and conclusion. Fukasaku would have us believe that Graveyard of Honor is an actual or implied biography of Rikio Ishikawa, a hardboiled account of life on the streets. This conceit is as convincing as those anti-marijuana school films, with the grim detective condemning the unpitiable stoners.
Fukasaku is a skilled director, so I'm sure he purposefully employed those techniques to give Graveyard of Honor a gritty and kinetic feel. It might have been successful in the '70s, but the approach has mellowed in the intervening years. It isn't fair to shortchange Graveyard of Honor for the poor aging of its cutting edge, but neither can I pretend it was as exciting as the camerawork tries to suggest.
Though the window dressing is dated, modern audiences can overlook it if the story is there. But it wasn't, at least not for this reviewer. The bottom line is that Ishikawa is not a compelling character. Essentially, Ishikawa starts out bad, grows up bad, does bad things, and is finally done in by them. The mockumentary tells us he has keen intelligence, but it only manifests itself in a few lightning-fast assessments of street situations. For the bulk of the picture, Ishikawa is stupid and grows more so as time marches on. He kills the wrong people, assaults women in broad view, and pisses off his friends and enemies alike. He turns down good offers and accepts poor ones. He alienates those who could help him. Though I willingly admit that certain subtleties may have escaped me, I found nothing captivating about Ishikawa. He was a bull in a China shop, and my only question throughout the film is "why don't his fellow gang members shoot him down like a dog in the street?"
The only comparison I can draw is hypothetical: What if you removed all of DeNiro and Liotta's scenes from Goodfellas and kept only Joe Pesci? What if Tommy DeVito's bull-headed violence were all we'd seen, with no character arc or hint of redemption?
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Nonetheless, there are touches of grace that elevate Graveyard of Honor. For example, I was intrigued at how the police and striving yakuza bosses could sit down at the tea table to discuss mediation possibilities. To brazenly depict the relationship between police and criminals was a sophisticated touch. In fact, a thread of honor and interpersonal conflict runs through the film. We sense the discomfort of criminals who don't know what to do with another criminal. They want to kill him, but they do not (even though the movie claims that this would be a point of honor for young yakuza). Instead, the anger of the honor-bound yakuza waxes and wanes like the tides. Perhaps this is Fukasaku's main point, that a gangster gone haywire presents a delicate problem for organized crime.
Though the cinematography overexerts itself, on occasion it brings home the primal nature of Ishikawa's aggression. He rapes, pillages, and dopes up with abandon, and it does shock us. In fact, Graveyard of Honor is a precursor to many of the themes that have found their way into modern American crime movies. The featurettes tell us that Fukasaku has a discriminating eye for realistic set design and touches of character that sell us on the time and place. This is undoubtedly true, but I have no basis for comparison.
The video transfer is definitely up to the task. Graveyard of Honor begins in grainy black and white, with blood-red titles. This stark palette fades to sepia, then finally emerges into full color. The colors are stable, though not overly intense. This looks like '70s film stock, but on the higher end for the decade. Only minute flecks intruded upon the transfer, which left the majority of it sharply detailed. I don't recall any edge enhancement, and the transfer is free of digital artifacts as well. Only one scene hinted at color bleeding, which was a graphic depiction of copious blood near the end of the film, but in general the image quality was commendable. Less laudable was the mono soundtrack, which has areas of dullness and areas of brassiness. There are faint pops from time to time, but in general the soundtrack is clean.
As usual, Home Vision Entertainment has backed up the presentation with a boatload of extra material. Between the featurettes "A Portrait of Rage" and "On The Set with Fukashaku" we get a remarkably comprehensive look at Kinji Fukasaku. From coworkers to friends and family, we hear from enough people to form an idea of what he had in mind. There isn't a lot that is specific to Graveyard of Honor, although certain tidbits will enhance your appreciation for the film. Liner notes by Tom Mes go further toward that end, giving us a balanced but enthusiastic look at the film through the eyes of someone who loves Japanese crime cinema. There is also a director filmography, which is kind of like getting a weather report from a CD player. If you want a real filmography, go to the IMDb.
Perhaps I'm hopelessly inured through exposure to more visceral crime films, or perhaps the poetic nuance of the film flew over my head, or perhaps I couldn't get the image of Burt Ward in tights out of my mind when the camera tilted. In any case, Graveyard of Honor struck me as a paradoxically quaint and unredeemable film. The main character thrashed about in the world without refinement or charm, and I never understood why he was supposed to be interesting. Without an engaging sideplot to divert me, Graveyard of Honor became an intriguing historical precursor to 1990s crime films, but lacked firsthand interest.
Though I won't go so far as to call the defendant guilty, I won't call him innocent either. Yakuza fans will be entertained, but others might be less interested in this story.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Home Vision Entertainment
• "A Portrait of Rage" Video Essay
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