Despite its post-war ‘economic miracle’, Japan was enduring a period of political strife at the end of the 1960s, marked by the student demonstrations of ‘68. The decade had also seen a wave of highly successful yakuza (organised crime) films from the country, with the genre at the peak of its ninkyō eiga (chivalry films) phase. This phase was characterised by a romantic depiction of stoic yakuza criminals who live by a code of honour and duty, similar to that of the samurai code. However, by the 1970s emerging directors sought to renew the genre with a more realistic portrayal of the criminal class in post-war Japan, even if this meant straying from tradition. One such director was Kinji Fuksaku, who burst onto the yakuza film scene with the gritty and unglamorous Sympathy for the Underdog (1971) followed by Street Mobster (1972). Street Mobster was the sixth and final instalment of film studio Toei’s Gendai Yakuza (Modern Yakuza) series of films, which all starred prolific actor Bunta Sugawara. As the name suggests, the genre underwent a modernisation, where filmmakers could engage with a growing sense of disillusionment within the country and reject the glamorised escapism that came before.
Whilst the films in the ninkyō eiga tradition depicted steadfast and honourable yakuzas, Kinji Fukusaku’s host of criminal outcasts were far from chivalrous. In Street Mobster, he presents a low-level street thug Isamu Okita (played by Sugawara), who is back on the streets of Kawasaki after a five-year prison sentence for a series of violent crimes. Quite literally born under a bad sign, he is an angry young man who claims he was destined to an unlucky life after being born on 15 August 1945, the day Japan formally surrendered in World War II. Upon his return, Okita finds himself displaced, with his environment and way of life different from where he left them. As a result, he opts for a disruptive and violent return to the criminal underworld by rejecting the order of things and scoffing at any semblance of tradition along the way. Street Mobster boasts a frenetic hand-held style that helps to lay down the chaotic path to self-destruction by its lead, with a fast pace that rarely lets up from its snappy freeze frame opening sequence to its violent and tragic finale.
The film’s gritty visual style, scenes of clumsy but brutal violence and unruly central character all work to expose the fabrication of the yakuza mythology. Moving the genre in this direction meant that Fukusaku was able to represent those who Japan’s economic developments had left behind, portraying complex characters residing on the margins of wider society, usually doomed to poverty, imprisonment or death. The director’s abrasive and unromantic entries into the yakuza genre became part of the jitsuroku eiga (actual record films) phase, the next major wave of yakuza cinema that dominated the 1970s. He would popularise this phase further with his ground-breaking crime epic Battles Without Honour and Humanity (1973), which would go on to spawn four sequels and continue his collaborative partnership with actor Sugawara.
Fukusaku’s filmography expanded across various genres after the 1970s, culminating in his cult mega-hit Battle Royale in 2000, for which he is mostly remembered. But, revisiting his earlier yakuza works like Street Mobster reveals a filmmaker able to provide an understanding of some of the social and economic changes that were taking place in Japan in the 1970s, as well as revitalising of one of the most iconic genres to emerge from the country.
By Ellen Smith.
Ellen Smith is a Film Team Administrator at HOME.