“Graveyard of Honor” (1975) – A.J. Hakari

You can take the man out of the Yakuza, but you can’t take the Yakuza out of the man. You could say this about Japanese filmmaker Kinji Fukasaku, who, just one year after wrapping up his epic Yakuza Papers saga, dove right back into the underworld with 1975’s Graveyard of Honor. But you could also use it to describe the crime drama’s main character, who, like so many in the man’s gangster pictures, fails to learn from his violent history and is thus doomed to repeat it. There are a few moments when Fukasaku leans too much on his old bag of tricks, but Graveyard isn’t without those scenes that represent his style at its most chaotic.

Just as with Battles Without Honor & Humanity, Fukasaku begins this sprawling, blood-soaked tome in postwar Japan. Everyone is fighting for survival, let alone the Yakuza, but in Tokyo’s Shinjuku ward, Rikio Ishikawa (Tetsuya Watari, Tokyo Drifter) is particularly hell-bent. He plies his chosen trade without mercy, a veritable attack dog prone to regular violent outbursts against rival gangs. Unfortunately, such behavior has made his fellow clansmen uneasy, fearful that Rikio will lead them to all-out warfare. Everything is done to deal with Rikio in the most honorable of ways, but after attacking his own clan leader, the only option left is complete banishment. But it’s going to take more than a ten-year exile to keep Rikio down, for once he swings back into town, nothing will stop him from wreaking bloody vengeance on anyone who crosses his path.

Graveyard of Honor treads the same cinematic pathway pioneered by movies like White Heat and the original Scarface. The baddest of the bad guys serves as the film’s main focus, and the story chronicles how his self-destructive tendencies lead him towards an ending that’s anything but happy. It’s an interesting alternative to the traditional “cops vs. robbers” grind, showing how life is on the darker side of the law for a change. But despite having a genre pro like Fukasaku at the helm, Graveyard of Honor comes up a little empty in a thematic sense. On paper, it’s not that different from other films of its kind that set out to show that a life of crime isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. This is the foundation that classics like The Godfather and GoodFellas were built upon, but while those thrived on their ambition, Fukasaku seems to be going through the motions here. Barely anything is done to beef up sympathy for Rikio, who’s not the nicest guy to hang around to begin with. It’s hard to care for a guy who sexually assaults women as casually as most people go out to buy milk, yet according to a colleague on the film’s DVD, that’s exactly what Fukasaku wanted of his audience. All we viewers can do is just shake our heads at the mess Rikio is making of his whole existence, which I don’t presume was the response Fukasaku was looking for.

But while the story appears set on autopilot, Graveyard of Honor’s other elements seem to indicate that the Fukasaku we all know and love is alive and kicking. Right off the bat, fans will notice that this film’s look is precisely that of the Yakuza Papers series: documentary-style presentation, punctuated by sudden outbursts of violence. Some might call it Fukasaku rehashing his own techniques (right down to providing a one-sentence history of just about every character), but in terms of this film, it still fits the mood like a glove. Rikio inhabits the same “anything goes” world as the Yakuza Papers‘ Shozo Hirono, a volatile environment that has a nasty habit of biting back at its denizens. Fukasaku also manages to present some very effective cinematography; the frenetic camerawork effectively places viewers in the action, but it’s during the few static shots that let you know something really important is going down. All of these elements are anchored by Watari’s turn as Rikio. For a definitive tragic figure, he’s not as involving as one would hope, but there’s no denying that he commands the audience’s attention, filling his performance with the same seething gusto as Sonny Chiba in Deadly Fight in Hiroshima.

Graveyard of Honor is a decent picture in its own right, made with a certain energy and an eye for particularly epic downfalls. For Yakuza newcomers, it’s a good place to start on your way to more complex works, but seasoned viewers may find it to have something of a “ho-hum” quality. Either way you slice it, Graveyard of Honor is never completely boring and employs just enough necessary roughness to make itself memorable.

Rating: ★★½☆

-A.J. Hakari

Read more of A.J.’s reviews at ReelTalk Movie Reviews, Classic Movie Guide, and Terror Tube.

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