Favorite moments from Japanese yakuza movies
By Mark Schilling

Note: I could gone on  for pages about memorable scenes from yakuza movies.
The following ten are only a representative sampling from favorite directors,
actors and films

1. Sonatine (director: Takeshi Kitano, 1993)

Kitano as a gang boss playing Russian roulette with his flustered underlings
on the beach. He has palmed the bullets, but the crooked grin on his face as he pulls the
trigger tells us it's not quite a joke. At the end of the film, we find out exactly why. In
other words, this scene is, not just a comic interlude, but a masterful foreshadowing, with a
distinctive Kitano-esque chill.

2. Dead or Alive (Takashi Miike, 1999)

Sho Aikawa as a detective investigating a gang hit at a Shinjuku noodle
joint. The victim has been shot from behind, through the stomach, and noodles he was gorging
himself with are spread out like fan on the floor. Aikawa picks up one of the
noodles with chopsticks and, for one queasy moment, looks as if he is about to sample
it -- the perfect black comic coda to Takashi Miike's frantically brilliant montage of
depravity and violence.

3. Gangster VIP (Toshio Masuda, 1968).

The climatic fight, starting backstage at a nightclub: A renegade gangster
(Tetsuya Watari), armed only with a long knife, fights for his life against a gang of
rivals, as an oblivious female singer croons on stage. The inter-cutting between the
singer and the fight scene, using only the singer's voice on the soundtrack, not only underlines
Watari's desperation and isolation, but adds an eerie beauty to the action. The
battle unfolds with none of the usual grunts and yells but is choreographed by Matsuda with an
unusual intensity and grace.

4. Hardhead Fool (Tatsumi Kumashiro, 1994)

Tanaka (Eiji Okuda), a gangster just out of prison, ends up with a nasty
gash to his torso after a gang dustup. In a memorable scene (though some may want to watch it
through their fingers) Tanaka sews up himself with a needle and thread, while
describing the recent action -- as his girlfriend, writhing and moaning, excites herself to
orgasm. An acclaimed director of Nikkatsu Roman Poruno films in the 1970s, Kumashiro
expertly mixes the erotic and the bizarre to unsettling effect, while revealing the
twisted, but infinitely tough, soul of his hard-headed hero.

5. Big Gambling Ceremony (Kosaku Yamashita, 1968).

One of several iconic scenes from this ninkyo eiga classic. Nakai (Koji
Tsuruta), a gang lieutenant, stabs Matsuda (Tomisaburo Wakayama), a close friend and ex-con
who tried to topple the gang boss to whom Nakai owes allegiance. Nakai's expression as
he plunges in the sword is apologetic, Matsuda's, as he dies, is understanding. Matsuda
had been the rightful heir to the gang throne and Nakai had backed him, but when an
usurper took Matsuda's place, Nakai had tried to play peacemaker. He failed -- and when
Matsuda rebels, Nakai feels obliged to put him down. Giri (duty) triumphs over ninjo
(human feelings) in a pathos-drenched scene that is the very essence of the genre.

6. A Man from Abashiri Prison: Going Home (Ishii Teruo, 1965).

In third installment in Ishii's hit series, Ken Takakura plays Tachibana, an
ex-con who is working on the Nagasaki docks with members of a friendly gang when rival
hoods try to muscle in. Tachibana allows them to take shot after shot at his face -- and
barely blinks as the punches land. Spooked by his inhuman endurance, the punks scatter. Then
another challenge arrives in the former of Joe (Naoki Sugiura), the enemy gang's
hitman, dressed in white and coughing out his tubercular lungs into a handkerchief. He calls
Tachibana a yakuza and, when Tachibana denies it, points to a tattoo on his arm as
proof. Tachibana takes out a lighter and calmly burns off the tattoo, whistling all the
while -- until Joe retreats in confusion and disgust. The ultimate demonstation of Takakura's
fabled stoicism -- and cool.

7. Graveyard of Honor (Kinji Fukasaku, 1975)

Tetsuya Watari, as the mad dog gangster Rikio Ishikawa, crunches, chews and
swallows the cremated bones of his dead lover in front of his startled former
gangmates -- now his bitter enemies, determined to do him in. This act, with each crunch ringing
like a pistol shot, is deranged, yet calculated, desperate, yet entirely in keeping with
Ishikawa's ultimate outlaw character. Movie gangster heroes are almost by definition
contemptuous of death, but few indeed embrace it with the awful -- meaning "terrible to
behold" -- enthusiasm of Ishikawa, a man no longer on the edge, but hurling himself

8. Red Peony Gambler: Flower Cards Match (Tai Kato, 1969)

Among the many iconic scenes in this Tai Kato masterpiece is the first
meeting in a driving rain between the wandering gangster played by Ken Takakura and the
gambler Oryu played by Junko Fuji. She offers him an umbrella, he reluctantly takes
it -- and their fingers touch as Kato's camera moves in for a close-up. A simple moment, yet
one charged with eroticism and poignancy. These two are fated to become
unwilling opponents in a gang war, intensified by a Rome-and-Juliet like romance
between the son of elderly oyabun (gang boss) and the daughter of his slithery, scheming
rival. Their own thwarted romance, however, with its brief meetings and unspoken regrets for
what might have been, is the film's throbbing emotional heart

9. One Generation of Tattoos (Seijun Suzuki, 1965)

Nearly every ninkyo eiga features one or more nagurikomi scenes -- in which
the hero, sometimes accompanied by an ally or two, bursts into the headquarters of the
rival gang to dispatch the enemy boss with a knife or sword. Among the most flamboyant
is the assault of Watari Tetsuya's hero, Tetsu, on the yashiki (Japanese-style
mansion) of the Akamatsu gang.

It begins with Tetsu, resplendent in a black-and-white happi coat,
dramatically popping open a large bamboo-and-paper umbrella and running through the driving rain.
Receiving the gift of a sword from an elderly yakuza, he rushes into the Akamatsu
headquarters and, with the camera following close behind, charges straight through a series of
blue and then yellow fusuma (sliding doors), while dodging sword thrusts and pistol shots,
until he reaches the inner sanctum.

This bravura sequence unfolds in a brightly colored and lighted dreamscape,
to a Kabuki-esque rhythm. The ensuing fight with the Akamatsu boss, shot from
beneath through a transparent sheet, is also spectacular, if more contemporarily
surreal. It ends in the Japanese-style garden, in a downpour, with Tetsu, having finally
dispatched his man, painfully prying his rigid fingers from his sword, his full-back tattoo --
the proof of his gangster manhood -- gloriously revealed.

10. Another Lonely Hitman (Rokuro Mochizuki, 1995)

Tachibana (Ryo Ishibashi) is an ex-con trying and failing to readjust to the
gang world. Facing punishment for dealing too harshly with rival hoods -- his boss is
anxious to cut a deal with their boss -- Tachibana finally decides he wants out. Needing cash
for his new life, he and an underling invade the gang office to extract an "retirement
allowance." His only weapon: a video camera that he uses to tape the "negotiations." (His
partner is more conventionally armed.) Tachibana leaves with the dough -- and the forlorn
hope that his former associates will not be so angry as to whack him.

This scene could have easily degenerated into slapstick, but Mochizuki films
it with the tension on high, albeit with an undercurrent of humor. He also makes the
action flow credibly from what has come before, in his story of a man on the edge, who
must break with all he knows if he is ever to find the peace he desperately wants. A
man who, for the sake for a dream, wants to live, even if it means taking a leap from the
conventional (i.e., going down in a blaze of gangster glory) to the absurd.