Yakuza Graveyard

Kinji Fukasaku, 1930–2003

Japanese director Kinji Fukasaku may have finally won his way into the hearts and 10-best lists of critics and film junkies worldwide with the one-two punch of Battle Royale, his Swiftian proposal for education reform in which high school students kill one another off (the coed standing gets to graduate), and the recently recirculated Battles Without Honor and Humanity, one of the director's 1970s yakuza masterpieces. But in his valiant campaign to complete Battle Royale 2 before prostate cancer could overtake him, the 72-year-old filmmaking giant has ultimately lost the war. Fukasaku died in Tokyo on Sunday, January 12; his son Kenta, screenwriter of both the original and the sequel, will complete his father's final movie.

Tabloid sensationalism at its finest, Fukasaku's best films answer the old grade-school riddle, "What's black and white and red all over?" So dense are the apocalyptic yakuza yarns of the sprawling Battles Without Honor and Humanity series with the comings and goings of bullying gang bosses and toothpick-sucking tough guys that they seem as swollen as a stack of newspapers soaked in blood. Indeed, the front-page relish with which Fukasaku would typically introduce 20 characters in a film's early episodes, their names and ranks captioned beneath freeze-frame mug shots of their snarling faces, and then repeat the process as their fates unwound, publishing their inevitably gruesome death throes onscreen like wide-screen variations on Weegee's flashbulb death-candids, suggest a sensibility akin to the two-fisted pulp poetry of Sam Fuller. And though he tooled his movies for mainstream success, Fukasaku's jet-black satire was every bit as deadly as his art-film contemporary, Nagisa Oshima; the contempt both men held for post-war Japan seemed dark enough to bury the rising sun. Painful though it is to say so at the moment, it would do Fukasaku's memory a profound disservice not to recall that, of all the torn-from-the-headlines flourishes he employed, clearly—as belied by the titles of two of his darkest thug-operas, Graveyard of Honorand Yakuza Graveyard—the obituary was his favorite lyrical mode.

American audiences never cultivated much awareness of Fukasaku as an auteur prior to the recent revival of his 1960s and '70s yakuza masterworks at festivals and cinematheques, yet he's been hovering around the fringes of our cinematic subconscious for decades. The psychotronic generation, from its basement dwellers all the way up to that king of all fanboys, Quentin Tarantino, were weaned on late-night diets of Fukasaku fare like The Green Slime and Message From Space, even as their parents might have been upstairs falling asleep to a rebroadcast of Tora! Tora! Tora!, the Hollywood WW II epic whose Japanese segments Fukasaku stepped in to direct when producers relieved Akira Kurosawa of his command. In the late 1980s, American art-house audiences discovered the camp pleasures of his Black Lizard, a 1968 crime thriller featuring transvestite siren Akihiro Maruyama and novelist Yukio Mishima's well-oiled upper torso in a minor role. In the late 1990s, I found myself standing next to Fukasaku on the set of Tarantino's Jackie Brown, watching as the silver-haired filmmaker slipped on a pair of wraparound shades, climbed into the young American's director's chair, and rode off on the camera-truck that was following Robert De Niro somewhere into the wilds of L.A.

At home, this onetime president of the Japanese Director's Guild and award-winning iconoclast wasn't simply well-known; his legacy has been pouring napalm on the fire of Japanese filmmaking for generations and is stronger than ever among its newest new wave today. In just the past year and a half, speed demon Takashi Miike completed both the Fukasaku-esque Agitator and a startlingly grim remake of Graveyard of Honor. Myriad lesser-known yakuza flicks routinely ape the great one's accomplishments as well, but—in a stroke of inadvertent Zen negation—Fukasaku's greatest contribution to the younger generation was probably the film he decided not to direct, Violent Cop, thereby allowing his fill-in, Takeshi Kitano, to light off the first firework of his directing career. Kitano never forgot the favor and repaid it in full by starring as the homeroom teacher from hell in the controversial Battle Royale. As for the favors Fukasaku did for his fans, and for Japanese film culture, and the world's, we'll be repaying him forever still.

 
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