One of many gritty and cynical Yakuza films directed by the late, great Kinji Fukasaku (best known stateside for Battle Royale and The Green Slime!), 1976's Yakuza Graveyard follows the story of Detective Kuroiwa (played by the uber-tough Tetsuya Watari of Graveyard Of Honor) who has recently been sent to work at the local precinct. Soon after he arrives, he strikes up an awkward friendship with a local Yakuza boss and the two begin a symbiotic relationship, feeding information to each other. Kuroiwa allows the Yakuza boss to help his clan stay one step ahead of the rival gangs in the prefecture and Kuroiwa is given enough information to uncover a money laundering operation going on in his territory involving an ex police chief and a few other high ranking police officials.
Kuroiwa, now hot on a few leads in the investigation that were supplied to him by his pigeon, becomes enraged when he finds the Yakuza boss murdered by a rival gang. Conveniently, he also starts to fall for the late bosses wife, Keiko (the iconic Meiko Kaji of the Female Convict Scorption and Lady Snowblood films). Their relationship blossoms quickly and with her help, he begins to uncover more and more about the Yakuza gangs and the way the operate in hopes of apprehending his friend's murderers and bringing the money laundering ring to an end. Unfortunately for Kuroiwa and Keiko, there's a lot more going on under the surface of all of this than they realize, and there just might be some insiders working against them…
While it plays with a lot of the same themes as Cops Vs. Thugs, made by Kinji Fukasaku a year earlier in 1975, also for Toei Studios and also written by Kazuo Kasahara, Yakuza Graveyard is a more personable film with it's smaller cast and concentration on a lone detective fighting against a system in which loyalty and honor are so important to the society that has spawned it. It represents post war Japan as an angry place, a society in which honor means more than right or wrong and in which a messed up cop can make a difference and find love even if its in the completely wrong place and it could mean the end for him.
Fukasaku's camera work is flamboyant and kinetic with a great color scheme, some fast paced editing tricks, and a lot of handheld footage used in the action scenes. He also uses still pictures to accent scene transitions to good effect and the film is never unappealing to the eye. He had used some of these techniques in earlier films and would use them even more in later ones but here in Yakuza Graveyard he seems to have found the right balance, using them to punctuate certain scenes and accentuate certain characters rather than beat us over the head with useless exercises in style over substance.
Watari plays Kuro tough as nails and although he comes close to those he's trying so hard to bring down, the viewer has to question his motives and especially his methods… is he really any better than they are? He's a violent man and has no qualms whatsoever about beating a suspect for information or shooting first and asking questions later. His scenes with the stunning Meiko Kaji are great as the two have an obvious and strong on screen chemistry together which Fukasaku makes the most of. They're shot in a very flattering manner when they're on camera together, and their messed up romance is even idealized in spots, or so it would seem.
Yakuza Graveyard comes very highly recommended for fans of films like Dirty Harry and Death Wish as it has a similar style and holds its own against some of the best action films made during the 70s. It's not a pretty film but it is an intense one that benefits from some exceptionally good performances, a gritty and compelling storyline and some fine direction from one of the best director's Japan has given us. It's violent, it's mean, and it's completely uncompromising and for that reason it stands as an exceptionally good action film with some more cerebral moments, a few moments in fact that actually make you think and make you feel for the characters. If you picked up the semi-recent Home Vision Kinji Fukasaku Yakuza movie releases and enjoyed those films, than this one should be right up your alley.
This 2.35.1 anamorphic widescreen transfer is miles above the R2 PAL release from Eureka Video that come out in the UK a few years back, but it's still not perfect. The main problem is that there's some mild motion blurring and trailing on the feature whenever anyone moves really fast. Other than that, the movie looks quite good. There isn't much to complain about in terms of print damage, in fact, aside from some very natural looking film grain the print used for this transfer is more or less pristine. Colors are bold and well-reproduced and black levels are pretty strong as well. Flesh tones look lifelike and natural while detail remains pretty strong from start to finish save for a few of the slightly darker scenes where some of the really fine detail does get a bit lost in the shadows. Not a perfect transfer but a huge step up from the aforementioned PAL release…
The Japanese Dolby Digital Mono soundtrack is clean, clear and free of any hiss or distortion. Optional white colored English subtitles are included that are easy to read and free of any typographical errors. The score comes through with enough emotive strength that it perfectly accentuates the more intense scenes of the film, but it never buries the performers and neither does the foley, nor do the sound effects. As far as older mono tracks go, there's nothing to complain about here. Yakuza Graveyard sounds fine.
Extras are slim but include original Japanese theatrical trailers for Yakuza Graveyard (3:01) and for Cops Vs. Thugs (3:12), both available on the same release date from Kino Video. Unfortunately neither of these trailers are subtitled in English but boy are they ever action packed! Each of the two trailers are also presented in Dolby Digital Mono tracks, 2.35.1 anamorphic widescreen presentations.
Aside from that we also get a gallery of publicity photos, if you can call three whole photos a gallery (that's right, there are three pictures, that's it – all of which involve Tetsuya Watari shooting his pistol). Included inside the case is an insert that reprints the awesome original Japanese theatrical poster for the movie, which is a nice touch. A catalogue of other Kino DVD releases can also be found inside, tucked behind the insert.
While the transfer could have been a bit better, Yakuza Graveyard still looks pretty good on DVD and the sound doesn't give us anything to complain about. The extras are slim but the movie itself completely delivers, making this one an easy and very solid recommendation for Fukasaku fans or Yakuza movie buffs in general. Tough guys are rarely this cool, or this slick.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.