Japanese director Kinji Fukasaku helped re-invent the yakuza film in the early 1970s with films like his classic Battles Without Honor and Humanity series. But it is Fukasaku's 1975 film, Graveyard of Honor, starring Tetsuya Watari as real-life gangster Rikio Ishikawa, that is considered by many to be his seminal yakuza masterpiece.
When prolific director Takashi Miike (Audition, Ichi the Killer) announced he was doing a remake of Graveyard of Honor, it was no different than someone saying they planned to remake Scorsese's Mean Streets. Fukasaku's film was an incredibly stylish work of art, the culmination of several years of one genius redefining an entire genre. If, however, there was one filmmaker with the gravitas and the stylish vision to tackle Graveyard, it would have to be Miike, arguably one of the most audacious directors of the last ten years.
Goro Kishitani recreates Rikio Ishikawa, this time rechristened Rikuo Ishimatsu, but equally as a volatile. Transplanting the story from post-World War II to the late 1980s and into the 90s, Shigenori Takechi's screenplay--from Goro Fujita's book--finds Japan during a pivotal time of transitional crisis. Where Fukasaku's film dealt with Japan rebuilding itself in the aftermath of the war, Miike's film finds Japan coping with an economic boom followed by economic bust. The disparity in eras is obvious, but the uncertainty of the future is a historic reality that both films share, and part of the underlying tenor that resonates through both.
Ishimatsu is nothing more than an anonymous dishwasher when he saves the life of a yakuza Godfather. As thanks for his act of bravery, Ishimatsu is welcomed into the Sawada family as a high ranking soldier, even though he has no real experience within the mob. As Ishimatsu moves forward within the organization, it becomes clear that he is a wildcard player, prone to unexpected outbursts of violence that are unwarranted even in the world of Japanese gangsters. When the wallflowerish Chieko (Narimi Arimori) catches his eye, Ishimatsu's idea of seduction is violently raping her. His explosive acts of violence eventually land him in jail, where he befriends K˘z˘ Imamura (Ry˘suke Miki), a fellow gangster from another yakuza clan who swears brotherhood to Ishimatsu. After serving his sentence, Ishimatsu returns to the outside world, where he is greeted by his gang, Imamura and even Chieko, who has fallen in love with her attacker. But when a minor misunderstanding sets off Ishimatsu's irrational temper, he reacts by trying to kill the leader of the Sadawa clan. This sets into motion one act of violence after another, while at the same time Ishimatsu succumbs to the temptation of heroin, making him even more unpredictable and volatile. Soon, Cheiko is also strung out, and the two lovers continue a downward spiral into the hellish oblivion that waits just on the other side of deadly shootouts.
Blasphemous though it may seem, Miike's Graveyard of Honor is a film that stands on its own as a solid entry in the yakuza genre. In an interview found in the supplementary material, Miike says, "Instead of remaking Fukasaku's Graveyard of Honor, we made a film that is like its little brother. So, if Fukasaku's film is the big brother, then ours is the good-for-nothing and dangerous younger brother."
That statement seems to say it all. If there was ever a great example of a "re-imaging"--that vague, ill-defined term Hollywood bandies about these days instead of "remake"--it would have to be Graveyard of Honor. Like Zack Snyder's surprisingly entertaining interpretation of Dawn of the Dead, Miike's Graveyard looks to the original film for inspiration, while being wise enough to not recreate or imitate the source material. The result of Miike's clearly respectful approach to reinterpreting Fukasaku's material is a film that exists as both a companion piece to the 1975 film, while at the same time surviving as its own unique beast.
One of the things that separates the two films is that Fukasaku's version was brimming with the stylish, hyper-kinetic energy and break-neck pacing that defined his 70s era yakuza films. Miike, by comparison takes a more meditative approach. The director's stylish flourishes are still present, complete with shockingly brutal acts of violence and moments of depravity and degeneration, but his overall pace has more in common with Takeshi Kitano than Kinji Fukasaku. And while the original film left the sad, dysfunctional relationship as more of a subplot, Miike brings it out to the forefront in the second half of the film, causing Graveyard of Honor to undergo an odd transformation into what amounts to a romance--sort of a yakuza version of Sid and Nancy.
Another major difference between the two films are the leading men. Watari's unforgettable performance in the original film was more of a rabid dog growing increasingly mad as the story progresses. Kishitani is more of a stone-face psychopath whose expression seldom reveals the true extent of his violent rage. Kishitani's often pale complexion and deadened gaze give him a creepy zombie-like appearance. With the entire weight of the film on his shoulders, Kishitani delivers the goods, almost too effectively at times. By that, I mean that at no point in the movie does Ishimatsu ever come close to being even remotely likeable. For some, the complete lack of redeeming qualities may make this anti-hero too much for some people to handle. At the same time it is refreshing to see a morally bankrupt character that remains true to the nature set forth for him by the screenplay.
Miike's film does run a bit too long--it clocks in at over 30 minutes longer than Fukasaku's version--but it still manages to find its place as one of the director's better works. With over 70 directing credits to his name over the past 16 years, Miike is nothing if not prolific. With the sort of output he has, Miike's filmography is a hodge-podge of hits and misses. Some of his film are very good--like Audition or Happiness of the Katakuris. But some of his films just plain suck. Not only is Graveyard of Honor one of his strongest films, demonstrating the cinematic elements he is best known for, it also manages to avoid the weaknesses that often trip up his other work.