Society Without Honor And Humanity: Japan’s 1970s Yakuza Films

Society Without Honor And Humanity: Japan’s 1970s Yakuza Films

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Yakuza fims of the 1970s
Picture: shrimpgraphic / PIXTA(ピクスタ)
Kinji Fukasaku’s 1970s gangster movies upended decades of depictions of the yakuza and held up a mirror to Japanese society at the same time.

Opening with the iconic image of the atomic bomb exploding in a mushroom cloud over Hiroshima, Kinji Fukasaku’s epic 1970s yakuza series, Battles Without Honor and Humanity (仁義なき戦い; Jingi naki tatakai), set the tone for films in Japan in that decade. Not only in its frenzied pace and unique, action-oriented style, but in its criticism of post-war Japanese society.

This trend, dubbed jitsuroku, or “true account,” continued in the director’s brutal Graveyard of Honor (仁義の墓場; Jingi no hakaba). These films made deft use of the yakuza, previously depicted as torchbearers of chivalry, as a metaphor to explore the breakdown of post-war Japanese society, its loss of tradition, and the fate of the individual who found himself at odds with what that society had become.

Shattering the Chivalrous Past

Before Fukasaku’s reimagining of the yakuza film, the genre was a perennial favorite, especially in the 1960s when the ninkyo eiga—or chivalrous movie—was popular.

Ninkyo eiga were set in a romanticized pre-war period, usually in the Meiji, Taisho, or early Showa periods. They invariably followed the same formula. A chivalrous gangster takes on an unscrupulous rival gang and either dies in the process or is sent to jail, thus fulfilling his Confucian, filial duty to his crime family while still maintaining the societal status quo.

The films were exceedingly popular, resonating with both the working class and students. The latter seeing similarities on screen to their own struggles against the system.

Fukasaku would adopt the memoirs of a Hiroshima yakuza member into what would eventually become the Battles Without Honor and Humanity series. According to Japanese culture expert Patrick Macias, he sought to “replace the old techniques [of the ninkyo eiga] with a new kind of film, where [he] could overlay [his] own experiences of living in post-war Japan” (Tokyo Scope).

Battles Without Honor And Humanity (source

Fukasaku achieved his new look through a drastic stylistic break from traditional Japanese films. Typically, as in films such as those by family drama master Yasujiro Ozu, the camera is static and level. Fukasaku, inspired by the newsreels he saw of rioting students and labor disputes, “took the camera in hand and ran into the crowds of actors and extras,” as he explains in Macias’ book, Tokyo Scope.


This “you-are-there” handheld effect, combined with a liberal use of newspaper snapshot-like freeze-frames and memoir-inspired storylines, legitimized the material. It took it out of the realm of fantasy—the territory of the ninkyo eiga—and into reality.

Audiences could see in these films a mirror of their own anger and dissatisfaction. The failed student movement. The working class left behind in Japan’s march towards modernization. Each saw their own feelings expressed in the jitsuroku eiga.

As Sadao Yamane explains in an interview on the supplementary disc to the Battles Without Honor and Humanity set, “[The film] connected with people who had doubts inside about the post-war period—unexpressed, maybe unconscious doubts.”

Sheer Chaos and Violence

Yakuza society—and by extension Japanese society in general—as depicted in the first installment of the Battles Without Honor and Humanity series (1973) is one of sheer chaos and violence. Gang members behave without regard for societal norms.

Fukasaku came of age in post-war Japan, saying, “It was like living in a constant state of violence” (Tokyo Scope). In the film, Fukasaku’s jarring, jostling camera work enhances the chaotic nature of life by highlighting a lack of stability in society. Even within the yakuza, traditionally a bastion of Confucian hierarchy, bosses and underlings have no loyalty for each other. There is only a Warring States era-like desire to get ahead.

Scene from Battles Without Honor And Humanity.

Honor Is No Longer Required

Main character Shozo Hirono (Bunta Sugawara) has joined the yakuza to escape the instability of outside post-war society. While the crime organization may appear to follow the old codes of honor and chivalry, the underlying reality that Fukasaku portrays is one of hypocrisy.

The hallmark of the yakuza code of honor is the ritual, of which they have many, such as the induction ceremony. Normally a lavish affair, when Hirono is accepted into the Yamamori gang, they simplify his ceremony “to suit the times.”

Honor, it is implied, is no longer required—a cursory nod towards it is enough.

A scene in which Hirono has to cut off a finger to atone for a mistake reinforces this. A common trope in yakuza films, Fukasaku plays the normally extremely serious act of sacrifice for laughs. The finger winds up in a hen house, pecked by hungry chickens.

Main character Shozo Hirono (played by Bunta Sugawara).

Even seppuku—slitting open your belly, the most revered Japanese act of honor and a holdout from the glorified, honor-imbued days of the samurai—is repurposed for honorless means. Hirono’s cellmate, another yakuza, cuts open his stomach. He does this, not to die for a boss, but to secure early release from prison. It’s a purely selfish act that displays contempt for the feudalistic ideal of dying for one’s superiors, a notion under which Fukasaku came of age.

In Mark Schilling’s Yakuza Movie Book, Fukasaku says, “Adults were teaching us how to die, but they didn’t teach us how to live.” Fukasaku’s declarative statement on this is delivered in the form of Hirono firing a gun in protest into the memorial display of a yakuza comrade at his funeral, killed by the hypocritical men now honoring him.

The ceremonies and rituals that signify tradition and honor may continue, but they are empty gestures.

Frustration and Anger

For the individual dissatisfied with society, what options are there? For Battles Without Honor and Humanity‘s Hirono, one of the few honorable characters to survive to the end of the series, there is only frustration and anger.

Hirono begins the series as an upright man with respect for the past and his superiors. He enjoys listening to traditional music—dismissed as “old-fashioned crap” by a hip woman in a bar—and refuses to go against the wishes of his boss, even when he doubts his boss’ motives.

But by the fourth episode of the series, Police Tactics (1974), having been betrayed by a boss one too many times, he decides to kill a superior and declares, “I don’t give a f*** about honor anymore!” His intent and anger are made all the more palpable by his atypical use of coarse language. The system has beaten him into an honorless submission, backed him into a corner—a feeling no doubt shared by many in the Japanese audience at the time.

Scene from Police Tactics.

A Society in Complete Chaos

After completing the Battles Without Honor and Humanity series, in 1975 Fukasaku turned to the life of notorious yakuza Rikio Ishikawa for the extremely angry Graveyard of Honor.

Similarly set in a Japan still raw from the war, Graveyard of Honor depicts a society in complete chaos, with violent riots erupting seemingly every five minutes. Into this fray comes Rikio Ishikawa (yakuza movie veteran Tetsuya Watari), a man who, we learn in the documentary-like opening, has always been drawn to the life of the yakuza.

However, the gangland society he finds himself involved in is likely not the one he was expecting. When he attacks a rival gang boss, prompting a reprisal, Ishikawa is chastised by his boss: “You have any idea how much a gang war costs?” Clearly, Ishikawa is disappointed by his gang’s lack of response.

Graveyard of Honor (source Amazon).

It’s not stated explicitly, but Ishikawa was likely seduced by the myth of the yakuza as Edo-era outcast folk heroes, providing for those left out of the rigid Tokugawa system, for whom honor and codes of conduct are everything.

“You have to follow the rules,” Ishikawa’s yakuza brother tells him. Ishikawa thinks he is following the rules. But for a gang that values money more than honor, the rules are very different.

Lack of Honor

As in Battles Without Honor and Humanity, Fukasaku uses the trope of tradition and yakuza code of conduct—specifically through the breaking of such codes—to highlight the lack of honor in Japanese society.

In the case of Graveyard of Honor, though, society’s abandonment of certain codes of conduct that Ishikawa holds dear drives him to rebellion. If society will not follow the rules, why should he? This is demonstrated by his breaking of two cardinal codes.

The first comes when he attacks his own gang boss, first by blowing up his car and then by stabbing him. Ishikawa is told this is an “unforgivable offense,” yet he is beyond caring. For him, the “unforgivable offense” was committed by society when it abandoned its traditional mores.

The second comes when he kills his sworn brother, now a gang boss himself and guilty—in Ishikawa’s eyes—of the same kind of honorless corruption as his own boss. If there is still any doubt about how Ishikawa feels about the society that has abandoned him, it is dashed away when he uses a memorial sake cup, picked up off a gravesite, to mix heroin in and then shoot up.

Society refuses to place any weight on its own traditions, so why should Ishikawa?

The Bleakest Option

Of the films explored here, Graveyard of Honor offers the bleakest option for the individual dissatisfied with post-war Japanese society. When rejected by the yakuza, an organization Ishikawa had longed to join since childhood, he turns to vice: gambling, violence, and heroin addiction.

“What turned this man into a rabid dog?” the narrator asks in the film’s introduction. “Was it the chaos and confusion of the post-war years?” The answer: “It might be…” Specifically, it is the society that has sprung up from the ashes of the war – a monolithic, profit-driven society – that has done this.

Tokyo Drifter (Source: Mandarake).

For Ishikawa, an individual left out of this new society, and one predisposed to rail angrily against it, there is no choice but to spiral into self-destruction. Not every man can be a Hirono, unshakably sure of himself. Some must fall, crushed under the weight of a society that doesn’t want them.

For Ishikawa, his only options are prison and, ultimately, suicide. For longtime yakuza film fans, the casting of former ninkyo star and pin-up idol Tetsuya Watari as Ishikawa must have made his conduct and fall doubly shocking. The coolly removed, modish star of 1966’s Tokyo Drifter (東京流もの; Tokyo nagare mono) was here rebelling against every empty yakuza ritual in the book. When combined with the casting coup that Fukasaku pulled off, the performance crystallizes Fukasaku’s critique of post-war Japan.

Abandoned By Society

By the late-1970s, the jitsuroku genre had run its course. Kinji Fukasaku would turn to epic fantasies inspired by Hollywood films like Star Wars and Conan The Barbarian, escapist fare that appealed to a population now flush with cash from a growing economy.

Those who felt an affinity with the downtrodden heroes of the jitsuroku films found themselves as ignored by the media as by Japan, Inc. Young people were able to take solace in the high-speed, punk-inspired bosozoku films of Sogo Ishii.

But for the day laborers and former student protestors, there was little in the popular landscape to identify with. Like their heroes, they too were abandoned by their society. For them, there was little solace to be found in the media. That is until the VCR allowed them to revisit their old heroes again.

Benshi: The Voice and Color of Japanese Silent Cinema


  • D., Chris. Outlaw Master of Japanese Film. New York: I.B. Tauris, 2005
  • Macias, Patrick. Tokyo Scope: The Japanese Cult Film Companion. San Francisco: Cadence Books, 2001
  • Schilling, Mark. The Yakuza Movie Book. Berkeley: Stone Bridge Press, 2003
  • Varley, Paul. Japanese Culture. Honolulu: University of Hawai’I Press, 2000

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