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These Are the Best Movies About the Yakuza

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The Yakuza movie Pale Flower

Over the years, yakuza movies went through an evolution, going from a feel-good high-values formula to a gritty, naturalistic portrayal of the Japanese criminal underworld, and finally transcending the genre bounds to become commercial blockbusters (or perhaps watering itself down to fit into the modern superhero-obsessed cinema?). The consistent core that remained throughout the genre is the over-the-top stylized violence, beautiful irezumi (Japanese tattoos) hidden under the sleek suits, vigorous sophistication of the inner hierarchy, and the strict code of honor.

The history of the yakuza genre starts as ‘Nikkatsu borderless action’ (meaning American film noir infused with French quirkiness and appropriated by the Japanese, resulting in unique cinema flavors), and Toei’s ninkyo ‘chivalrous films.’ In the 1970s, however, the fairytale fatigue led to the end of the era of heroes, and there came the antiheroes and true-crime, almost documentary-style yakuza movies.

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Movies about mobsters used to wow audiences, but more modern entries seem to have lost their luster. Once studios stopped focusing on producing yakuza movies exclusively, only a handful have been made in recent years. Even Takashi Miike, the ever-prolific director, admits in an interview with Film School Rejects that the yakuza film genre has come to an end. It is never too late to enjoy great films and become a fan of the genre, though, so here’s a list of the most prominent yakuza movies from each period.

Youth of the Beast seemingly follows the early yakuza classic structure quite faithfully, with its thugs, drugs, and femme fatales. However, it was the movie which began the slow expulsion of its director from the Japanese film industry. Tired of formulaic films, Seijun Suzuki played with plot, dialogue, and form, creating an edgy meta-narrative by making the film acknowledge its own artifice. He would continue to deconstruct the yakuza film for the next few years until being fired and ostensibly blacklisted from the Japanese studio system. Misunderstood upon its release, later on, Youth of The Beast became a symbol for standing up to the system, and one of the most important works during the Japanese university protests in the 1960s.

Director Masahiro Shinoda pioneered the ‘Shochiku New Wave’ of independent filmmaking, Pale Flower being one of the most significant films of the movement. The plot in this feature becomes secondary to aesthetics; it is essentially a stylish philosophical parable of existential anguish, put into an almost surrealistic story of a nonconformist middle-aged yakuza.

Related: Akira Kurosawa: The Best Films From His Middle Period

The lead, Ryo Ikebe, had become extremely popular through Toei’s Brutal Tales of Chivalry series, which made the film’s approach even more controversial, as it went against the formula of the major studio of the genre. Immensely praised by the critics, Pale Flower was even included in Roger Ebert’s list of the greatest movies ever made.

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