Yakuza Graveyard (Blu-ray Review)

  • Reviewed by: Stephen Bjork
  • Review Date: May 29, 2024
  • Format: Blu-ray Disc
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Yakuza Graveyard (Blu-ray Review)


Kinji Fukasaku

Release Date(s)

1976 (January 16, 2024)


Toei (Radiance Films)
  • Film/Program Grade: B
  • Video Grade: B-
  • Audio Grade: B-
  • Extras Grade: C+

Yakuza Graveyard (Blu-ray)

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Kinji Fukasaku’s Yakuza Graveyard (aka Yakuza no Hakaba: Kuchinashi no Hana) is a key film in the new wave of the modern Japanese yakuza genre that arose during the Seventies. While the post-war yakuza genre began in the Forties with films like Kurosawa’s Drunken Angel, it rose to prominence in the Sixties and flourished under the aegis of Toei Company, Ltd. Toei’s initial forays into the genre were often period pieces, with their yakuza forming a natural outgrowth of the samurai in other period films. Like the samurai before them, these yakuza carried a certain nobility regardless of their criminal status, and so the series became known as ninkyo eiga, or chivalry films. That was less true of Toei’s output during the Seventies, where the films moved firmly into a post-war setting. The yakuza became much more ruthless, and the filmmaking style was appropriately more gritty, so these became known as jitsuroku eiga, or actual record films.

The godfather of this new wave was Fukasaku’s Battles Without Honor and Humanity series that launched in 1973, but Yakuza Graveyard ended up refining some of the themes that were introduced in those films. That’s understandable, because it was also written by Kazuo Kasahara, the initial writer of the Battles films. Kuroiwa Ryu (Tetsuya Watari) is a maverick cop who raises the ire of his superiors with his take no prisoners approach to policing. His brutal methods also raise the attentions of the Nishida crime family, who are currently waging a turf war against their rivals the Yamashiro family. Kuroiwa rejects their offer to work with him, but he ends up in a relationship with Matsunaga Keiko (Meiko Kaji), the wife of one of their jailed bosses, and also befriends the new boss Iwata Goro (Tatsuo Umemiya). Kuroiwa ends up caught in the middle between his own corrupt police force and the equally unscrupulous Nishida family, with only Iwata sharing any sense of his own code. He eventually pledges brotherhood to Iwata, but that leads to the downfall of both of them. Yakuza Graveyard also stars Hideo Murota, Nobuo Kaneko, Harumi Sone, Takuzo Kawatani, and Jirō Yabuki.

Kuroiwa may be every bit as ruthless as the yakuza that he’s pursuing, but like Iwata, he operates on his own code and tries to remain true to his warped sense of ethics. He’s disgusted by the willingness of his fellow police officers to make deals with the Nishida family, but he’s equally contemptuous of the yakuza for dealing with the cops. Both sides are failing to stay true to their principles, and in Kuroiwa’s view, this town needs a better class of criminal. He finds that in the form of his new brother Iwata, and also in his growing love for Matsunaga. That’s due in no small part to the fact that both Iwata and Matsunaga share his outsider status, although they’re outsiders of a very different sort.

Matsunaga is half Korean, and Iwata is actually full-blooded Korean. In postwar Japan, Koreans were known as Zainichi, or foreigners staying in Japan, despite their status as permanent residents. They were frequently treated as second-class citizens (they were denied full citizenship) and forced to assimilate into Japanese culture. While Zainichi characters had appeared in previous yakuza films, their presence in Yakuza Graveyard is significant because Iwata and Matsunaga are able to find acceptance in the world of the yakuza that had been denied to them by Japanese society as a whole. They become Kuroiwa’s point of entry into that world, and despite his contempt for those who don’t share his particular code, he allows the lines between the police and the yakuza to become blurred. Inevitably, that ends in bloodshed on both sides. Those who live by a code are always at risk of dying by that code, especially when it puts them into conflict with society as a whole (cops and yakuza alike). Yakuza Graveyard itself doesn’t take sides, eschewing conventional morality in favor of being a character study of a man who marches to the beat of his own drum, and it’s all the more powerful because of that fact.

Cinematographer Tōru Nakajima shot Yakuza Graveyard on 35mm film using Toeiscope anamorphic lenses, framed at 2.35:1 for its theatrical release. Radiance Films describes this version simply as being “transferred in High-Definition by Toei Company Ltd. And supplied to Radiance Films as a High-Definition digital master.” In other words, Radiance had to use whatever Toei provided to them, so any deficiencies in this presentation lie at Toei’s doorstep. There’s no other information about the master available, but from the looks of it, the source was probably a print, or at least a late generation dupe element. It’s relatively clean, but fine detail is limited by the source. That’s especially true of the darkest scenes, where shadow detail is completely washed out. Optical work like the occasional freeze framing looks even rougher. The overall color balance is fine, even though the limited contrast range does make them appear a bit flat. To be fair, while this presentation does have its limitations, it does evoke the experience of watching a 35mm print back in the Seventies.

Audio is offered in Japanese 2.0 mono DTS-HD Master Audio, with removable English subtitles. Everything sounds compressed, with limited dynamics, but that’s typical for Japanese genre fare from the era. There’s only one volume level: loud. On the other hand, there is some depth to the low end, which helps to give a little extra punch to the music by Toshiaki Tsushima. The post-synced dialogue is clear, if a little harsh at times (the compression that’s inherent to the original mix doesn’t help).

The Radiance Films Limited Edition Blu-ray release of Yakuza Graveyard includes a reversible insert with the original theatrical artwork on one side, and new art by Time Tomorrow on the other. It also offers a 32-page booklet that includes an essay by Mika Ko, plus reprints of 1976 Scenario articles by Kazuo Kashara and Masao Matsuda. The following extras are included:

  • Kazuya Shiraishi (HD – 14:36)
  • The Rage and the Passion (HD – 12:10)
  • Trailer (HD – 3:12)
  • Gallery (HD, 24 in all)

Kazuya Shiraishi is the director of modern-day yakuza tales like Blood of Wolves and Blood of Wolves II. In this interview, he offers his thoughts about Yakuza Graveyard and what makes it different than the other collaborations between Kinji Fukasaku and Kazuo Kasahara. Shiraishi points out that while Fukasaku is usually considered associated with the yakuza genre, the director actually worked in a wide variety of genres. Stil, it was Fukasaku’s collaborations with Kashara on the Battles Without Honor and Humanity series that helped break Toei out of the formulaic rut that it had been following with their Yakuza films. Cops vs. Thugs and Yakuza Graveyard both took that to the next level, focusing on the collusion between the police and the yakuza, while Yakuza Graveyard in particular was groundbreaking because of the way that it presented the plight of Korean residents living in Japan. It’s a brief but illuminating overview from Shiraishi.

The Rage and the Passion is a visual essay by critic Tom Mes, who has written books about Japanese cinema that includes monographs on Takashi Miike, Shinya Tsukamoto, Kinji Fukasaku, and Meiko Kaji. The Rage and the Passion focuses on the latter; namely, on Kaji’s collaborations with Fukasaku, especially on Battles Without Honor and Humanity and Yakuza Graveyard. Mes says that Fukasaku gave Kaji the opportunity to be an actor, not just a star, and so she was willing to take smaller roles in his films where she could make an impact in different ways. Her part in Yakuza Graveyard was the most impactful of all.

There’s one Easter egg on the disc, accessible by pressing the right arrow on the remote while Kazuya Shiraishi is highlighted:

  • Kinji Fukasaku’s Influence on The Blood of Wolves (HD – 4:09)

It’s a bonus interview with Shiraishi where he explains how Fukasaku’s yakuza films influenced his own—both directly and indirectly, since Shiraishi says that he went out of his way to avoid imitating Fukasaku’s handheld camerawork. The biggest thing is that he learned from Fukasaku’s genre efforts is that the yakuza are human beings, just like us, so he strove to humanize the criminal element in his own films.

The extras may be light, but they’re all well worth the time—this is a case where the C+ rating is a just a reflection of the quantity of extras, not their actual quality. Taken together, they do a fine job of providing the context around Yakuza Graveyard that will be illuminating for anyone who is less familiar with the work of Kinji Fukasaku, Kazuo Kasahara, or Meiko Kaji. The video quality is limited by the master that Toei provided, but it’s still a big improvement over DVD. Yakuza Graveyard was long overdue to make the leap into high definition, so this Radiance Films release is a welcome one. It’s an appropriately gritty-looking presentation of an undeniably gritty film.

- Stephen Bjork

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