Yakuza are Japanese gangsters, but that doesn’t quite tell the whole story. In real life, the Yakuza are the inheritors of the Tekiya and Bakuto groups that existed in Edo-era Japan; at least, the rituals of those groups found their way down to the modern day Yakuza (such as the large scale tatoos that adorn their abdomens). Or so I’ve read (and seen in Yakuza films), not having spent any time at all in the underbelly of Tokyo’s crime syndicates myself.
Anyhow, that’s simply by way of introduction – whatever the Yakuza are in reality, the film genre they inspired is one that stands alone. Before I’d ever seen one, I figured they would be like American gangster movies but with subtitles. I was in for a surprise.
The first Yakuza film I ever saw was Takashi Miike’s “Gozu”, which I viewed at a screening at the Cannes film festival in 2003. Describing the whole film in even cursory detail would require 3,000 words at least; sufficed to say the movie’s final act consists of the protagonist trying to be seduced by an attractive woman who claims to be his dead best friend, only for said best friend to emerge from said attractive woman’s vagina in the penultimate scene. Yes, like I say, not exactly “Goodfellas” in east Asia.
Not all Yakuza films are as off the wall as Miike’s “Gozu”. But that’s the thing: while sharing certain genre traits, the films within the genre tend to be unique. So the things that make the Yakuza film a genre unto itself are the following: Japanese gangsters as the main characters; a plot which hinges on the Yakuza’s strange moral system, which requires you to shoot yourself in the head if the gang needs you to but in which a woman being raped is only your problem if the rapist starts giving you a hard time; partly as a result of this last point, a downer, depressive feel to every Yakuza film, one in which an outdated code seems destined to make the protagonists die in horrible ways; usually, the protagonists dying in horrible ways.
Two great examples of the genre are Takeshi Kitano’s “Sonatine” and Miike’s “Agitator”. Taking the latter first: it is, in some ways, the most “straightforward” Yakuza film I’ve ever seen (no grown man emerges from a vagina, as a for instance). But having said that, it only shows how bizarre a genre the Yakuza film is, since “Agitator” would be a weird one in any other. Over three hours long, almost cartoonishly violent in places, “Agitator” at least has a semi-conventional, “man on a mission” style plot. As a result, “Agitator” is a good Yakuza film to take as your first (although its length is to be kept in mind in this regard). “Sonatine” is a better film but is among the more depressing examples of the genre – the sense of loss and betrayal that is a hallmark of the genre really overloads this one, making it actually sad. Perhaps see a few others before you dive into “Sonatine”.
Or maybe you should do like I did and start with “Gozu”. Having warned you already about the Freudian ending, I will also give you all the heads up on the old woman that runs a hotel who tries to breast feed all her guests and the American woman who runs a shop and reads Japanese to the clients off giant cue cards attached to the walls, ones which always seem to perfectly answer the questions she gets asked.