Back in 2001, the Northwest Film Center presented a showcase of films by director Kinji Fukasaku. At the time I was only marginally aware of Fukasaku's work, having seen the cult classic Black Lizard and the campy Green Slime (both 1968). But what I discovered over the course of the Fukasaku retrospective was a bold director whose work stands out as some of the best filmmaking I've ever seen. Fukasaku is credited with redefining yakuza (Japanese gangster) films and giving the genre a raw brutality it had been lacking. He has been compared to Martin Scorsese and John Woo, although his career predates both. More fitting comparisons would be Sam Fuller, Sergio Leone, Sam Peckinpah, Anthony Mann and Stanley Kubrick.
Finding copies of Fukasaku's films on home video in the United States was no easy task. Aside from a few random titles, you'd be lucky if you could get your hands on a grainy bootleg with bad subtitles. But all of that is about to change, as some of Fukasaku's most classic films have finally arrived on DVD, with more scheduled for release in the upcoming months.
Street Mobster (1972)--Some of you may have seen this one under its other title, Modern Yakuza: Outlaw Killer. This is Fukasaku at his best, directing a revolutionary film that redefined the yakuza genre the way Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch redefined the western. Hardboiled tough guy Bunta Sugawara stars as Isamu Okita, a psychotic street thug born on the day Japan surrendered in World War II. After getting out of prison, Isamu forms his own gang of punks and goes to battle against the yakuza. Eventually, the yakuza recruit him, hoping to control and harness his violent outbursts. But Isamu is a nihilistic madman who cannot and will not be controlled. The result is a nonstop explosion of kinetic action and violence. And while you're at it, don't miss the incredible Graveyard of Honor (1975), inspired by the life of notorious Japanese gangster Rikio Ishikawa (Tetsuya Watari), which puts most American gangster movies to shame.
Shogun's Samurai: Conspiracy of the Yagyu Clan (1978)--Best known for films depicting morally corrupt gangsters engaged in deadly conflicts over money and power, Fukasaku turned his masterful eye toward the 17th-century feudal system and the bloody battle of the Tokugawa brothers for the Shogunate. But have no fear: The complex power struggles and betrayals that define his yakuza movies are all here in this complex period piece. Although not directly adapted from the work of Shakespeare like Akira Kurosawa's Throne of Blood or Ran, Shogun's Samurai is definitely Shakespearean in its scope. The film is epic in every way imaginable, with beautiful cinematography and incredible battle sequences. But the film is driven by the powerful performances of the cast, which includes such legendary performers as Toshiro Mifune, Kinnosuke Yorozuya, Tetsuro Tanba and incomparable tough guy Sonny Chiba. Fans of either samurai films or director Kinji Fukasaku will not be disappointed.