If those of you who read this column on a regular basis haven't figured it out yet, Kinji Fukasaku is one of my all-time favorite directors. Fukasaku's career spanned five decades and spawned more than 60 films, including Graveyard of Honor, Battle Royale and the classic Battles Without Honor series. He is regarded as one of Japan's greatest directors, and if his work were seen more outside of his native country he would easily be considered one of the greatest directors in the world.
Best known for his yakuza films, Fukasaku reinvented the Japanese gangster genre with a series of gritty films in the 1970s. Before he turned the genre upside-down, Fukasaku had made slightly more conventional genre films like Wolves, Pigs & Men and Japan Organized Crime Boss. But in 1970 the director began production on Sympathy for the Underdog, which would prove to be the transition between the traditional chivalrous yakuza films of the past and the morally corrupt antiheroes that were to come in films like Street Mobster.
Originally meant to be a follow-up to his earlier Organized Crime Boss, Fukasaku reunited with lead actor Koji Tsuruta for a film with many similarities to their earlier collaboration, but with a unique style all its own. Tsuruta stars as Gunji, a yakuza gang leader released from prison after 10 years. Gunji finds that his gang has long since broken up, while his key cronies have attempted to make it in the legitimate world, slinging noodles and raising families. Gunji and his men re-form the old gang, but with all the territories in mainland Japan overrun by different yakuza families, they decide to make of go of it in Okinawa. They quickly build a reputation on the island but soon find that the same deadly battles and rivalries that plague the yakuza on the mainland are also found on Okinawa.
In making Sympathy for the Underdog, Fukasaku was heavily influenced by Gillo Pontecorvo's seminal Battle of Algiers, a film that dealt with resistance in the face of occupation. Fukasaku himself was addressing American influence in Japanese culture, as Okinawa was the site of lingering military occupation by the United States. But even more than the inspiration culled from Battle of Algiers, Sympathy for the Underdog draws much from Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch. Tsuruta is clearly cast in the William Holden role, while his gang is very much like the aging outlaws struggling to keep pace with a world that has left them behind. There are even two pivotal scenes straight out of Peckinpah's classic, including a bloody showdown between Gunji and his men and a small army of yakuza that has come to take over their territory.
Although it's not my personal favorite of Fukasaku's films, Sympathy for the Underdog is still a classic. And when watched in context with his other work, it shows a clear defining point when a master filmmaker made a serious transition in tone, content and theme, changing with him the face of modern cinema.