Yakuza films, as a genre, have evolved exponentially since they first emerged in the silent movie era of the Japanese film industry. Initially depicted as sympathetic Robin Hood-like characters who were forced to live their lives as outlaws, it wasn’t until the 1970s that the violent, brutish image of Yakuza as we know it came to be. Immortalised in the films of the Jitsuroku (or ‘actual record’) era, these productions portrayed yakuza as ruthless thugs whose only goal was to fulfil their own desires, whilst still being fiercely loyal to their gang.
Kinji Fukasaku brought the genre back into the mainstream with his expertly crafted Yakuza-centric masterpieces, such as Battles Without Honour and Humanity, and it is thanks to his films that actors like Bunta Sugawara were propelled into the limelight. The 1970s proved to be the peak of the genre, as Fukasaku’s documentary style of filmmaking, use of garish music, and hard-hitting performances from the cast made his work instantly stand out within the industry. While the film’s topical presence and ground-breaking narratives, which were often based on fact, helped to solidify what we know of Yakuza, even to this day.
The Blood of Wolves harks back to this exceptional era of filmmaking, taking inspiration from them and adapting the genre to fit the modern day. Featuring a noticeably dark and fictional narrative, Kazuya Shiraishi’s new film provides a close look at the relationship between the Yakuza and police in Hiroshima, 1988. Set prior to the introduction of the Anti-Organised Crime law, The Blood of Wolves is rife with police corruption, cruel violence, and gang warfare. Shown to us through the eyes of Detective Shuichi Hioka (Tori Matsuzaka), we -much like the rookie cop- are thrown head-first into this brutal world.
Hioka has been assigned to work with Shogo Ogami (Koji Yakusho), a no-nonsense detective who is rumoured to be in the pockets of the Yakuza. The pair begin to investigate the disappearance of a bank clerk, and through their thorough inquiry Hioka quickly comes to realise what it takes to be a police officer in the age of gangsters. Ogami doesn’t care for the rules, the law, or even the wrath of the Yakuza, all he wants is to find out the truth, and he’ll stop at nothing to get it. As they delve deeper into their investigation, the conflict between Hiroshima’s rival gangs begins to heighten and it doesn’t take long before everyone ends up in the firing line.
Tori Matsuzaka and Koji Yakusho excel in the leading roles, complementing each other’s performances with their different styles of acting and fierce chemistry on screen. Where Matsuzaka depicts his character as naïve, Yakusho is confident and overbearing, and it works perfectly for the film. They’re the ying to each other’s yang, and it is thanks to both actor’s excellent performances that we can fall in love with their characters so easily, and support them as they try to tackle their harsh predicament. Yoko Maki provides an arresting performance as Madam Rikako Takagi, while Yosuke Eguchi looks remarkably like Bunta Sugawara whilst playing gang boss Moritaka Ichinose.
Kazuya Shiraishi pull no punches with this extremely violent, and yet insanely brilliant, Yakuza film. From the get-go we are presented with a brutal interrogation scene, in which the bank clerk Hioka and Ogami are searching for is questioned, beaten, and even force-fed pig excrement by a gang until he tells them what they want to know. It’s one hell of a way to start a film, one that makes it clear exactly what the audience are in for in the next 126 minutes. It’s difficult to even keep your eyes on the screen at times, but the film’s ruthless narrative is exactly what makes it so exciting.
Written by Roxy Simons
All photos © Toei