Libmonster ID: JP-1231
Author(s) of the publication: E. L. KATASONOVA


Doctor of Historical Sciences Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences

Keywords: Japanese cinema, samurai cinema, gangster cinema, yakuza-eiga, ninke, sukeban, bosozoku

Gangster films are one of the most popular genres of post-war Japanese cinema, which brought international fame to such outstanding directors as Seijun Suzuki, Kinji Fukasaku, Takeshi Kitano and others. It is associated with the names of stars of the Japanese cinema screen-Bunta Sugawara, Junko Fuji, Ken Takakura (perhaps the main "gangster" of Japanese cinema, who passed away quite recently) and many others. Their long and highly successful film career is closely linked to the history of gangster cinema, which coincided with the crisis for Japanese cinema in the 1960s.

After the" golden age " that Japanese cinema experienced in the 1950s, Japanese directors found themselves in a creative dead end. This was the time of absolute domination of television, which began broadcasting regularly in Japan in 1953. Since then, the blue screens seemed to hold thousands and then millions of viewers forever. Home movie screenings soon replaced their usual trips to the cinema, became a comfortable pastime with the family.

There is a massive outflow of viewers from cinemas. Neither the wide screen, which was first installed in Japan in 1957, nor the large-format films that began to be shown in 1961 helped film distributors. A sharp decline was also observed in film production,and the share of foreign films in the national box office increased, with about 60% of them being US-made films.


To save the national cinema, Japanese filmmakers were forced to go into serious artistic search for topical themes, exciting plots and new original forms. What was needed was something different from what was offered in the cinema by the great but never fully understood Akira Kurosawa or the new wave rebels Nagisa Oshima, Shohei Imamura and others, who delved into almost documentary studies of the social problems of Japanese society.

Soon these searches led to an unprecedented flourishing of genre cinema, one of the most popular areas of which were gangster films-yakuza-eiga, once designed exclusively for Japanese audi-

* The 1950s were the most successful and fruitful period in the history of Japanese cinema. During these years, the Japanese film industry is finally developing along the American model and rapidly developing, which has put Japan on the first place in the world in film production. Outstanding directors A. Kurosawa, K. Mizoguchi and many others, whose films receive prizes at international film festivals, are working with success.

page 71

Today they are well-known even outside the country. And it's not just the big names of their creators, the yakuza manga genre itself has an extraordinary expressiveness, dynamism of the plot, originality of the characters ' images, and the word Yakuza itself intrigues the audience with its criminal romance.

This genre originated in Japan in the pre-war years and was closely connected with the history of the so-called samurai cinema and its most popular entertainment subgenres kangeki and chambara-dynamic fencing films close to the American Western. Usually, these films were adaptations of historical dramas from the Kabuki Theater repertoire. The close connection with traditions from the very beginning gave Japanese gangster films a pronounced national flavor, strikingly distinguishing Japanese film samples from their American counterpart.

The first appearance of the Yakuza hero on the Japanese screen occurred in the 1920s and 1930s, when the medieval canons of historical drama began to give way to the search for new forms and new characters born of modern life and the influence of Western theater and cinema. This was the period of the birth of the so-called reformist historical drama, the gallery of images of which was replenished with new characters-people who are free-spirited and do not recognize any prohibitions in life. These are Yakuza, vagabonds, traveling circus performers, ruined samurai ronin, small-time crooks, etc., who quickly broke into the Japanese screen. And the samurai themselves in Japanese cinema, traditionally the personification of nobility and fortitude until recently and usually acting together with their loyal vassals, increasingly began to acquire the image of rebellious and cynical rebels-loners.

This new on-screen character type first appeared in Rokuhei Susukita's script for the film The Master of Engraving (Ukiyo-si, 1923). Not only the main character, but also the central scenes of sword fights were completely unusual for Japanese viewers. They were shot on the model of American "action films" - dynamic, with a quick change of frames, which allows you to give the fights a special sharpness and tension and cause the viewer an emotional shock. These scenes no longer had anything in common with the stylized "ballet moves" inherited from Kabuki, there was more violence on the screen, and realism was sacrificed to the beauty of the form.

According to Japanese film historian Sato Tadao: "A true samurai is someone who fights for his pride and honor, so the real examples of the samurai spirit do not necessarily have to be representatives of the military class. People who have these spiritual qualities and find themselves in difficult circumstances are much more sympathetic, which was one of the reasons for the popularity of films about bandits, Yakuza during feudalism. " 1

Critics called the characters of Susukita "nihilist bandits", and when they were played by the famous actor Tsumasaburo Bando in 1924, the image of a suffering rebel, not understood by his entourage, firmly entered the gallery of heroes of Japanese cinema.2


The concept of Yakuza was born in Japan in the XVII century. and in literal translation means a combination of numbers " 893 " - a losing combination in a popular card game in the past. The first Yakuza, or, figuratively speaking, "people of 893", were also losers, however, not in cards, but in life. Without a roof over their heads or a means of subsistence, they wandered through the villages and earned their living by playing cards. Many of them came from peasant and artisan families, as well as impoverished Ronin samurai. Being at heart noble romantics, but in reality quite good swordsmen, they were always ready to come to the aid of the same as them, ordinary people who suffered from the arbitrariness of samurai and officials.

A sort of Japanese Robin Hoods, who even had their own set of moral rules-ninkedo, somewhat resembling the code of samurai honor-bushido. Moreover, in the customs of the Yakuza, the ban on interfering in the lives of ordinary people was always strictly observed.

However, as film critic Tadao Sato notes, "the Yakuza of the feudal era were just bandits, not free people of Ninkedo"3. Such a rebirth occurred only later - in the XIX century. But the Yakuza people still retained for a long time this almost mythological status of the people's defender, which originated in medieval Japan. However, by the middle of the 20th century, the Yakuza's past noble deeds and their image of just criminals had finally faded into legend. By now, the Yakuza represented the world of modern crime - organized crime that had spread across the country, rapidly merging with business and politics and becoming one of the most acute socio-political problems in Japan. Filmmakers, sensing the urgency of the problem, immediately turned to this topic, starting mass production of gangster films. Both a kind of social order of the task of fighting crime and clear guidelines for commercial success were taken into account, because this kind of theme gave ample opportunities for building exciting detective stories and was always in great demand among Japanese viewers.


A new wave of Yakuza films began in the 1960s and lasted for a decade. The success of these films was unprecedented in the history of Japanese cinema. They took the dominant position of the old "historical drama" and even noticeably pushed samurai cinema, despite the fact that both genres are very close in plot construction, expressed similar feelings and invariably had a tragic ending - a decisive battle in which blood and death were poetized.

However, with the advent of the 1960s, both the viewer and the audience changed.

page 72

yakuza-eiga theme. Now the creators of crime films were forced to focus on a new social group of Japanese-mostly single men who came from the provinces to large cities in search of work.

Japan experienced a period of high economic and industrial growth in the 1960s. The opening of new urban enterprises and the modernization of old factories and factories were constantly experiencing an acute need for new labor, while the village still lived in many respects its patriarchal life. Thousands of young rural residents rushed to the big cities with the dream of a new secure life, leaving their families and friends in distant villages. When they got a job, they regretted the lost joy of human companionship and the warmth of their home. In order to somehow brighten up the bachelor life and forget their loneliness, these provincials went to cinemas, where they plunged into the world of dreams and felt attached to some group of people close in spirit or life problems.

Looking at the screen, they often identified their hard life with the fate of the lonely Yakuza. After all, the Yakuza were led to the path of crime by the same disconnection from the outside world and the same desire to become a member of a small, closely united group of people who strive for a free life.

Yakuza films offered a young man alone and lost in the big city the kind of life-saving utopia he needed most. And the more unreal it was, the more it seemed to the lonely people who came to the cinemas, a beautiful ideal, a hidden dream of a lost home and human communication. The writers deliberately constructed Yakuza-eiga plots to justify Yakuza violence, presenting it as the response of ordinary people to the oppression of large enterprises, which, caring only for profit, forget about their employees, making people an appendage of machines... The audience applauded heartily.

These films and their ideas were in demand then, in the conditions of violent public unrest that swept the country in the 1960s, by almost all political forces in Japan. Conservatives and nationalists saw the noble Yakuza films as praising the Japanese values of the past. The famous writer and playwright Yukio Mishima compared them to ancient tragedies.4 And students and left-wing activists saw fictional characters as fearless fighters for the interests of ordinary people. Kinji Fukasaku, one of the preeminent directors of the genre, frankly admitted: "For the rebels of the 60s, Yakuza films were an emotional release." 5

Attempts to romanticize the image of the Yakuza in Japan also responded to the desire of representatives of organized crime to rehabilitate themselves in the eyes of society. They invested a lot of money in gangster films and secretly participated in the film production, at the same time and controlled it. Their power over the world of cinema was so great that when the police tried to prevent the release of one of the crime films on the screen, the son of the famous head of the most influential Yamaguchi-gumi clan, Mitsuru Taoka, instantly solved all the problems. And the Japanese mafia loved to play patronage, reverently treated their idols, including the idol of Japanese crime cinema Ken Takakura, who brilliantly played noble gangsters in dozens of films of the Toei film studio.


Especially popular in those years was the most popular subgenre of Yakuza-eiga-ninke. The plot of these films could develop in different historical eras, but their essential feature was the medieval morality of Yakuza-Ninkedo and fierce colorful sword fights or pistol shooting, accompanied by blood and death. Fashion for these films began in 1963. Although they were shot at all the leading studios in the country, their main producer was the Toei studio.

Most of the Toei films are set in the twentieth century. The main character is a noble Yakuza who lives according to the principles of the Ninkedo code, and therefore embodies the old formation with its nostalgic ideas of good and justice for the Japanese. His life is an eternal unequal and brutal battle with opponents-modern Yakuza, symbolizing a new criminal world and a new social morality. Finally, the inevitable happy end: the victory of a lone wrestler who, armed only with swords or a pistol, defeats groups of bandits thanks to his high spirit and fighting skills.

If the yakuza hero of old movies is doomed to certain death in a clash with some large gang or to an existence even more lonely than before, then the hero of modern Yakuza films does not die in open combat. New films actively promoted the idea that the struggle of even the smallest group with a much larger criminal structure can be won - high goals lead to victory.

Koji Shundo, who was considered to be closely connected with the criminal world, was one of the first to produce such films at the Toei Film Studio. It is known, for example, that during the Second World War, he was a regular in gambling dens controlled by the mafia, and even had a close acquaintance with one of the "godfathers". However, Xundo himself preferred to keep silent about this side of his biography, and therefore the plots for his films usually chose past times, fanned by the spirit of nostalgia and romance. Soon, thanks to the films of Koji Shundo, the Toei film Studio became the leader in the production of gangster films, and the ninke subgenre itself became the winner of the Japanese film distribution.

page 73

The studio authorities decided to temporarily abandon the filming of samurai action films, leaving them to other film companies, and throw all their best creative forces into creating the most popular and profitable yakuza eiga in those years. Among them was Eiichi Kudo, an unsurpassed master of battle scenes and a well-known director of samurai films. After all, Kudo came from an old samurai family. But the gangster paintings, especially in the Ninke style, which glorified the Yakuza code of honor, seemed to him to be open hypocrisy.

"All these ninke's," Kudo said, " I've never been attracted to them... it was much more important to find a realistic approach to the topic"6. In his dilogy " History of the underworld of Japan "(1967-1968) Kudo even invited former Yakuza Noboku Ando, who also comes from an old samurai family, to play one of the main roles. By that time, the famous artist had already completely changed the criminal world to the world of cinema, but continued to play the Yakuza on the screen. Kudo was attracted to Ando not only by his specific and expressive appearance and playing style, but also by his extensive criminal experience, which helped bring a great deal of realism to this largely fictional story.

"It was important for me to show," said the director, " how gangs were formed, how gangsters unite for war, how such a life affects their existence... they all want a simple relationship, love. And this leads to abominable acts and cruel actions. " 7

Especially successful was the first part of the dilogy called "Blood Feud" (1967), where the director told the story of the friendship of an elderly policeman (Junzaburo Ben) and a young Yakuza (Noboku Ando), which gradually develops into their deep mutual dislike and ends with an unexpected but very predictable breakup. Thus, the film combines the features of two genres: gangster cinema and psychological drama, flavored with a fair amount of realism.

The director himself saw in this film the prototype of a new direction of Japanese gangster cinema-jitsuroku, which assumes the maximum approximation to the documentary narrative. But to make a real revolution in the field of yakuza-eiga, destroying all the outdated canons of its ninke subgenre, and to make jitsuroku the most striking phenomenon of Japanese crime cinema, Kudo never fully succeeded.

This will be done by his old friend Kinji Fukasaku, whose films in the genre of jitsuroku have gained worldwide fame. And Kudo himself, by the end of his life, was completely disillusioned with Japanese gangster movies, admitting that even Takeshi Kitano's films make him sleepy, and became a fan of American action movies.


Kudo was far from alone in his desire to go beyond the rigid canons of ninke. Another leading master of gangster cinema, Teruo Ishii, also sought to make films spectacular and dynamic, in the style of Western films, combining surreal imagery with commercially profitable plots. Ishii's most successful films of the 1960s were Gang vs Gang (1962) and Abashishiri Prison (1965) (more than 70 films were made in total). And by the 1970s, he had completely switched to a new direction of pink violence - a rattling combination of gangster tapes with eroticism.

Nevertheless, creative experiments, despite the fading audience interest in gangster movies, never stopped. Director Tai Kato and a group of his colleagues from the Toei studio played the role of the next subversives of the Ninke canons. The main reason for their criticism of Ninke's films was "an overly simplistic and over-saturated view of the problems of organized crime"8. That is why the main task they saw, first of all, in creating sharp, original and non-standard plots of gangster cinema. At the same time, it was supposed to focus on the search for new artistic means both in the field of directing and acting.

Soon Tai Kato and his creative associates tried to turn these ideas into reality, starting to shoot together the film "A female player named" Red Peony " (1968-1972). So for the first time in the criminal films of the Toei studio, which for many years specialized in the production of films of the "male" genre, Yakuza friends, their wives and widows appeared, who fought for their husbands and lovers, almost as good as men. Moreover, in these pictures, spectacular shots with violent female battles were artfully combined with no less frank and impressive sex scenes.

In these roles, actresses Junko Fuji and Shima Iwasita became famous. But the success of these films was short-lived, although the idea of female participation in the plots of gangster films was quickly picked up by other directors.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s. Japan was shaken by the daring crimes of girls ' criminal groups, which became a challenge to the male criminal world. They received the name sukeban, which literally means "female bosses", and formed one of the first youth subcultures.

These" new " Japanese women, dressed in strict school uniforms and armed with sharp razors and heavy chains, usually gathered near railway stations and committed shoplifting, pickpocketing and unprecedented acts of violence. Even in their own circle, they strictly observed almost prison discipline, which did not allow disobedience to the elder and communication with the opposite sex. What can we say about the reaction from ordinary residents of nearby cities, when even the Yakuza treated them with great respect and even Neko-

page 74

with some misgivings. What's not a crime movie theme?

So in the walls of the Toei studio, a new subgenre of Yakuza-eiga-sukeban-emerged, which was mercilessly exploited by directors who gradually supplemented it with elements of action films, thrillers and even eroticism. One of the earliest examples of this new subgenre is Sukeban Blues: The Queen Bee's Counterattack (1971), which tells the story of the complicated relationship between the Sukeban female youth gang and the local Yakuza. Of the more recent popular works of this genre, the film "Sukeban-prosecutor" (2006) by the famous director Kenta Fukasaku, the son of the late Kinji Fukasaku, should be mentioned. In the center of the plot is the fate of a girl recruited by the political organization " K " and sent to an elite school to prevent a terrorist act there.

Another film "Sukeban blues: revenge", or" Guerilla war of the boss girl " (1972), tells about the friendship and rivalry of two female criminal groups of motorcyclists and is another variation of sukeban. The fact is that in those years in Japan, sukeban was replaced by another mass semi-criminal youth subculture of bikers-bosozoku. Once upon a time, films starring James Dean and Marlon Brando sparked a whole biker movement in the West. In Japan, bikers who appeared, among other things, thanks to the same Western idols, soon became heroes not only of criminal reports, but also of crime films called bosozoku. And this is partly natural, since almost all of them, including girls, were characterized by a craving for theatrical effects and extravagant costumes. And the constant attention to them by the media and condemnation in society immediately created a scandalous reputation for bikers.

When bikers could no longer maintain a stable interest of the viewer in crime movies, the most win - win weapon was used-eroticism, and in combination with criminal plots in the style of sukeban. A vivid example of such films is "Sukeban Boy" (2006), an erotic comedy about the adventures of a young man who sneaks into a girls ' gymnasium under the guise of a new student and discovers many shocking secrets of the girl community.


Against the background of such a diverse Yakuza-eiga production, created within the walls of such a powerful film giant as Toei in those years, the contribution of other major film companies to the development of this genre looks much more modest. Nevertheless, each of them, following the then film trends and preserving its artistic specifics, created many bright original samples of Yakuza-eiga, among the directors of which should be named Seijun Suzuki, Yasuzo Masumura, Kazuo Ikehiro, Yasuharu Hasabe, etc. However, despite the best efforts of filmmakers, the popularity of gangster films in Japan was rapidly falling, which was largely due to the changes that took place in Japanese society.

First of all, the rapid economic leap that Japan has made and the growing welfare of the people, which led to drastic social changes, have made such stories little in demand by the general public, who are already beginning to forget about the difficult past. And the created myth of justice and nobility of the Yakuza already seemed ridiculous and false to many against the background of the increased criminal activity of the Japanese mafia, whose spheres of interest now stretched into the economic and political spheres.

And the turning point in the history of Yakuza-eiga was 1972. By this time, the ideals of the left-wing movement of the 1960s had already been forgotten, and the tragic end of democratic sentiments in society had come. The bloody crimes of the radical left: the brutal purge of their own ranks in the" Red Army"*, the hostage-taking organized by them, etc., alienated most of their former supporters from them. Of course, this did not increase public sympathy for the authorities, but from now on, protest movements were associated in the eyes of the public not with noble heroes of the past, but with ruthless cold-blooded murderers. Exploiting the romanticized image of the Yakuza was no longer possible for another reason. In 1970, Yukio Mishima committed ritual suicide in the name of restoring the pre-war imperial regime, thus finally undermining the population's idealistic perception of nationalist ideas.

Circumstances far removed from politics were also mixed in. In the same year, 1972, the legendary "Godfather" of Francis Ford Coppola was released on world screens, which was shown with great success in Japan. This film turned the Japanese people's ideas about crime cinema upside down. And after watching it, Japanese producers could not help but understand that Japanese films in the yakuza-eiga genre no longer stand up to competition from American cinema. A decent answer was required. And it wasn't long in coming. The Japanese response to the American "Godfather" was Kinji Fukasaku's famous film " Fights without Honor and Pity "(1973), today ranked among the highest achievements of Japanese culture of the XX century.

Thus began a new page in the history of Japanese gangster cinema, the brightest representative of which is the world-famous Takeshi Kitano. A separate article will be devoted to his fate and work.

* A Japanese left-wing organization established in 1971.

Tadao Sato. 1 Kino Yapanii [Cinema of Japan], Moscow, 1988, P. 38.

2 Ibid.

3 Ibid.

Denisov I. 4 Russkiy zhurnal [Russian Magazine]. Yakuza eiga. Japanese genre movies

5 Ibid.

Denisov I. 6 Japanese genre cinema. Yakuza eiga. Part 2 - post/119414/print/

7 Ibid.

6 Ibid.


Permanent link to this publication:

Similar publications: LJapan LWorld Y G


Sigura KawasakiContacts and other materials (articles, photo, files etc)

Author's official page at Libmonster:

Find other author's materials at: Libmonster (all the World)GoogleYandex

Permanent link for scientific papers (for citations):

E. L. KATASONOVA, JAPANESE GANGSTER FILMS: THEIR HEROES AND CREATORS // Tokyo: Japan (ELIB.JP). Updated: 08.12.2023. URL: (date of access: 25.06.2024).

Found source (search robot):

Publication author(s) - E. L. KATASONOVA:

E. L. KATASONOVA → other publications, search: Libmonster JapanLibmonster WorldGoogleYandex


Reviews of professional authors
Order by: 
Per page: 
  • There are no comments yet
Related topics
Sigura Kawasaki
Tokyo, Japan
121 views rating
08.12.2023 (199 days ago)
0 subscribers
0 votes
Related Articles
"There are also shifts in Japan." Slavic scholar and critic Mitsuyoshi Numano-on the development of literature in two countries (Interview)
6 hours ago · From Nikamura Nagasaki
13 hours ago · From Nikamura Nagasaki
Catalog: History Law 
14 hours ago · From Nikamura Nagasaki
15 hours ago · From Nikamura Nagasaki
16 hours ago · From Nikamura Nagasaki
Yesterday · From Nikamura Nagasaki
Lone Soldier Island
2 days ago · From Nikamura Nagasaki
3 days ago · From Nikamura Nagasaki
3 days ago · From Nikamura Nagasaki
3 days ago · From Nikamura Nagasaki

New publications:

Popular with readers:

News from other countries:

ELIB.JP - Japanese Digital Library

Create your author's collection of articles, books, author's works, biographies, photographic documents, files. Save forever your author's legacy in digital form. Click here to register as an author.
Library Partners


Editorial Contacts
Chat for Authors: JP LIVE: We are in social networks:

About · News · For Advertisers

Digital Library of Japan ® All rights reserved.
2023-2024, ELIB.JP is a part of Libmonster, international library network (open map)
Preserving the Japan heritage


US-Great Britain Sweden Serbia
Russia Belarus Ukraine Kazakhstan Moldova Tajikistan Estonia Russia-2 Belarus-2

Create and store your author's collection at Libmonster: articles, books, studies. Libmonster will spread your heritage all over the world (through a network of affiliates, partner libraries, search engines, social networks). You will be able to share a link to your profile with colleagues, students, readers and other interested parties, in order to acquaint them with your copyright heritage. Once you register, you have more than 100 tools at your disposal to build your own author collection. It's free: it was, it is, and it always will be.

Download app for Android