Rikio Ishikawa was born in 1924 and went on to become a yakuza member in post-war Japan whilst it was occupied by the U.S. His turbulent life was turned into a novel by Goro Fujita, entitled ‘Graveyard of Honor’. It was fairly popular (I presume) so got picked up by Toei for a film adaptation. With Kinji Fukasaku’s Battles Without Honor and Humanity series helping ‘jitsuroku eiga’ (translated as ‘actual record films’) gain traction in the mid-70s, the director was hired to bring the novel to the big screen.

Fukasaku’s film was quite successful and remains highly-regarded, being listed as the joint 38th greatest Japanese film of all time in a 1999 poll of critics and writers over at Kinema Junpo. It was also well-remembered enough for Takashi Miike to revisit Fujita’s novel and make another version of the story in 2002, with his own Graveyard of Honor.

Arrow Video, no strangers to the work of Fukasaku and Miike, have made the wise and welcome decision to combine the two directors’ versions of Graveyard of Honor into a cleverly titled Graveyards of Honor set. I snapped up a copy to review and my thoughts follow.

Graveyard of Honor (1975)

Director: Kinji Fukasaku
Screenplay: Tatsuhiko Kamoi, Hirô Matsuda, Fumio Kônami
Based on a Novel by: Goro Fujita
Starring: Tetsuya Watari, Tatsuo Umemiya, Yumi Takigawa, Eiji Gô, Noboru Andô, Hajime Hana
Country: Japan
Running Time: 94 min
Year: 1975

Made in between episodes of Fukasaku’s New Battles Without Honor and Humanity series, as well as other crime movies by the director for Toei, the production was reportedly quite rushed due to a tight deadline and nationwide strikes causing issues. Despite these circumstances, the prolific director delivered the goods and we’re left with this fine, fairly authentic yakuza saga.

Rikio Ishikawa here is played by Tetsuya Watari and we’re initially introduced to the character through a montage of photos and audio interviews with members of the public that knew the real Rikio as a youngster. We’re told he was like a balloon, swiftly rising to the top but destined to burst.

Indeed, the story sees Rikio, who is initially a member of the Kawada family, throwing his weight around, attacking and stealing from a rival gang and raiding a gambling den. During the latter, he meets the geisha Cheiko (Yumi Takigawa), with whom he forms a troubled relationship (he rapes her on their second meeting but they eventually marry).

Rikio takes things too far though when he almost kills Aoki, a rival gang leader who is associated with the bigger Shinwa family too. Rikio’s boss, Kawada, scolds him for this, as he’s worried this unwarranted action will cause an expensive gang war, which is particularly unwanted as a Kawada associate, Nozu, is running for parliament.

When Nozu loses the election soon after, he too scolds Rikio but the unhinged gangster’s answer to this is to blow up Nozu’s car. Rikio is punished for this and asked to commit yubitsume (cut off part of a finger in repentance) but instead he gets drunk and stabs Kawada before turning himself in to the police.

Attempting to kill one’s own boss is unforgivable among the yakuza, so Rikio is banished from all Tokyo families for 10 years. He heads to Osaka after leaving prison, where he becomes addicted to meth (according to the commentary – I thought it was heroin when watching). This drug addiction and his relentlessly nihilistic tendencies soon lead him back to Tokyo, only a year or so into his banishment, so his life is put in danger. His only support comes from his blood brother Imai ( Tatsuo Umemiya), now a gang leader, and his long-suffering wife Cheiko. These relationships are eventually driven to breaking point too, however, through Rikio’s ever-more-ill-judged actions.

Graveyard of Honor is very much in a similar vein to Fukasaku’s Battles Without Honor and Humanity series and other true-life crime sagas, such as the earlier Street Mobster. With all of these, he wanted to move away from the chivalrous yakuza movies of old where our heroes were honourable and fought for what was right, despite being on the wrong side of the law. With his documentary-style opening sequence here and captions, documents and voiceover throughout, explaining the facts of the story, Fukasaku is keen to present his film as a ‘genuine’ account of what happened in the yakuza world at the time.

Also aiding this naturalism is a gritty, handheld camera style that will be familiar to anyone who’s seen any of the rest of the director’s 70s output. Flinging the camera wildly around, pitching it at crazy angles during the action scenes, the film has a raw, unbridled energy that I adore in his work. Fukasaku also crams his frames with activity, squeezing side-actors and extras into shots whenever possible, making for a lively, occasionally exhausting experience. This effect is wisely avoided in a couple of key moments though, for instance, when Rikio has his first hit of meth and he lays motionless with his female companion. When the character’s key ties are severed towards the end too, we get less crowded frames, emphasising the loneliness of Rikio.

The largely busy and frantic nature of the film can make it a little difficult to follow at times though. There are so many gang members on screen it can be tough to know who’s who and Rikio’s actions can be more than a little puzzling. This is partly to do with the wild, occasionally confusing style but also seems to be intentional, casting Rikio as an enigmatic figure who doesn’t know how to control his primal impulses. The story hops around a lot in the final act though, feeling a little messy, but this seems justified by the state Rikio is in during this portion of the film.

There’s a lot of violence in Graveyard of Honor, with action scenes chaotically presented for added realism, rather than the carefully choreographed stand-offs of old. The fights get bloody as they go on too, with a veritable flood of the red stuff in the memorable climax to the film.

Despite all this violence, Fukasaku still manages to evoke sympathy for his protagonist. Rikio’s actions are almost always reprehensible, but there’s a glimmer of humanity in there that comes out in the final act, albeit hidden behind a drugged-up haze, providing a subtle poignancy to the closing segments of the film. Watari’s impressive performance helps. Reportedly he was very ill during production, so his gaunt look in the latter half wasn’t all makeup.

Overall then, it’s a grim and violent crime drama that begins in typical but thrilling Fukasaku fashion then takes a particularly bleak, nihilistic tone as it moves on. The final act feels a tad clumsy perhaps, but it has enough touching and powerful moments to leave you satisfied, if a little drained.

Graveyard of Honor (2002)

Director: Takashi Miike
Screenplay: Shigenori Takechi
Based on a Novel by: Goro Fujita
Starring: Ryo Amamiya, Narimi Arimori, Ryôsuke Miki, Gorô Kishitani,
Country: Japan
Running Time: 131 min
Year: 2002

Takashi Miike’s take on Graveyard of Honor was made in the dying days of Japan’s V-cinema boom, in which Miike was flourishing. With the wild, off-beat nature of much of his work at the time, in films such as Ichi the Killer, The Happiness of the Katakuris and Visitor Q, it seems like an odd choice for the director to tackle a remake of a true-life story, but Miike rose to the challenge and I believe it’s among the strongest of his films I’ve seen (though I must admit I haven’t seen much of his intimidating oeuvre).

Though the key beats of the story in this adaptation are similar to those in Fukasaku’s film, Miike and writer Shigenori Takechi make some key changes to prevent the 2002 Graveyard of Honor from being a straight-up retread. Most notably, the time-period is altered from post-war to the late-80s and early-90s. This gives the film a sociopolitical subtext with the bursting of Japan’s economic bubble at the time in which it’s set.

Another change comes from the offset, where (after a hint of the final scene is shown) Rikio (Ryo Amamiya) is incidentally entered into a yakuza family at a high level. This occurs in a blackly comic scene where a gangster (played by Miike himself) enters all-guns-blazing into the restaurant in which Rikio works as a dishwasher, and the young man swiftly dispatches him by smashing him over the head with a chair. This sequence also helps Miike make a statement about the sort of film you’re about to see, as the unnamed gangster is wielding two guns and shown in slow motion at one point, mirroring the John Woo-esque style popular at the time. In quickly smashing this character over the head with a blunt object, Miike seems to be telling you not to expect a glossy action film glamorising criminal violence.

Indeed, that’s not what we get. Similarly to Fukasaku’s film, we see Rikio soon make rash decisions among the yakuza world, landing him in jail, where he meets Kôzô Imamura (Ryôsuke Miki) and the pair become ‘brothers’. As before, Rikio also forges a violent, one-sided relationship with Chieko (Narimi Arimori), who’s a hostess here, rather than a geisha.

When Rikio is out of jail, his erratic, violent behaviour culminates in the attempted murder of his yakuza boss, Sawada (Shingo Yamashiro) and, as before, he becomes a drug addict (this time heroin). Imamura does his best to protect his sworn brother from the ensuing attacks from the Sawada clan but Rikio doesn’t listen to Imamura’s advice and ends up turning against him in his drug-fuelled downward spiral. He drags Chieko down with him too, turning her to drugs as the world around them crumbles.

As mentioned, this seems like a bit of a diversion for Miike, at least from his work at the time (his later career is a different story). The film still has plenty of brutal, graphically violent scenes, like his earlier work, but the overriding tone is bleaker and the drama hits as hard as any of the violence. It’s a much grittier, realistic crime film than his more wild, almost cartoonish better-known work of that era. In this sense, it shares many similarities to Fukasaku’s film, but it has its own distinct tone and pace. Whereas the 1975 version is frantic and intense, the 2002 film has a steadier pace (reflected in the extended running time) and moodier tone, aided by a brooding, spare jazz score.

Miike’s film feels a little more polished too. It still has a gritty, naturalistic look, but the story is more clearly constructed and easier to follow, aided by its added length. As part of this, it felt like Rikio’s actions were given a touch more justification here, at least in the first half before the drugs take over. This makes for a film that’s easier to digest, though I felt like it lost some of the character’s enigmatic quality.

The relationship with Chieko is given more screen time here too, though strangely I didn’t feel the connection as closely as I did in the poignant latter scenes of the original film. I didn’t get the sense Rikio loved her as deeply in this later iteration, though her character is a little more fleshed out.

So, though the two films are very similar on the surface, they take subtly different approaches that make a big difference overall. They’re both great in their own ways. This later version has a more measured, clear through-line and even more shocking violence but loses a few character touches and the energy I preferred in the previous take. Overall though, despite generally leaning towards the furious style of Fukasaku, I think I’d be inclined to say I slightly prefer Miike’s film in the long run. It’s a marked departure from his usual style, painting quite a harrowing yet believably bleak portrayal of a troubled soul who is fuelled purely by his impulses.

Graveyards of Honor is out now in a Limited Edition 2-disc Blu-ray set, released by Arrow Video. Both films look great, with detailed, sharp pictures and natural grain retention. Audio comes through nicely too.

There are plenty of special features included in the set. Here’s the list:

LIMITED EDITION CONTENTS:

– Exclusive two-disc set featuring two different versions of Graveyard of Honor: the 1975 film by Kinji Fukasaku and the 2002 film by Takashi Miike
– Limited edition packaging featuring newly commissioned artwork by Ian MacEwan
– Illustrated collector’s booklet featuring new writing on both films by Jasper Sharp

DISC ONE – GRAVEYARD OF HONOR (1975):

– High Definition Blu-ray™ (1080p) presentation
– Original lossless Japanese PCM 1.0 mono soundtrack
– Optional English subtitles
– New audio commentary by author and critic Mark Schilling
– Like a Balloon: The Life of a Yakuza, a new visual essay by critic and Projection Booth podcast host Mike White
– A Portrait of Rage, an archival appreciation of Fukasaku and his films, featuring interviews with filmmakers, scholars, and friends of the director
– On the Set with Fukasaku, an archival interview with assistant director Kenichi Oguri
– Theatrical trailer
– Imagery gallery
– Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Ian MacEwan

DISC TWO – GRAVEYARD OF HONOR (2002):

– High Definition Blu-ray™ (1080p) presentation
– Original lossless Japanese PCM 2.0 stereo soundtrack
– Optional English subtitles
– New audio commentary by Miike biographer Tom Mes
– New visual essay by author and critic Kat Ellinger
– Archival “interview special” featuring Miike and cast members Goro Kishitani and Narimi Arimori
– Archival “making-of” featurette
– Archival “making-of” teaser
– Archival press release interviews featuring Miike, Kishitani and Arimori
– Archival “premiere special” featuring Miike, Kishitani and Arimori
– Theatrical trailer
– Imagery gallery
– Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Ian MacEwan

Both commentaries are great. As is often the case with critic/expert commentaries, I owe them a great deal in the construction of this review. They delve into both production history and analysis, so a good amount of ground is covered.

The new visual essays are vital too, placing the films within the context of their genres, eras and the body of work of their directors. They’re also nicely put together, with plenty of clips from Fukasaku and Miike’s other work to illustrate the points being made and make you eager to dig deeper into their back catalogues. It reminded me, in particular, that I haven’t seen nearly enough of Miike’s films (mind you, he’s made over 100!).

From the archival material, ‘A Portrait of Rage’ and the ‘interview special’ stand out. The former gives an informative overview of Fukasaku’s work and the latter is a promo so has some back-slapping but also contains some valuable insight into Miike’s process and intentions behind certain scenes and choices. The other archival pieces are worth a watch too, particularly the interview with Kenichi Oguri, though they’re shorter, so a little less informative.

I didn’t get the booklet to look at, unfortunately, but this is still an easy recommendation, being a pair of great films backed up by numerous worthwhile extras. Great job, Arrow.

* Please note – the stills used in this review are not indicative of the picture quality of the discs themselves

Graveyards of Honor - Arrow
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Editor of films and videos as well as of this site. On top of his passion for film, he also has a great love for music and his family.

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