Saturday, June 19, 2010

Graveyard of Honor (2002)

Like I mentioned in the introductory post to this blog, it’s rare to find a movie in which the main character is the villain, but when you do, he’s usually likable in his own maverick way, or eventually finds redemption in one form or another (Christian Bale in American Psycho is one evil dude, but he's likable. Anakin Skywalker wasn't terribly likable as a whiny teenager, or as a dark helmet wearing villain, but he did find redemption eventually). However, rarer still is the movie in which the main character as villain not only has absolutely no redeemable qualities whatsoever, but also is thoroughly despicable in every way. Ishimatsu Rikuo, the main protagonist (or more accurately, antagonistic protagonist) in director Takashi Miike’s Graveyard of Honor (新仁義の墓場), is that character. Played with a quiet ferocity by Kishitani Goro, Ishimatsu is similar but different from Kishitani's portrayal of Mizoguchi in "Returner" - a slick badass Japanese sci-fi movie released the same year. Mizoguchi was a classic movie bad-guy, a cold blooded killer with a sarcastic swagger and delusions of grandeur. Ishimatsu isn't even that evolved - he's a fearless brute who takes what (and who) he wants, with no concept of consequences - more animal than human. Ishimatsu isn't your father's honorable rogue. Although Graveyard of Honor has all of the elements of the traditional Yakuza movie, it definitely plays out differently than a traditional Yakuza movie. Well, it ends like a lot of Yakuza movies, but the trip from A to B is a wild, crazy ride. Ostensibly a remake of director Kinji Fukusaku's 1975 film of the same name, it is much more a re-imagining.

Watching the above trailer, I realized something I always knew but never really thought about - the Japanese are great at a lot of things - building cars, anime, hentai tentacle-vomit-bondage porn, and robots, but they totally suck at making movie trailers. They can take any great movie and make it look crappy with really badly edited trailers. I don't think you can really get much of a feel for what's going on in the trailer other than good ole Ishimatsu wreaking havoc on people. But that's why I'm here.

Ishimatsu's start.

Director Miike follows typical convention up front. The movie starts at the end of the story, with the antagonistic protagonist Ishimatsu a prisoner in a jail cell, asking (telling) the guard to let him out to get some air and dry his blanket. The guard eventually agrees to let him out (WTF was he thinking?), and once he and the guard reaches the exit door, the guard is promptly beaten and knocked down the stairs. Ishimatsu goes outside, and climbs to the roof - and we flash back to the story of how he ended up in a jail cell with a wet blanket in the first place.

It turns out that Ishimatsu, a simple restaurant dishwasher, saved a Yakuza boss from an assassin, which gets him quickly inducted into the Yakuza gang, as well as quickly promoted - much to the chagrin of some of the other lieutenants. This quick induction and promotion with no true effort on Ishimatsu's part is probably as unfortunate for him as it turns out to be for everyone else. Somehow up until joining the Yakuza he has been able to keep himself under control and out of jail, and if he had been forced to start at the bottom and work his way up through the Yakuza hierarchy, he would have probably been forced to conform to said society. But suddenly finding himself in a position of power once he enters the criminal underworld where morality is subjective to say the least, whatever ties that kept him under control are gone - the beast is unleashed.

Ishimatsu starts as a loose cannon, but spirals downward steadily as the movie progresses, and this seems on the surface to be the main theme of the movie, and a favorite subject of director Miike's - the downward spiral. We follow a guy who is a sociopath of one variety or another (but without any attempts at charm or appearing normal - Ishimatsu doesn't even attempt to control himself) who essentially turns out to be too unpredictable even for the Yakuza. You get the feeling that he would be much more suited to a low level position of Yakuza thug, but being brought in at a higher level, there is little the other lieutenants can do to rein him in, and as things move forward he spirals downward spectacularly. Unlike Seiji in Miike's epic Yakuza film Yakuza Demon, there is no nobility in Ishimatsu's failure. True to form, and like any good soldier, he proves to be a bloodthirsty Yakuza. Ishimatsu, somewhat like the terminator, viciously stabs a man who owed his Yakuza boss money in a crowded gambling den in front of over a dozen witnesses, and then calmly walks out to the crowded streets of Tokyo, wiping his blood-soaked face and hands on his necktie. This gangster is definitely headed for the slammer.
  • Ishimatsu and Chieko.
If you have any doubts that Ishimatsu just ain't a good person, let me put those doubts to bed right now. The blood-soaked Ishimatsu finds his way to the woman who will later become his common-law wife, a hostess by the name of Chieko. Played by Arimori Narimi, Chieko looks haunted and perpetually shell-shocked, like a gazelle that just couldn't quite outrun the lion, and considering her first meeting with Ishimatsu resulted her being raped by him, it shouldn't be surprising. At her place, he gives her a very large stack of cash, and the blood-soaked Ishimatsu promptly rapes her again. Later on, while Ishimatsu is in jail, Chieko goes to visit him, and she brings the cash, attempting to return it to him. He tells her to keep it as her allowance. In a scene reminiscent of the pinnacle moment in Jerry Maguire, she asks, "What am I to you?", to which Ishimatsu replies, "My wife". This gangster cuts right to the chase, not a "You complete me" to be heard. She takes the cash and leaves, and when Ishimatsu finally gets out of the stir, she is there waiting for him - I guess he had her at "rape".
  • Ishimatsu and Imamura Kozo.
Oddly enough, it is in jail where we see a small glimpse of humanity in Ishimatsu. His time in jail is spent with a high level lieutenant from another gang, Imamura Kozo, played as low-key and amicable by Miki Ryosuke, a favorite of mine. Their shared status in the Yakuza seems to endear Ishimatsu to Imamura, although I can't say the reverse is also true - although the otherwise stone-faced Ishimatsu does show some glimpses of emotion in his conversations with Imamura, he proves time and again to base friendship on what the person in front of him can do for him at that moment. Much to his misfortune, Imamura doesn't pick up on this, and feels honor-bound to protect and defend Ishimatsu even when circumstances dictate that he should really be cutting all ties with him.
  • Ishimatsu and Kikkawa.
The third thread in Graveyard of Honor is Ishimatsu's relationship with his young protege, Kikkawa. Kikkawa starts out working for Ishimatsu directly, and is sort of a young nice-guy type Yakuza out of the gate. While Ishimatsu is cooling his heels in the joint, Kikkawa works his way up in the group, and is eventually forced to harden when he is tasked with hunting his former friend and boss down when he forcibly cuts ties with his "family".

Ishimatsu goes rogue.

After Ishimatsu gets out of jail, he decides to settle down with Chieko (something director Miike doesn't let you know up front, you find out retroactively), and asks his godfather for a loan to buy a hostess bar. It's when Ishimatsu goes to collect the money from the godfather that his fate is sealed. The first line in the movie is a voice-over, which sums it all up: The Godfather went to the dentist with a toothache. In the two hours he was gone... One Yakuza was sent to hell.

The godfather isn't around, and the other lieutenants blow him off, and Ishimatsu basically loses his shit. He figures the godfather never intended to loan him the money for the hostess bar, and begins smashing skulls with a big, heavy ceramic ashtray, and ends by seriously wounding the godfather who took him in. The godfather had intended to give him the loan, but fate decided to step in causing a simple misunderstanding which was blown to the point of no return by Ishimatsu. The remainder of the movie follows Ishimatsu's decent into "hell", and his impact on Chieko, Imamura, and Kikkawa.


Although the trip from busting heads at the office with an ashtray to the roof of a jailhouse building is long, sometimes strange, and usually brutal, and although the movie follows Ishimatsu from one scene to the next, I have to wonder if this movie is really about Ishimatsu at all. Ishimatsu is more like a natural disaster - unstoppable, devastating, and can only end badly. The thing about natural disasters is how it affects the people around it. Ishimatsu is like the twister in, well, "Twister", and the deeper threads of the movie are more about how Chieko, Imamura, and Kikkawa are changed or destroyed by the natural disaster that is Ishimatsu.
  • Chieko.
Chieko's story is one of (misplaced, self destructive) love. Chieko probably wasn't terribly well off before meeting Ishimatsu, but she had a job, and a small apartment. Without any apparent friends or family, she seems to latch onto Ishimatsu. But when the greatest kindness shown to her in the entire movie by Ishimatsu is him giving up his last dose of heroin to her to stop her withdrawals, you have to wonder how much better things might have turned out for her had she never met him. It probably would have saved her a few beatings, rapes, and a wicked drug habit anyway. She follows Ishimatsu into his downward spiral, and while Japanese audiences might find some kind of sublime beauty in Chieko's dedication to Ishimatsu, Western audiences probably won't see much more than a weak and pathetic excuse for a woman.
  • Imamura Kozo.
Imamura's theme is honor. Imamura Kozo is the archetype of the noble Yakuza. Once he befriends Ishimatsu, he feels honor-bound to support and protect him. After Ishimatsu seriously wounds his godfather and is on the run, Imamura is the only person who is willing to protect him. It is apparent to everyone around Imamura that Ishimatsu is nothing but a dangerous liability, but Imamura stands by his honor and hides Ishimatsu. Unfortunately one of Imamura's lieutenants rats Ishimatsu out to the cops, and Ishimatsu heads back to jail - but only for a minute. He escapes, and goes after Imamura with a vengeance, thinking he is the one who sold him out.
  • Kikkawa.
Kikkawa is the Yakuza everyman of the story, who ultimately bookends the tale with voiceovers. His theme is a coming-of-age tale of sorts, as it pertains to the Yakuza. Starting out as a young and naive low level Yakuza, he is placed under Ishimatsu as a subordinate. While Ishimatsu is in jail, he slowly works his way up in the group, and when Ishimatsu finally cracks, he is tasked with finding him. Ultimately his path has him removing the thumbs of a former friend to get information, to cutting off his own pinky as atonement for his inability to capture Ishiimatsu, to his final showdown with Ishimatsu that leaves him with a facial scar that, in Japanese pop-culture, is the traditional mark of the Yakuza.

The deeper meaning of the movie is of course left open to interpretation - In the DVD extras (well, my Japanese copy - I have yet to get my hands on the Animeigo version), Kishitani Goro states that he believes that above all else, it is a love story. Arimori Narimi also stated that it was a love story, and actually proclaims her admiration for Chieko. I would say that this statement probably set women's rights back 50 years. Then again, Japan isn't exactly at the forefront of the women's rights movement, so maybe 20 years for Japan. To me Chieko really comes off as nothing more than a pathetic abused woman who keeps coming back for more. Maybe it is a love story, but if so, it just puts Chieko on equal footing with Ishimatsu in the "doomed to their fate" department.

Takashi Miike, on the other hand, stated that he wanted to make a movie about someone who was born a criminal, not someone who became that way. Which makes sense when contrasted with Miike's portrayal of Kikkawa, someone who makes himself a Yakuza out of necessity. Miike makes Ishimatsu someone too self-destructive and brutal to even exist in the world of the Yakuza. Is this his case for the "noble Yakuza" with a code of honor? After all, contrasting Ishimatsu with Kikkawa or Imamura makes the Yakuza appear like the good guys, despite their otherwise questionable morals.

Graveyard of Honor is more a slow burn than an action-packed thriller, with moments of frenetic violence interspersed through the tale of Ishimatsu's undoing. It's a different animal from Deadly Outlaw REKKA or Yakuza Demon, and almost lacks any of Miike's over the top stylized scenes of violence or shock - until the very end, that is. It's much more gritty and slower paced than much of Miike's other work, but it's a welcome addition to the Yakuza genre.

Ishimatsu attacking a group of men with a long metal pipe in a bar. The camera follows him down the street to the bar, and the sound of the metal pipe dragging along the pavement just adds to the tension - you know someone's going to get a beat down, but when it comes with swift brutality, it makes for a great scene.

Ishimatsu, strung out on heroin in his boxer shorts in a shootout on a balcony with the police. An odd and crazy scene, it's got to be seen to be believed.

The violent rundown.

By my count, we've got graphic depictions of 12 beatings, three rapes, three stabbings, 11 shootings, 3 scenes of violence against women, and eight scenes of hard-core drug use, needles and all.


Miike's camerawork gives this movie a more documentary feel than much of his other work, almost like a reality program that follows a day in the life of a Yakuza. Unlike Kinji Fukusaku's original film, the cinematic techniques include prolific use of (but not exclusively) stationary cameras for wide shots – whole scenes are filmed by one stationary camera from afar, some scenes almost to the point of not being able to see the character’s faces. Whereas Fukusaku tilted and twisted the camera, Miike takes the “stationary camera” concept to an extreme – often a character will be out of frame at the start of a scene, and although they are an active participant in the scene, you won’t see them until later in the scene when the camera angle changes. This includes scenes where, partway through, someone enters the scene via a doorway, but stops short of the shot just outside camera range and begins talking. Not being a film student or film historian, I don’t understand this technique or where it may have come from, but I am sure it is not common in the modern Hollywood movie. Also used often in this film are shots from odd angles – shots from chest level into a group of men from a slight distance, almost like the point of view of someone sitting in a chair on the other side of the room.

Final Verdict: This is my first Yakuza film rundown, but my verdict compares Yakuza movies to the genre, rather than to the world of movies as a whole - particularly since most of them would rate as B movies in the greater picture, so it would be pointless to do so. I'll give Miike's Graveyard of Honor high marks for the pacing, subdued violence (subdued in comparison to Miike's more exploitative films), and realistic (again, compared to the director's other work) storytelling style. I have to subtract points for Ishimatsu and Chieko's relationship. It almost seems so corollary to the plot as to be inconsequential, when it seems that it should have been the heart of the story. You never really figure out if Ishimatsu really cares about Chieko at all (and Ishimatsu wanting a loan to buy a hostess bar literally came out of nowhere) - probably intentional, but it makes the relationship seem superfluous. But, at the same time, by not making the relationship the centerpiece, it gives equal standing to the story of Imamura and Kikkawa, and gives the whole movie a deeper subtext.

As I continue to review movies, I'll start rating them against each other for reference. For now, I'll give this movie a point rating of 8 out of 10, for the above reasons.

I hope the blog was worth your time, it sure as hell took me longer to put it together than I expected. Stay tuned for the next movie on my Yakuza menu!


  1. Nice work. Good to see you writing! Keep them coming! Put this out in FB and Twitter and see what kinda feedback you can get.... maybe even post this on some boards about Yakuza/Jfilm asking for feedback.
    Thumbs up in my book!

  2. Interesting review! The movie definitely depressed me.

  3. finally finished the movie over three sittings, it was tough to get through. graveyard of honor. honor among thieves only leads to death. reductionist, but speaks to the core of the movie. ishimatsu is a scary dude, and hope there are no real people like that in the world, but that's too much to hope for. your review was excellent, and agreed with all your points. keep up the great work!

  4. it was such a comic like movie way too much inhuman .i didnt even see a point in focusing in such a fake hero..boring hero,had at least to have something human in him to win the audience.if it was an action movie i would have enjoyed it but it wasnt action at was a "psychogramm" of an empty create some drama you need emotions..if you dont show emotions show violence or flesh..maybe i watch it again if im stoned..

  5. Sounds like a good film. danke.