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.
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.
- Ishimatsu and Imamura Kozo.
- Ishimatsu and Kikkawa.
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.
- Imamura Kozo.
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!