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GRAVEYARD OF HONOR [Jingi No Hakaba] (1975).

Director Kinji Fukasaku had an amazing film career. Unfortunately, American audiences don't have a clue, since only a handful of his movies ever graced U.S. theatres. In fact, until recently he was best known for two of his most laughable productions -- the goofy space-fantasy MESSAGE FROM SPACE and THE GREEN SLIME, one of the most hilariously misguided sci-fi films of all time. It wasn't until BLACK LIZARD was reissued onto the arthouse circuit in the late-'80s that Anglo audiences got a taste of Fukasaku's more subversive talents. But the gangland epic GRAVEYARD OF HONOR provides indelible proof of his directorial expertise. Based on the true tale of Rikio Ishikawa, one of Japan's most notorious Yakuza, it's a celluloid kick to the solar plexus... In the opening b&w images of his childhood, a voice-over laments that even as a child, Ishikawa had no respect for authority. That's nothing compared to his adult life, when he became an animalistic killing machine who was at first embraced, then spurned by local Yakuza. The story begins in the turbulent months after World War II, with Ishikawa as a hot-headed torpedo for the Kawada clan. And for a very short time, things look good, including a successful run-in with the infamous "3-Nations Gang" (a combination of Chinese, Tai and Korean thugs), which put the Japanese back in charge of their own underworld. Ishikawa's primary problem is that he's driven by unstable passions -- usually with the most violent, disastrous results. He gets mildly pissed off and blows up a guy's car. He attacks an opposing clan member and nearing ignites a gang war. And when his Yakuza 'father' whips him for being such an idiot, Ishikawa does what any violent moron would do, and promptly gets blind drunk and tries to slice up his own gangland elder. Smart guy, eh? Afterward, things get worse, with prison teaching Ishikawa to be an even bigger psycho. Plus, once out of the slammer, he begins shooting up. Now there's a good idea! Let's become a vengeful, brain-fried junkie and take on both sides -- the cops as well as his old Yakuza pals. And wait until you see what this wacko does with the cremated remains of his one true love! Compared to Ishikawa, Joe Pesci in GOODFELLAS looks like he was on Valium!... Watari Tetsuya is explosive in the title role, and though Ishikawa is a savage brute, he's also a fascinating one. Not only is he totally cool (hence, wearing his sunglasses indoors and out), but even a siege by a platoon of heavy-armed police doesn't phase the guy. Of course, he also demonstrates his ass-backwards flair with the ladies when he's attracted to a pretty young lass, pushes his way into her room, shoves money at her, and goes to work raping her. This character has balls, and so does the entire film. What truly sets this apart from the typical mob flick deviance are Fukasaku's bursts of near-hallucinogenic, hand-held action and violence, which go into overdrive whenever Ishikawa does. It's so deliriously photographed and edited that you'll need a double dose of Dramamine as the camera spins out of control -- capturing in visual terms the chaos of the entire country in the wake of World War II. Better still, on a purely dramatic level, Fukasaku crams three decades of conflict, psychology and searing violence into less than two hours, without sacrificing the political/moral complexity of the tale. It's a riveting portrait of a sociopath -- a real-life Natural Born Killer of Japan -- as well as a blast of high-octane cinema.

© 1996 by Steven Puchalski.