Over the last half-century, the romantic myth of the yakuza, or Japanese Mafia, has been a prominent theme in Japanese popular culture. The exploits of the yakuza have been the focus of an entire genre of film from the early postwar years to the present. The yakuza genre often represents problems of social dislocation. Two periods of popularity of the genre are the postwar years, which were characterized by rapid modernization and westernization, and the recent recession years, which are plagued by apprehension about Japan's future. In these uncertain periods, the idealized image of the yakuza turns criminals into the heroic last believers in pure Japanese values, who are locked in battle (often quite literally) with the new society. If joining mainstream modern Japanese society means forsaking the old values, the yakuza are men of principle, defiantly living on the margins of society because they are unwilling to compromise their beliefs.
The myth the yakuza have created for themselves, with the help of popular writers, stresses the continuity of their ethos to that of noble warriors of the past. The yakuza fancy themselves as carrying on a tradition of “chivalrous outlaws," (machi-yakko), underdog fighters following an idealized samurai code of loyalty, honor, courage, selflessness, and determination. If once the machi-yakko protected villagers from the powerful, today's idealized yakuza protects society by socializing failures, outsiders, and petty criminals into disciplined, hierarchical gangs. They also help protect ordinary Japanese from foreigners living in their midst, especially unruly American soldiers.
Yakuza movies have been popular since the early post-war period. As the samurai films began to seem a bit too old-fashioned and formal, the yakuza filled the role of modern samurai. Yakuza films are often nostalgic, with their heroes living and dying by values seemingly lost in modern Japan. One early of postwar yakuza movies are known as ninkyo eiga (chivalrous movies) with formulaic plot lines, pitting westernized, corrupt Japanese businessmen or politicians, who harass the innocent public, against the local yakuza. The Nikkatsu and Toei studios produced many variations on this theme, with yakuza giving up their happiness, their lovers, and even their lives out of giri, or loyalty to their gang. These themes of suffering, endurance, and honor seemed to have resonated with viewers until the end of the 60’s; even student radicals carried posters of actor Takakura Ken during their protests.
Directors like Suzuki Seijun tired of the formulaic plots and began to portray the yakuza, with their rigid, self-denying codes, as characters lost in an absurd drama. Maybe the yakuza were no less sad or misguided than the ordinary salarymen, sacrificing themselves for the good of society. In Suzuki's films, the yakuza devour each other in bizarre rituals, from the convoluted takeover of a gang in Tokyo Drifter to the quest of a washed-up assassin to move up in the ranks and become Hitman #1 in the absurdist Branded to Kill.
The stylistic excesses and romanticism of the 1960s gave way to a new breed of gritty realism in the 1970s. The unsentimental Fukasaku Kinji emerged as the leading yakuza film director. He shot his films like a newsman filming a riot- up close with handheld cameras- and unflinching in his depiction of brutality. His yakuza had long since discarded any chivalrous codes, and were not interested in self-sacrifice. His masterpiece Jingi Naki Tatakai (Battles without Honor or Humanity) showed the backstabbing and fratricidal wars it took for one gang to rise to prominence in the ashes of Hiroshima.
The Japanese studio system largely collapsed by the 1980s, squeezed out by a resurgent Hollywood and by the birth of home videos. Studios like Nikkatsu turned to soft porn, and Japanese film meant either pornography or low-budget bloody yakuza and samurai B-Movies. Beat Takeshi, actor and comedian, helped revive the genre in the 1990s with a series of stylized, minimalist yakuza movies that were less romantic than the anti-heroes of the 60s but also less depraved than the bleak nihilism of Fukasaku's movies. Beat Takeshi's most widely acclaimed film, Hana-bi (Fireworks) delves into the quiet despair of a man living on the edges of society. It is a meditation on the coldness which grows as his friends and family die, and the violence that his estrangement makes possible.
It remains to be seen if Japan's economic downturn and the youth's rejection of their parent's self-denying values will bring about a new type of yakuza film. One possible example casts a brash, young yakuza boss in the role of reformer. If the old men running Japan can no longer adapt to change, and if the system is too hardened to allow the young in, than the young must overthrow the system from the outside. The young radicals can harness the power of the yakuza, as they too are uncorrupted by modern life. An example of this theme is found in the excellent manga (and anime and film), Sanctuary.
Recommended Movie List:
1960s Romantic Gangster Films
Suzuki Seijun: Branded to Kill (Koroshi no Rakuin), Tokyo Drifter (Tokyo Nagaremono), Youth of the Beast (Yaju No Seishun), Kanto Wanderer (Kanto Mushuku)
Hasebe Yasuharu: Black Tight Killers (Ore ni Sawaru to Abunai ze)
1970s Brutal Realism
1990s Revival of a Genre
Kitano Takeshi: Brother, Fireworks (Hana-bi), Violent Cop
Itami Juzo: Minbo or the Gentle Art of Japanese Extortion
Sabu: Postman Blues
 Kenneth Henshall, Dimensions of Japanese Society: Gender, Margins, and Mainstream (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1999), p67.