Notable Cast: Ryutaro Otomo, Bunta Sugawara, Minoru Oki, Hiroshi Miyauchi, Teruo Yoshida, Renji Ishibashi, Keiko Fujita, Yukie Kagawa, Hisaya Ito, Ichiro Sugai, Yoshiko Fujito
Like most of the of the cult directors from Japan at the time, Teruo Ishii cut his teeth in secondary genre films before getting its big break with the Abashiri Prison series of which he directed the numerical equivalent of a ‘shit ton’ before punching out and doing what he would be known for best – wild and artistic exploitation films. Over the last year, Arrow Video dropped two brilliant new Blu Rays of two of his classics, The Horrors of Malformed Men and Orgies of Edo, for fans to enjoy. To complete the set though, their latest release is for his other anthology film, Yakuza Law. While both of the previously mentioned films will appease fans of exploitation with nightmarish imagery, intense violence, and plenty of erotic elements, Yakuza Law represents a slightly different version of Ishii. Coming out in 1969, this film feels like a bridge between his earlier career in action films and that of his more artistic exploitation era. It’s an anthology of three yakuza stories, all told in a different time period, but the film’s intention to showcase the awful lows of how man treats one another gives the film that intense exploitative violence too. It’s a strangely effective combination that proves to be both perplexing and provocative. A bold combination that will definitely appeal to fans of the Arrow Video distribution line.
The year 1969 seems to be his breakout year in terms of films that would later garner cult status. All three of the newly released Arrow Video releases for Ishii are from 1969 and one of their previous releases, the wild and uneven Blind Woman’s Curse, was only a year later than that. Compared to Horrors and Orgies though, Yakuza Law does certainly feel a bit like a transition for the ‘king of cult’ director. Although I’m hardly an expert on his earlier material, only having seen a handful of films prior to this, Yakuza Law takes the usual yakuza material and gives it the ol’ Ishii spin of ultra-violence. At its core, the three stories could have been scripts for feature-length films. The theme is that each story tells about a different “yakuza rule” that is essentially punishable by death and torture. The audience is then treated to a brief slice of yakuza life where someone breaks that rule and shit goes wild. Each story is from a different time period, progressively getting up to date with a “modern” set finale.
Almost immediately, it’s evident that the biggest hurdle for Yakuza Law is going to be the anthology formatting. While the format allows the film to move at a lightning pace, bounding through each tale with a sense of ferocity and efficiency, it does not give each one the time and depth for an audience to emotionally invest in the characters or plot. In particular, the second and third segments have some incredibly interesting characters and beats to them. Extending the scripts could have provided some fantastic feature-length cinematic gems, but alas that is not the intent of this film. The performances are stacked and the film features some great small pieces for some of Japan’s iconic stars of that era including an eye-popping role for Bunta Sugawara, who would later see his star power ignite with the Battles Without Honor and Humanity series. If anything, all three segments feature great execution and Ishii rachets up the intensity and ably navigates most of the pitfalls of the structure and quick narratives. Each story is its own burst of interesting storytelling that’s often hindered by the shortness and speed of how they are meant to play out leaving each one a bit hollow in impact.
However, when it comes down to it, Yakuza Law is not going to be remembered for its intriguing characters and a brisk pace. It’s a film obviously meant to play upon one exploitative element: torturous violence. The studio could not have picked a better director to handle it. Yakuza Law is brimming with a variety of intensely violence sequences and Ishii shoots them with mischievous glee. All of them are rather gimmicky in the end and, occasionally, darkly comedic in just how outrageous they get to be. In the final segment, you see a man dragged on a rope across the water by a helicopter and his demise is, well, brutal. You don’t see that every day. In this regard, Yakuza Law lives up to its reputation by delivering on the gore gags and intense evil of watching men do horrible things to one another so there is that for fans of strange cult cinema.
As for the Arrow Video release of the film, this latest Blu Ray is hardly the most packed that the distribution label has been in terms of bonus features. Compared to the other release for May, The Grand Duel, it somewhat pales in comparison. Still, Yakuza Law was a film that never had a release like this and the fact that it even exists in a high definition presentation is worthy of praise. It also helps that the film features another phenomenal commentary by the always reliable Jasper Sharp. When Sharp is included on a commentary track, it’s always going to be the best feature anyway. I’ve listed the contents below for those interested though.
Teruo Ishii continues to be a director whose films are more fascinating than so many other iconic directors of the era simply because of how he plays around in the cinematic worlds that he is given. Yakuza Law might not be as strange and unnerving as the other films from the Arrow Video slate, but it’s a combination of traditional yakuza storytelling and a brutal exploitation slant make it one that will still tickle the fancy of cult cinephiles. It has some interesting and compelling core ideas that are done a disservice by the anthology structure and the exploitative violence is sure to shock and rock its viewers. Yakuza Law is flawed, but still comes highly recommended for those with a taste for the off-kilter.
ARROW VIDEO FEATURES:
- High Definition Blu-rayTM (1080p) presentation
- Original lossless mono Japanese soundtrack
- Optional English subtitles
- New audio commentary by author and critic Jasper Sharp
- Erotic-Grotesque and Genre Hopping: Teruo Ishii Speaks, a rare vintage interview with the elusive director on his varied career, newly edited for this release
- Image gallery
- Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Jacob Phillips
- FIRST PRESSING ONLY: Illustrated collector s booklet featuring new writing on the film by Tom Mes
Written By Matt Reifschneider