Teruo Ishii/ Japan/ 1969/ 96 mins
On Blu-ray from Mon 13 May 2019
Teruo Ishii was possibly the foremost exponent of J-Sploitation in the late 60s and 70s. Long before the likes of Takashi Miike, Sion Sono and Yoshihiro Nishimura upped the ante, the prolific Ishii was pushing boundaries with the likes of Orgies of Edo, Horrors of Malformed Men (the best title you’ll see outside the Baroque realm of the giallo), and the splatter-heavy Yakuza Law.
This anthology film focuses on the titular crime organisation and the vengeance carried out against those members who transgress against its codes. The three tales, spread across three time periods (Edo, Taishō and Shōwa), showcase any amount of torture and excess with Ishii’s customary flair and lavish production values, courtesy of the resources of Toei Studios.
The first section sees Bunta Sugawara‘s stoic enforcer fall foul of his paranoid boss. In the second, a wronged gangster breaks the code by returning from exile to wreak vengeance against those who betrayed him. The concluding story swaps sharp swords for sharper suits as two ace gunmen faceoff following a theft from a prominent Yakuza family. This section is a hugely stylish gangland short familiar to anyone who enjoyed the work of Ishii’s contemporaries Seijun Suzuki and Kinji Fukasaku but operates within instantly recognisable tropes.
The other periods shown are less frequently depicted in the organised crime genre. The Edo period is synonymous on film the honour-driven Bushido code and the great epics of the Samurai. Here, Ishii implicitly established a parallel between the two codes, inviting comparisons between them. The question is whether he sees the Yakuza as emerging from a perversion of Samurai values, or whether there was inherently hypocrisy and corruption at the heart of the code. It’s probably the strongest segment although all three have their own unique charms.
If we’re honest though, it wouldn’t be proper exploitation without a bountiful level of violence, and Yakuza Law certainly doesn’t skimp on that front. Right from the opening titles, we’re treated to a montage of atrocities from across the three segments: a human barbecue, eye-gouging, branding and drilling. That it’s some of the most respected actors of the time carrying out the carnage (Sugawara, Renji Ishibashi, Minoru Ôki, Teruo Yoshida) adds an air of respectability to this most insalubrious of genres and makes this irresistible for all exploitation fans.
Yakuza law is a superior example of the pulpy exploitation flick. The level of filmmaking ability is far beyond that of most other practitioners. Ishii is equally adept at presenting balletic swordplay and chaotic pitched gun battles. Plus, any film that features a protracted scene of torture by helicopter is doing something very right.