International acclaim and recognition for his work may be far less than that received by Akira Kurosawa, Seijun Suzuki or Shohei Imamura, but there has been no director in the history of Japanese cinema whose films have been as consistently successful as Kinji Fukasaku's. Though his status in the West may be relatively (and undeservedly) obscure, Fukasaku's films have had a major impact on Japanese cinema, both in and outside the mainstream.
Fukasaku made his debut in 1961, in a strongly regulated studio system where actors and directors were tied to the studios by contracts and individual artistry meant next to nothing (providing an insight into why Akira Kurosawa never received the slightest acclaim while at the same being celebrated in the West). In this environment, the simple fact that Fukasaku made contemporary action and crime films placed him outside the mainstream, since his studio Toei almost exclusively produced samurai films and costume dramas.
But it was more than just genre that set Fukasaku's films apart. His crime films were not about crime and criminals, but became strong statements of social criticism. Because they were set in the modern day, action films were the ideal vehicles for Fukasaku to vent his anger and frustration about the hypocrisy of post-war Japan, a period in which economic growth for few inevitably meant incredible poverty and hopelessness for many.
It is this frustration that drives most all his films of the 60s and 70s. Strongly inspired by Italian neo-realism, Fukasaku set his stories against a backdrop of ruined cities, slums and black market trading, an everyday chaos that was a strong contrast with the message of change and growth the government tried to spread to its citizens. Wolves, Pigs and Men (Okami To Buta To Ningen, 1964), starring Ken Takakura, told the tale of a feud between three criminal brothers (one an honourable yakuza, the second a loose cannon and the third a carefree youth) that comes to a climax in a bulldozed, derelict slum. As the feud rages, the inhabitants of this shanty town are first reduced to observers and then ignored, never allowed to interfere or play a role of any importance. It was a logical choice for Fukasaku, since the impoverished masses were ignored in everyday life by the government and its policies.
With Wolves, Pigs and Men would also emerge the first glimpse of the director's characteristic visual style, which he would further develop during the remainder of the 1960s. Influenced in part by the French new wave, handheld camerawork, extreme angles, freeze frames and the use of text as both a narrative and aesthetic tool would come to typify Fukasaku's visuals, which would grow to full maturity in the next decade. (Before the sixties were over, however, he took a highly entertaining side step into pure style with the colourful, pop art adaptation of Edogawa Rampo's detective story Black Lizard (Kurotokage, 1968), for which Fukasaku teamed up with Yukio Mishima.)
As the director's knack for strong social commentary and visuals developed, the characters in his films lagged behind. In films like Wolves, Pigs and Men, The Breakup (Kaisanshiki, 1967), Call Me Blackmail! (Kyokatsu Koso Ga Waga Jinsei, 1968) and Japan Organized Crime Boss (Nihon Bouryokudan: Kumicho, 1969) they still adhered to the strongest convention of the gangster genre, that of giri-ninjo, or the strict underworld code of honour and morals. However, at the dawn of the 1970s, this too would change. Starting with Sympathy for the Underdog (Bakuto Gaijin Butai, 1971) the gangsters in his films started to mirror the way Fukasaku had known them to be from his own experiences: driven by greed, cowardice and poverty - anything but honourable.
The film that finally buried the illusion of giri-ninjo, and the film that would change the Japanese gangster genre forever, made its point by the title alone: Battles Without Honour and Humanity (Jingi Naki Tatakai, a.k.a. Fight Without Honour). With this raw portrait of the emergence of modern yakuza, Fukasaku stripped crime films of all their glamour and laid bare the true roots of organized crime: poverty, humiliation and greed. We see Japanese soldiers with wounded pride banding together against the occupying American forces (who treat the local population with little consideration or courtesy), we see them stealing food from street markets and committing murder for a bowl of rice. They become the new yakuza, simply because crime is the only option.
Battles Without Honour and Humanity became a huge box office hit. It was as if audiences, who had sat and swallowed the lies of the giri-ninjo films churned out by the studios (including Toei, who had switched their focus away from costume films in the 60s) for so many years, celebrated en masse this film that finally showed them the reality they themselves had known for all those years. Suddenly Fukasaku found himself catapulted into the top regions of directors and he diligently went to work on a sequel. When that sequel equalled the success of its predecessor, a third film followed. Within two years, Fukasaku had directed five installments in what would soon become known as the Battles series.
After the Battles series (episode five of which was clearly identified as The Final Episode), the director directed several films that further explored the dark motivations of the underworld: Cops vs Thugs (Kenkei Tai Soshiki Boryoku, 1975), Yakuza Graveyard (Yakuza No Hakaba: Kuchinashi No Hana, 1976) and above all Graveyard of Honour (Jingi No Hakaba, 1976). These films shared a suitably chaotic storyline in which the lines between good and evil are blurred to the point of non-existence. In order to realistically portray lives ruled by violence, Fukasaku filled his films to the brim with corruption, murder, drug addiction, rape and police brutality. Together with the erratic visuals he had by this time perfected, they formed an explosive and hard-hitting mix - a cinema that was brutal and totally alive.
Toei meanwhile wanted Fukasaku to return to the Battles series, of which he himself had grown tired. He agreed, but only after Toei let him change the characters and location. He managed to crank out three more before flatly refusing to continue. With his farewell to the series, there came an end to what could seen as the second stage in the director's career. In the latter years of the 1970s, Fukasaku had turned his back on gangster films completely.
This move came at a time when the Japanese studio system had all but fallen apart. Filmmakers were forced to draw on various sources for the funding of their films, ushering in a new era of co-productions. For Fukasaku this meant the beginning of a period in which he would diversify and try his hand at many different genres. He would work in samurai films, science fiction (the director had first explored this genre with 1968's Green Slime (Gamma Dai-sango: Uchu Daisakusen)), horror and the musical, and he would frequently collaborate with the most popular pair of action actors in the country, Sonny (Schinichi) Chiba and Henry (Hiroyuki) Sanada.
With these two men, Fukasaku for the first time ventured into samurai territory - the genre he had so long avoided - with Shogun's Samurai (Yagyu Ichizoku No Inbo) and its sequel The Fall of Ako Castle (Ako-jo Danzetsu, both 1978). The two also starred alongside American thesps like Vic Morrow, Glenn Ford, Chuck Connors and Edward James Olmos for the high-profile, Fukasaku-directed international sci-fi projects Message from Space (Uchu Kara No Messeji, 1978) and Virus (Fukkatsu No Hi, 1980). (Fukasaku is no stranger to international co-productions. In 1970 he had taken over from Akira Kurosawa, who had been sacked from the ambitious American/Japanese World War II epic Tora! Tora! Tora!, co-directed by Richard Fleischer.)
Though his filmography spans four decades and consists of sixty films, the director has not lost his touch. His versatility and assured direction has continued well into the nineties. He has held his own to this day, even after young talents like Takashi Ishii, Takeshi Kitano, Masato Harada and Takashi Miike exploded onto the scene with their own revisionist takes on the gangster film. With 1992's The Triple Cross (Itsu Ka Gira-gira Suru Hi), Fukasaku engaged the young hopefuls on their own turf by delivering an outrageous, loud, manic, foul-mouthed crime movie. The story, pitting a veteran bank robber against a ruthless young upstart who has scammed him out of his loot, quite clearly mirrored the director's intentions.
Despite this blatant challenge, or perhaps because of it, Kinji Fukasaku is held in high esteem by the current wave of young genre directors (even outside Japan, as witnessed by Quentin Tarantino inviting the veteran director to the set of Jackie Brown). During a retrospective of many of Fukasaku's works at the Rotterdam Film Festival in early 2000, young filmmakers like Takashi Miike, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Shiota Akihiko and Makoto Shinozaki could frequently be spotted among the crowds.
Today, the 70-year old director shows no signs of slowing down. In 1999 he returned to post-war Japan with the lively drama The Geisha House (Omocha), from a screenplay he had wanted to film for thirty years. His current film, the violent high school drama Battle Royale, starring Takeshi Kitano as a teacher who incites his students to kill one another, triggered hectic social debate even before its release. It was given an R-15 rating by Eirin, meaning no one under fifteen could see the film, something Fukasaku and Kitano regret, as they see the film as a warning to exactly that age group. The debate even went as high up as parliament, with a Democratic Party member calling for a ban (despite having only read the novel the film was based on), feeling Battle Royale would "incite crime" and "destroy order". There is no doubt that Kinji Fukasaku's films will continue to challenge audiences and industry alike.
Furaibo Tantei: Akai Tan No Sangeki [ 1961 ]
Furaibo Tantei: Misaki Wo Wataru Kuroi Kaze [ 1961 ]
Vigilante in the Funky Hat [ Fanki Hatto No Kaidanji, 1961 ]
Vigilante in the Funky Hat: The 200,000-Yen Arm [ Fanki Hatto No Kaidanji: Nisenman En No Ude, 1961 ]
Greed in Broad Daylight [ Hakuchu No Buraikan, 1961 ]
The Proud Challenge [ Hokori Takaki Chosen, 1962 ]
Gyangu Tai G-men [ 1962 ]
Gang Alliance [ Gyangu Domei, 1963 ]
Jako-man To Tetsu [ 1964 ]
Wolves, Pigs and Men [ Okami To Buta To Ningen, 1964 ]
Odoshi [ 1965 ]
Kamikaze Yaro: Mahiru No Ketto [ 1965 ]
Hokkai No Abare-ryu [ 1965 ]
The Breakup [ Kaisanshiki, 1967 ]
Bakuto Kaisanshiki [ 1968 ]
Black Lizard [ Kurotokage, 1968 ]
Call Me Blackmail! [ Kyokatsu Koso Ga Waga Jinsei, 1968 ]
Green Slime [ Ganma Dai-sango: Uchu Daisakusen, 1968 ]
(Mansion of) The Black Rose [ Kurobara No Yakata, 1969 ]
Japan Organized Crime Boss [ Nihon Boryokudan: kumicho, 1969 ]
Chizome No Daimon [ 1970 ]
If You Were Young: Rage [ Kimi Ga Wakamono Nara, 1970 ]
Tora! Tora! Tora! (co-directed with Richard Fleischer & Toshio Masuda) [ Tora Tora Tora, 1970 ]
Sympathy for the Underdog [ Bakuto Gaijin Butai, 1971 ]
Under the Flag of the Rising Sun [ Gunki Wa Tameku Moto Ni, 1972 ]
Street Mobster [ Gendai Yakuza: Hito-kiri Yota, 1972 ]
Hito-kiri Yota: Kyoken San Kyodai [ 1972 ]
Battles Without Honour and Humanity [ Jingi Naki Tatakai, 1973 ]
Jingi Naki Tatakai: Hiroshima shito-hen [ 1973 ]
Jingi Naki Tatakai: Dairi Senso [ 1973 ]
Jingi Naki Tatakai: Chojo Sakusen [ 1974 ]
Jingi Naki Tatakai: Kanketsuhen [ 1974 ]
Shin Jingi Naki Tatakai [ 1974 ]
Graveyard of Honor [ Jingi No Hakaba, 1975 ]
Cops vs Thugs [ Kenkei Tai Soshiki Boryoku, 1975 ]
Shikingen Godatsu [ 1975 ]
Shin Jingi Naki Tatakai: Kumicho No Kubi [ 1975 ]
Boso Panikku: Dai-Gekitotsu [ 1976 ]
New Battles Without Honour and Humanity: The Boss' Final Day [ Shin Jingi Naki Tatakai: Kumicho Saigo No Hi, 1976 ]
Yakuza Graveyard [ Yakuza No Hakaba: Kuchinashi No Hana, 1976 ]
Hokuriku: Proxy War [ Hokuriku Dairi Senso, 1977 ]
The Detective Doberman [ Doberman Deka, 1977 ]
Shogun's Samurai [ Yagyu Ichizoku No Inbo, 1978 ]
The Fall of Ako Castle [ Ako-jo Danzetsu, 1978 ]
Message from Space [ Uchu Kara No Meseiji, 1978 ]
Virus [ Fukkatsu No Hi, 1980 ]
Gate of Youth (co-directed with Kurehara Koreyoshi) [ Seishun No Mon, 1981 ]
Samurai Reincarnation [ Makai Tensho, 1981 ]
Dotonborigawa [ 1982 ]
Fall Guy [ Kamata Koshin Kyoku, 1982 ]
Jinsei Gekijo (co-directed with Sato Junya and Nakajima Sadao) [ 1983 ]
Legend of Eight Samurai [ Satomi Hakkenden, 1983 ]
Shanghai Vance King [ Shanghai Bansukingu, 1984 ]
House on Fire [ Kataku No Hito, 1986 ]
Hissatsu 4: Urami Harashimasu [ 1987 ]
The Rage of Love [ Hana No Ran, 1988 ]
The Triple Cross [ Itsu Ka Gira-Gira Suru Hi, 1992 ]
Crest of Betrayal [ Chushingura Gaiden: Yotsuya Kaidan, 1994 ]
The Geisha House [ Omocha, 1999 ]
Battle Royale [ 2000 ]