When news broke that Takashi Miike was remaking Kinji Fukasaku's 1975 film Graveyard of Honour (Jingi No Hakaba), expectations were high. After all, who would be better suited to remake what remains one of Fukasaku's most shocking and offensive films?
Officially however, this new version is not a remake. Perhaps partially out of respect for the original film, Miike and screenwriter Shigenori Takechi (who collaborated earlier the same year on Agitator / Araburu Tamashii Tachi) went back to Goro Fujita's source novel Jingi No Hakaba as the basis for their screenplay. Based on a real story, Graveyard of Honour portrays the life of Rikio Ishikawa (here renamed Rikuo Ishimatsu), a low-ranking yakuza whose remorseless violent urges lead him down the path to self-destruction.
When we first meet Ishimatsu (Kishitani), he is a lowly dishwasher in a restaurant frequented by yakuza. When a lone gunman (the director in another brief but intense cameo) enters the restaurant and starts firing away at the panicking underworld mob, Ishimatsu coolly emerges from the kitchen and hits him over the head with a bar stool. This is his ticket into organized crime and he takes it, figuring it beats washing dishes for a living. But it's not long before it becomes clear to his superiors that Ishimatsu is unable to function within the yakuza hierarchy. His violent nature may make him a great strongman, but his lack of respect causes more problems than his fists solve. When a misunderstanding about a loan (Rikuo wanted to borrow money so his girlfriend Chieko could start her own bar) results in Ishimatsu shooting the boss of the organisation, he finds himself isolated. As a maverick, loose cannon yakuza freed from the restraints of hierarchy, Ishimatsu finds the ideal breeding ground for his own violent urges.
Rather than maintaining the original story's post-war setting, Miike and Takechi transferred the proceedings to a more recent era. The story starts at the beginning of the Heisei period (1989, the ascension of emperor Akihito) and ends in the latter half of the 90s, setting the blood-drenched downfall of the main character against a background of the burst of the bubble economy and the social upheaval that causes the emergence of such extremist phenomena as the Aum Shinrikyo cult. It is this update that gives the film, and the concept of a remake, its validity. Like in Fukasaku's original (set in the immediate post-war years), Ishimatsu is not only the product of the chaos and insecurity of the society he lives in, he is the very embodiment of that chaos, the symbol of a country in turmoil.
Goro Kishitani portrays Ishimatsu (played in the 1975 film by Tetsuya Watari) with a ferocious intensity. The actor's roots in theatre shine through in his complete immersion in the character, delivering one of the most dedicated performances ever seen in a Takashi Miike film. His Ishimatsu is not only a frighteningly cold-blooded thug, but a man with an emotional core who lacks the ability to express those emotions in any way besides through violence and (self-) abuse. This is illustrated by the intensely strenuous but unbreakable relationship with Chieko (Arimori), which runs throughout the story and which is the only steady factor in Ishimatsu's life. He is the victim of his own underdeveloped emotional register, a 'violoholic' who hides guns in every nook and cranny of his apartment instead of liquor.
With Graveyard of Honour Miike delivers another intense and violent crime drama, which is at the same time a fascinating character study and a confronting social document. In its portrayal of one man's self-destruction, the film takes the violent core of the yakuza genre as far as it'll go, redefining its limits much like Fukasaku's film did in the mid-70s. Unlike Ichi the Killer (Koroshiya Ichi, 2001) there are no comic book moments of outrageous comedy or absurdity to alleviate the mood. This is not a movie to laugh or cheer at. It's brutal, it's raw and it's uncompromising, but it's also thoughtful, deeply emotional and rich in significance. Graveyard of Honour is further evidence of Takashi Miike's rare abilities as a filmmaker.