The Yakuza games are known for their intricate plots and masterful cutscenes, with every entry in the series playing out like an epic action film. If your introduction to the world of yakuza gangs (or at least as it’s depicted in popular media) came in the form of the games, you might be pleased to know that there’s more where that came from in the medium of cinema.
Of course, that’s not to disregard the Yakuza series’ efforts to emulate classic yakuza cinema: every Yakuza game comes with yakuza movie mainstays like Takeshi Kitano, Riki Takeuchi, and Hitoshi Ozawa. There was even a delightfully campy 2007 film adaptation for the first game in the series, directed by Takashi Miike (who you might know as the director of Audition and Ichi the Killer). While there’s news of an upcoming film adaptation of Yakuza, it’d be best to manage our expectations of it for now lest it ends up like Netflix’s Death Note (bleh).
The Yakuza series wears its cinematic influences on its sleeve, and likewise more recent yakuza movies feel much more familiar and entertaining once you’ve played a few Yakuza games. If you’ve just finished punching your way from Yakuza 0 to 6 (and finished Judgment while you were at it), and you’re still looking for more yakuza action, here are five must-watch movies for every Yakuza fan.
Ever wondered what the Yakuza series might look like if instead of Kiryu, its protagonists were Yuya and Kazuki from the host club Stardust? Shinjuku Swan would be the film adaptation to that version of the story. Directed by Sion Sono, whose excellent works include Love Exposure and Why Don’t You Play in Hell?, Shinjuku Swan tells the story of Tatsuhiko, a no-good, blonde-haired delinquent with a heart of gold who eventually gets hired as a scout for hostesses. As conflicts arise between Tatsuhiko, rival clubs, and a bunch of gangsters-slash-debt collectors, Tatsuhiko uses his fists to prove himself and protect his hostess friends. Now doesn’t that sound like something straight out of the Kiryu playbook?
Shinjuku Swan takes place mostly in Kabukicho, Shinjuku, the real-life location upon which Yakuza’s Kamurocho is based. If you’ve played even just one Yakuza game, Shinjuku Swan’s location is bound to be familiar to you, I mean look, you can even see the iconic arch at the entrance of Kabukicho in the trailer.
The HiGH&LOW series is the only non-yakuza movie on this list, and while its overarching plot does include some major yakuza characters, that’s not why I recommend it for Yakuza fans. I recommend the HiGH&LOW movies simply because they’re the most like the Yakuza games when it comes to having an ensemble of unique characters and grandiose fight scenes.
The HiGH&LOW movies tell a convoluted story of five gangs fighting each other in a turf war until they all have to work together against a common foe: the yakuza. Plot-wise, there’s nothing new or profound about it, but the movies’ action and fight scenes are shot so well and are so clearly supported by a huge production budget that you can’t let them pass despite the films’ often-cheesy storylines. It’s basically the movie franchise equivalent of the Clan Creator game from Yakuza Kiwami 2 and Yakuza 6. If you enjoy watching Kiryu and the gang punch and kick their way through a hundred men, you’ll love the HiGH&LOW movies. Plus, all seven of them are now on Netflix!
If the HiGH&LOW movies mirror the Yakuza games’ long and extravagant action sequences, the Outrage trilogy mirrors the games’ darker and colder cutscenes. In between every brutal Kiryu-versus-endless-henchmen section, there are those reserved yet menacing cutscenes in Yakuza that establish the politics and relationships between yakuza in their own clans and with other clans. Scenes like those are what you’ll see a lot of in the Outrage trilogy.
Directed by the legendary actor and director Takeshi Kitano, who also starred as Patriarch Hirose in Yakuza 6, the Outrage trilogy tells the story of Otomo (played by Kitano himself), a mid-rank yakuza who gets caught in the middle of a clan in-fighting scheme. Otomo and his underlings are set up to take the fall, and Otomo retaliates against his own clan and even the police as he gets increasingly pissed off over the course of three movies. It’s a cold tale of a yakuza gone mad, but it does have its share of action scenes to keep the long exposition sequences from being dragging.
The Yakuza series is characterized not only by its storylines and action, but also its unique sense of humor. There’s always something pleasingly absurd to be found in every Yakuza game, and I’d bet that the series’ sense of humor takes a lot of influence from the work of cult-favorite director Seijun Suzuki. Branded to Kill is a film that got Suzuki banned from making movies for a decade, and it tells the story of contract killer Goro Hanada in the most surreal and unimaginable way.
It’s hard to explain the visual spectacle of Branded to Kill, but in between seemingly serious scenes, there are surreal, dreamlike sequences that border on the genre of black comedy. Goro, also known as Number Three for being the third-best hitman, is aiming to be Number One, and his pursuit of the top spot is accompanied by a journey into madness. Branded to Kill is a masterwork of absurdity, and alongside Seijun Suzuki’s more yakuza-centric work, its themes can be found in some of the Yakuza games’ more bizarre substories. That one substory in Kiwami 2 where you beat up a bunch of thugs in diapers? You can probably thank Suzuki for that.
In their own way, the Yakuza games are filled with glitz and glamour. The games’ characters often have flashy designs, they’ve got unique personalities, and they always do the thing where they remove their suit and shirt combo in one piece to reveal their menacing back tattoos. In that sense, Yakuza could not be more different than the five-film masterpiece that is Battles Without Honor and Humanity.
So why does it sit as the last entry on this list? That’s because Battles Without Honor and Humanity is the closest we’ll ever get to see a realistic depiction of yakuza life in cinema. The five films in the series, directed by Kinji Fukasaku (who also directed 2000’s Battle Royale) are based on the real-life accounts of Kozo Mino, a Hiroshima yakuza who wrote his memoir while in prison. As you’ll see in the movies, there’s nothing elegant or glamorous about yakuza life, and the movies often show the true dark side of being a yakuza. During the production of the films, real-life yakuza were enlisted as extras, and they would also provide input as to how each scene could be made more realistic.
The fact that real yakuza were present at the making of the movies not only gives Battles Without Honor and Humanity the most credibility among all yakuza movies, it also solidifies the series’ place in history as a series of movies that could never be made again, simply because it would be impossible nowadays to see a film studio collaborate with real yakuza on a movie.
Whatever values or principles the characters in the Yakuza games have, they all come from the deep history of yakuza culture, and even though the game can be extravagant and exaggerated in its depiction of its characters, they’re all written based on the foundation that was laid by Battles Without Honor and Humanity. There wouldn’t be a Yakuza series without these films.
Okay, so maybe those were more than five films. By my count, I think those were 17 movies in total (18 if you count Shinjuku Swan 2), but if you’ve got several dozens of hours to spare on the Yakuza series, you can surely see all these movies in a week. And if you’re still not done playing the Yakuza games, why not check out our Yakuza game rankings?
For the latest news on Yakuza, especially with Yakuza 7 (or Yakuza: Like a Dragon) coming out next month, make sure to stay tuned to our website and Facebook page.
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