“Yakuza” is a word used to describe gangster organizations in Japan, with members who often uphold samurai traditions and sport extensive back tattoos. The equivalent in the West might be an organization like the mafia, and just as there are plenty of great movies about the mafia in America – whose roots are often Italian – so too are there a host of great yakuza movies that take a look at organized crime in Japan.
This brand of gangster movie isn’t super popular in the West, but they deserve more recognition outside Japan, and are likely to be just as appealing to most gangster movie fans as those about the mafia. The following 10 movies are among the best that provide insight into the yakuza lifestyle. Most are Japanese productions, though there are a couple of English-language co-productions included below to keep things interesting.
The original ‘Battles Without Honor and Humanity’ series (1973-1974)
It’s hard to mention great yakuza movies without bringing up the Battles Without Honor and Humanity series (sometimes known as the Yakuza Paper series). There are 11 films in the series in total, with most of them being made and released during the 1970s – a time in Japanese cinema when yakuza movies were all the rage.
Of those 1970s movies, the original five – all released in 1973 or 1974 – are certainly the best. They’re frenetic, chaotic, violent, and pulse-pounding movies, with one main protagonist – Shozo Hirono – navigating a complex criminal underworld filled with murder, suspicion, and betrayal. These films are sometimes hard to follow by design, due to the complex plots, but they remain thrilling and unlike anything else out there, and still pack a cinematic punch after almost 50 years.
Takeshi Kitano is a filmmaker/actor who’s closely tied to the yakuza genre. He’s perhaps most recognizable to general audiences as the head instructor from Battle Royale (2000), but has also made plenty of great crime films throughout his career, pulling multiple duties by directing, writing, and acting in most of them.
Sonatine is one of his most notable yakuza movies, but certainly provides an odd, somewhat eccentric twist on the genre. The main character is a part of the yakuza, but is becoming tired of the lifestyle, and starts to question the violent things he’s done during his time as a gangster. It’s an introspective and quiet yakuza film, as a result… besides the brief bursts of often shocking violence, of course.
‘The Yakuza’ (1974)
The Yakuza might well be the most well-known yakuza movie made by a non-Japanese director, and filmed (mostly) in English. It was directed by Sydney Pollack and starred Robert Mitchum, with the story focusing on a westerner who travels to Japan to help out a friend, only to get mixed up with members of the yakuza in the process.
It stands as an accessible yakuza movie for English-speaking viewers, as Mitchum’s character provides an outsider’s view into the criminal underworld of Japan. As a result, some might not consider it a truly authentic yakuza film, but it’s still a worthy watch, and has a particularly strong final act that more than justifies the occasionally slow pacing.
‘Outlaw: Gangster VIP’ (1968)
One of the most extensive yakuza series besides the Battles Without Honor and Humanity series, the Outlaw Gangster VIP series had six entries, all released between 1968 and 1969. Of those, the first one – simply titled Outlaw: Gangster VIP – tends to be considered the best of the lot.
It’s a truly underrated crime movie, with a gripping plot that focuses on a young yakuza member who seeks revenge against his superiors after his friends are hurt. It’s extremely fast-paced and unpredictable throughout, and has a slightly less sprawling scope, making it a little easier to follow – and overall less chaotic – than most films in the Battles Without Honor and Humanity series.
‘Violent Cop’ (1989)
Another great crime film from Takeshi Kitano, Violent Cop is a movie that very much delivers on what the title implies. Kitano expertly portrays a ruthless cop who’s more than willing to break numerous laws if it means he can take down the yakuza gang members he’s pursuing.
Violent Cop is quite extreme, with a good deal of deadbeat, dark humor throughout much of its runtime that’s combined with brutal violence and some very downbeat moments. It’s got a thrillingly unpredictable tone, and features a story that questions whether a police officer like Kitano’s character is truly any more lawful than the gangsters he’s tasked with taking down.
‘Tokyo Drifter’ (1966)
A movie that proves style over substance doesn’t have to be a bad thing, Tokyo Drifter is a dazzling and remarkably unique low-budget yakuza movie. The plot concerns a complex web of betrayal and assassinations, with various characters engaged in desperate, convoluted games of cat and mouse throughout.
It’s the kind of movie where you won’t necessarily lose much if you can’t keep track of the plot, as it’s the feeling you get from watching a movie like Tokyo Drifter that matters most. It’s a hugely creative movie, consistently colorful, and willing to subvert the expectations of just about any viewer.
The 21st century hasn’t slowed Takeshi Kitano down as a filmmaker interested in yakuza stories, if 2010’s Outrage is anything to go by. This film – the first in a trilogy – depicts a huge war erupting among different yakuza gangs. Inside the chaos, Kitano’s character is on a desperate quest for revenge after being betrayed by his bosses.
Even by yakuza movie standards, the bodycount in Outrage is huge, and it feels rare for a scene to go by without another character dying. The constant death and violence can become exhausting, but it’s probably by design, knowing Kitano’s eccentric style and willingness to challenge his audience. In some ways, it’s very simple and blunt, but in other ways, it’s very overwhelming and convoluted. It’s an interesting crime movie; that’s for sure.
‘Kill Bill Vol. 1’ (2003)
Volume one of Kill Bill – the film that might be Quentin Tarantino’s masterpiece – is first and foremost a homage to martial arts cinema (or simply a martial arts movie in its own right). It’s action-packed and contains one particularly huge fight scene, being the faster-paced and arguably more exciting half of this epic revenge story.
Kill Bill Vol. 1 also owes a great deal to classic yakuza movies, to the point where it could arguably be called a yakuza movie. After all, at least half of the movie takes place in Japan, with The Bride spending much of the runtime targeting O-Ren Ishii and her army of yakuza gangsters, who fight The Bride in the film’s gigantic – and bloody – climactic battle.
‘Graveyard of Honor’ (1975)
1975’s Graveyard of Honor was directed by Kinji Fukasaku, who immediately before the release of this film had directed the first five Battles Without Honor and Humanity movies. Graveyard of Honor follows a different set of characters and storyline, but retains the grit, tension, violence, and energy of the five yakuza movies that Fukasaku had previously directed.
As you’d expect from a movie with “Graveyard” in the title, this is a pretty bleak movie, focusing on a particularly monstrous yakuza member named Rikio Ishikawa. He spends much of the film betraying those close to him, acting violent and disorderly, and generally being an awful person. It’s one of the darkest looks at the yakuza lifestyle, and is even more critical of such a life than the Battles Without Honor and Humanity movies were.
‘Graveyard of Honor’ (2002)
2002’s Graveyard of Honor may technically be a remake of the 1975 film of the same name, but it has more than enough differences to make it worth watching alongside the original. It’s almost 40 minutes longer, and though it features the same main character of Rikio Ishikawa – and a similar core premise – it takes numerous different turns and detours to keep it thrilling and intense, even for those familiar with the original.
It’s directed by Takashi Miike who, along with Takeshi Kitano, is keeping the yakuza genre alive into the 21st century. While he might be better known for stomach-churning horror movies like Audition, or dark, disturbing comedies like Gozu, he’s also done fantastic work in the crime genre, as demonstrated by his thrilling and worthwhile take on the original Graveyard of Honor.