Although a perennial, prolific and promiscuous genre-jumper, Teruo Ishii is undoubtedly most famous… nay, notorious… in the West for the series of “pinky violence” epics he initiated in 1968 with Tokugawa Onna Keibatsi-Shi (The Joy Of Torture / Shogun’s Joy Of Torture) and we’ve already covered his Zankoku Ijô Gyakutai Monogatari: Genroku Onna Keizu (Orgies Of Edo, 1969). Constrained by contemporary domestic censorship restrictions on images of the naked female form, these films routinely doubled (and indeed tripled) down on imagery of women’s BDSM debasement, to increasingly delirious and (from today’s vantage point… “the Sadism inherent in The Male Gaze” and all that) decidedly troubling effect.
Although women are routinely insulted, groped and slapped around for getting uppity in 1969’s Yakuza Law (original title Yakuza Keibatsu-Shi: Rinchi!), it’s main thrust is the dire punishments handed out to (male) Yakuza members who break the code of the underworld (give or take the moll who ends up in a cement block with her gangster boyfriend)… and it’s unrelentingly grisly stuff, at levels consistently way above and beyond the well known scene in Sydney Pollack’s The Yakuza (1974) where Robert Mitchum cuts off one of his finger as honourable atonement for a misdeed.
After a mind bogglingly gruesome opening compendium of tortures that don’t even occur in the main body of the feature, Yakuza Law begins to unfold, like Orgies Of Edo, as a portmanteau movie told in three instalments though, unlike that film, they play out over discrete historical eras. In that Edo Period, various samurais plot against and double cross each other for advancement in the organisation. I must admit that I found the plot of this section quite difficult to follow (Jasper Sharp’s commentary track helped a bit) but the outcome was clear enough – a stack of mutilated corpses. Fast forward to the Meiji Period, where Ogata (Minoru Oki, later one of the dreaded Masters Of Death in Shogun Assassin) comes out of the slammer, having taken the fall to protect his Yakuza master. No gratitude or payback is forthcoming and when Ogata sees how his allegedly honourable brethren mistreat the locals, he relinquishes his vows, resulting in another predictable pile of mutilated corpses. Stand out moments include somebody hacking out his own eyeball and throwing it in the face of the guy to whom he owed a debt of honour. A word of advice to Mino (Ryôta Minowada), whose criminal colleagues beat and piss on him for some misdemeanour… probably best to register your protests over this treatment with your mouth closed, dude!
Finally, the action is brought bang up to date (ish) with another tale of internecine gang conflict, headlined by Teruo Yoshida (who plays the idealistic doctor Gentatsu in Orgies of Edo). Technological advances mean that in the late ’60s, traditional swordplay has been replaced by guns, faces are burned with cigarette lighters and renegade yakuza can be locked in cars that are then crushed into cubes. The “guy dangled out of helicopter” sequence and casino scene are straight out of the James Bond franchise (which had visited Japan two years previously with Lewis Gilbert’s You Only Live Twice) and the unlikely feats of marksmanship, eccentric whistling henchmen and prominent poignant poinging of a jew’s harp on Masao Yagi’s soundtrack, not to mention the plot device of a maverick / Ronin playing two factions off against each other, suggest a desire to cop a dollop of Spaghetti Western box office…
… and yes, I know that virtually the whole of Leone’s A Fistful Of Dollars (1964) was an outrageous pinch from Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (1961) but Ishii was undoubtedly oblivious to such niceties, more concerned instead to pack a plethora of audience attracting elements into these portmanteau pictures to tempt contemporary viewers away from their beloved TV sets. Sharp points out that like contemporary Amicus releases, these films ran on narrative patterns more in tune with people’s telly watching habits, while simultaneously serving up stuff that couldn’t possibly be broadcast on the box.
Ishii always was a commercial film maker rather than auteur with any kind of message, as he is at great, er, pains to point out in the bonus interview here. The late director was not without a social conscience though, explaining that he stopped directing episodes in the ongoing Supergiants franchise (below) after reports that kids wearing capes were jumping out of windows and injuring themselves.
Tom Mes contributes new writing to a collector’s booklet that will appear in the first pressing only. Jasper Sharp’s commentary track, as previously mentioned, is useful in maintaining a running score card on who’s doing what to whom and periodically drawing our attention away from the ongoing outrages to e.g. a particularly painterly piece of composition or the merits of Yagi’s score. He also name checks Morihei Magatani’s Girl Divers At Spook Mansion (1959, below) whose IMDB synopsis makes it sound like an especially deranged episode of Scoby Doo. Any chance of releasing that one, Arrow?
It’s indicative of this film’s severe imagery that Mr Sharp can introduce its second episode with the observation that it’s the least violent of the three, his comment coinciding with Ogata storming into a rival gang leader’s place and chopping his arm off… that’s Yakuza Law for you!