It’s hard to believe that Japan would feel any nostalgia for the immediate post-World War Two era. War-time devastation, the humiliation of military occupation, and the scarcity of food and household goods would be enough to make any people try to blot out such a time of misery from their national consciousness. But in the wake of Japan’s economic miracle which saw them become the world’s second largest economy in less than two decades, millions looked back at the time with a sublime fondness. Perhaps it was bittersweet memories of the final fading of Japan’s feudal past; the last gasps of tradition before they were drowned in a wave of ruthless modernity. One certainly gets that impression from one of the most wildly successful yakuza films of the 1960s, Kiyoshi Saeki’s Brutal Tales of Chivalry (1965), a highly romanticized look at the impact organized crime had on the reconstruction Japan.
The film follows the fate of the Kozu-gumi, a yakuza family operating in the bombed out remains of the Asakusa district in Tokyo. Far from being extorting criminals, human traffickers, and gamblers, these yakuza are benevolent masters of a street market they hope will revitalize their neighborhood. But their leader is assassinated by the Shinsei-kai, an upstart gang running a rival market who harass, assault, and murder whoever gets in their way. The new Kozu-gumi leader Seiji Terajima (Ken Takakura in the role that made him famous) struggles to fight back against the evil Shinsei-kai without resorting to open violence. Meanwhile, he is aided by Kazama (Ryo Ikebe), a friendly yakuza from another district who has sworn his allegiance while searching Asakusa for his long-lost sister. Together, the two will bring the Shinsei-kai to their knees, restoring peace, honor, and prosperity to the struggling townsfolk.
All of which is patently ridiculous. The yakuza have always been organized criminals, but in the years before Kinji Fukasaku’s groundbreaking Battles Without Honor and Humanity (1973), this was how the yakuza were depicted in Japanese cinema. And something here definitely clicked with audiences as it was swiftly followed by eight sequels. From the surface it seems like typical gangster melodrama: a young lieutenant struggling with the responsibilities of becoming the new boss; political strategies between rivaling gangs and black market operations; women who exist solely to torment the lusts and affections of the protagonists before dying tragically at the end of the second act. But the film can be read as a damning rejection of Westernized modernity: the Kozu-gumi are honorable traditionalists, the Shinsei-kai opportunistic capitalists. This is particularly obvious in a scene where the Shinsei-kai burn down the Kozu-gumi’s new indoor marketplace—it mimics how America’s firebombing of Tokyo left Asakusa a pile of ashes and dead bodies. Perhaps the best scene in the film is the one where Kazama formally introduces himself to the Kozu-gumi in a ritual of supplicating gestures and rigidly formalized speech—it’s as highly choreographed and rehearsed as a tea ceremony.
Therein lies the appeal: the dream of the Japan that was. Thankfully later generations of filmmakers would set the record straight about the reality of life in the yakuza. But for the fantasy it is, Brutal Tales of Chivalry is a tough, elegiac piece of cinema that, thanks to its recent Blu-ray release through Twilight Time, is a worthy addition to the collection of any lover of the gangster genre.