In the early 2000s, when I was writing a book about yakuza movies, veterans of the genre’s 1960s and ’70s heyday I met had a fierce pride in their work but no illusions about its low ranking in the film-world hierarchy. In particular, the Toei studio’s films about sword-swinging or gun-toting gangsters had long been conspicuous by their absence from festival circuit lineups and the awards season prize lists.
The clearest indication that critical winds have shifted is the inclusion of one of those films, Kinji Fukasaku’s “Jingi Naki Tatakai” (“Battles Without Honor and Humanity”) in the Cannes Film Festival’s 2015 Cannes Classic program for digitally remastered and rediscovered films. This 1973 genre masterpiece about a 20-year gang war in Hiroshima and nearby Kure is nothing like what the world’s premier film festival once considered a Cannes-worthy Japanese film. Based on the memoirs of a real-life gangster and shot with a news-documentary-like immediacy and propulsion, the film trashed the myth of the noble outlaw that earlier Toei films had been instrumental in perpetuating.