Japanese movies, like their Hollywood counterparts, have produced plenty of 名台詞 (meiserifu, famous lines) over the years, in just about every genre. But when I was researching a book on ヤクザ映画 (yakuza eiga, Japanese gangster movies), I realized that this particular genre had generated more than its share.

One reason is that Japanese gangster-speak is filled with not just flavorsome slang — 娑婆 (shaba, the world outside prison), 島 (shima, gang territory) and 堅気 (katagi, straight) being among my favorites — but also expressions that sum up an entire world view in a few pungent words or characters.

一宿一飯の仁義 (isshuku ippan no jingi), for example, encapulates the classic gangster movie story of the 股旅物 (matatabimono, wandering gambler), who, in exchange for 一宿一飯 (isshuku ippan, a night’s lodging and meal) at the house of a friendly 親分 (oyabun, gang boss) becomes involved in the gang’s battles in accordance with 仁義 (jingi, the gang code). For an old-time gangster, typically played by Ken Takakura, an obligation, no matter how slight, must be repaid, even if it means risking his own skin.

The battles of postwar gangsters, however, have more usually been 仁義なき戦い (jingi naki tatakai, battles without honor or humanity) — Darwinian struggles that trash the gang code. This was also the general title of the five-part Kinji Fukasaku epic 「仁義なき戦い」 (“Battles Without Honor or Humanity,” 1973-74) about a 20-year gang war in Hiroshima — and has since become a phrase in non-gangster use.

Another reason is that, in their 1960s and 70s heyday, hundreds of ヤクザ映画 were made by Toei and other studios and several produced lines still remembered by fans today.

Among the most famous was uttered by Takakura just as he was about to dispatch an enemy with a ドス (dosu, short sword) — never a gun: 「死んで貰います」(“shinde moraimasu“), which is a polite way of saying “I want you dead.”

Another immortal Takakura line was one he delivered just before he and Ryo Ikebe were about to 殴りこみ(nagurikomi, invade the headquarters of a rival gang) in Kosaku Yamashita’s 「緋牡丹博徒」 (“Hibotan Bakuto,” “Red Peony Gambler,” 1968): 「所詮、俺達の行く先は赤い着物か、白い着物」 (“Shosen, oretachi no ikusaki wa akai kimono ka, shiroi kimono ka“; “After all, we’re bound for either a red kimono [worn by prisoners] or a white kimono [worn by the dead].”)

This stoic view of life extended to affairs of the heart. In Seijun Suzuki’s 「東京流れ者」 (“Tokyo Nagaremono,” “Tokyo Drifter,” 1966), Tetsuya Watari, whose character has become a hunted outcast after killing his duplicitous boss, must say farewell to his nightclub singer girlfriend, played by Chieko Matsubara. Before departing, he tells her 「流れ者に女はいらない、女がいちゃ歩けない」 (“Nagaremono ni onna wa iranai, onna ga icha arukenai“; “A drifter doesn’t need a woman. If a woman’s around he can’t walk”).

Heroes in traditional gangster movies, the so-called 任侠映画 (ninkyō eiga, chivalry films) set from the early Meiji Era (1868-1912) to the prewar period of the Showa Era (1926-1989), often had a similarly negative view of the gangster life, with the hero, fresh from むしょ (musho, short for 刑務所 [keimusho, prison]), trying earnestly to 足を洗う (ashi wo arau, literally “wash the feet,” or go straight). But, inevitably, since he is 義理人情に厚い (giri ninjō ni atsui), that is, faithful to his personal obligations, no matter what the cost to himself, he ends up being dragged into a gang 出入り (deiri, battle), tossing away his shot at a normal life.

The purest distillation of this gangsters-are-lost-souls attitude is found in Yamashita’s genre classic 「博奕打ち 総長賭博」 (“Bakuchiuchi Sōchō Tobaku,” “Big Gambling Ceremony,” 1968). Koji Tsuruta plays a self-sacrificing peacemaker in a gang succession struggle who is repeatedly forced into deadly violence. Finally realizing that the machinations of his own uncle, a gang boss, have led to the killings, he confronts him with a sword, bent on revenge.

The uncle turns coward and begs for his life: 「叔父貴分のワシにドスを向ける気か!てめぇの任侠道は そんな もんだったのか! 」(“Ojikibun no washi ni dosu wo mukeru ki ka! Temē no ninkyōdō wa sona mon dattanoka!“; “You can turn a sword on me, your uncle? Is that what the Way of Chivalry is to you?”)

Tsuruta replies before he plunges in the blade: 「任侠道か. そんなもん俺にはねえ。俺はただの”ケチな人殺し”だ.」(“Ninkyōdō ka. Sonna mon ore niwa nē. Ore wa tada no “kechi na hitogoroshi” da; “The Way of Chivalry? That has nothing to do with me. I’m just a low-down killer.”)

Dirty Harry has nothing on this guy.

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