Westerners know yakuza films by Suzuki, Fukasaku, Kitano, and Miike, but theirs are exceptions and different from quintessential yakuza, which are virtually unknown outside Japan. Arising in the 1960s, ninkyo eiga, "chivalry films," are still the real genre in Japan. Set in pre-WW2 days, they offer traditional values and heroic, honorable gangster protagonists. The protagonist must choose between "giri," loyalty to the gang, and "ninjo," feelings, to show honor. It's proper that mavericks rather than studio artists now have the glory of making ninkyo eiga, which are, above all, formulaic. However, Hideo Gosha manages to inject personal touches, so his name and work, and thus the importance of the form, should be better known. After his debut in 1964, Gosha made gangster and samurai films through the 1970s before the studio system fell, which forced him to work in other genres. His 1971 "The Wolves," is among his best-known, most accessible films.
Starring frequent lead Nakadai (Westerners saw his work with Akira Kurosawa in "High and Low" (Tengoku To Jigoku, 1963), "Kagemusha," 1980, and "Ran," 1985) it's the story of gangster Seiji Iwahashi, who, at Emperor Hirohito's ascending the throne in 1926, is pardoned and released after serving only part of a ten-year sentence for murdering the rival Kanno Syndicate's boss. Finding that his Enokiya Gang has, after its boss recently died, been absorbed into the Kannos, he also learns that, to cement the deal, the Kanno head will marry Aya, the late Enokiya leader's daughter. and the ex-girlfriend of Iwahashi's friend Tsutomu, who vanished after receiving the same pardon as Iwahashi.
The gangster has obeyed and served time for nothing; his gang is gone - variations on that plot are cliche, but it still offers fertile ground. Emphasizing character over action, "The Wolves" is long, yet Gosha has a knack for going against formula: Meeting a woman after his release Iwahashi seems about to have obligatory sex, but it turns out to be something else. Gosha's approach is remarkably straight. Traditionalist values are absent, and violence is realistic; this film is atypical.
"The Wolves" isn't entirely successful; its conclusion is no surprise for anyone who's seen a ninkyo eiga, but it's rock-solid genre, its characters as human as the formula allows, and Gosha's approach offers striking moments.
Shussho Iwai, Hideo Gosha, Tatsuya Nakadai, Noboru Ando, Komaki Kurihara, Kyoko Enami, Tet
Japanese cinema, yakuza, ninkyo eiga, Akira Kurosawa
Japanese with English subtitles Reviewer's Name:
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