It wasn’t until near the end of his life and career that Japanese filmmaker Kinji Fukasaku really came to the attention of most American film fans. In 2000, his final movie, Battle Royale exploded on the screen, serving notice to audiences in the states that a bold, innovative director had arrived. The only problem was that by the time Battle Royale had come out, Fukasaku’s career already spanned five decades and spawned over sixty films, including Graveyard of Honor, the classic Battles Without Honor series, and the sci-fi classic The Green Slime (one of his better known film among American audiences). He is regarded as one of Japan’s greatest directors, and if his work were better known outside of his native country, he would easily be considered one of the greatest directors in the world. Best known for his yakuza films, Fukasaku reinvented the Japanese gangster genre with a series of gritty films in the 1970s.
Street Mobster was the first film to open my eyes to the work of Kinji Fukasaku. Moving at a hyper pace that seldom slows down, Street Mobster is a raw, depraved and brutally relentless bloodbath. The incomparable Bunta Sugawara stars as Isamu Okita, psychotic street thug born on the day Japan surrendered World War II. After getting out of prison, Isamu forms his own gang of punks, and goes to battle against the yakuza, who he despises. But when Isamu and his boys take things too far, he is forced to become allies with one yakuza clan, in order to keep from being killed by another. Yakuza boss Yato (Noboru Ando) hopes that by having Isamu and his gang under his command, he can control and harness their violent outbursts. The problem is, Isamu is a nihilistic madman who cannot and will not be controlled. The result is one of the most violent gangster films of all time, which makes Scarface look like Disney fare.
Street Mobster is actually the sixth and final installment in the popular Gendai Yakuz (a.k.a. Modern Yakuza) series that starred Sugawara. It was the only film in the series to be directed by Fukasaku, and marked the first real collaboration between the director and Sugawara. More important, Street Mobster helped to usher in a new era in yakuza films. Before this film, Japanese gangster movies were more often than not about glamorized, chivalrous anti-heroes. But Fukasaku changed all of that, opening the door for a new, ultra-violent breed of yakuza films, of which he is considered one of the best directors.
Revered in Japan – and deservedly so – as one of the greatest filmmakers of all time, Kinji Fukasaku has demonstrated over the years an incredible versatility as a filmmaker, from the quiet beauty of Geisha House to the depraved violence of Battle Royale. His unique vision can be traced all the way back to his early films of the 1960s, but 1972’s Street Mobster is easily one of his best films. Shot primarily hand-held, with tons of zooming in and out, and often break-neck editing, this is Fukasaku’s signature piece in terms of kinetic energy and nihilistic theme.
Released in the United States on DVD in 2004 (when many of Kukasaku’s better known films were also released), Street Mobster is currently out of print. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take the time to find it, as it is one of Fukasaku’s best yakuza films.