3 out of 5 stars

The standout jazz score by Takeo Yamashita counterpoints what might otherwise be mistaken for a period setting: a man walks alongside a high, seemingly fortified white wall. All we see at first are his feet kicking through fallen leaves, clad in what appear to be traditional waraji sandals. It’s as if he’s stepped out of a bygone era, and in many ways, he has. The helpful on-screen text introduces him as Masuo Gunji (Kôji Tsuruta), the ex-chief of the Hamamura Family. His voiceover tells us he’s just completed a 10-year prison sentence. The two men waiting to greet him are his right-hand man, Ozaki (Asao Koike), and Shark (Hideo Murota). The film explores the strength of their fraternal bonds as they demonstrate unwavering loyalty to each other in a world where betrayal is commonplace. Like most of the cast, these actors are part of the Toei Studios ensemble, familiar faces to fans of Japan’s genre cinema.

There are so many crime thrillers and gangster films that begin with someone being released from jail that it could be considered a subgenre in itself. The reason this variation on a theme recurs so frequently is that it offers opportunities to explore how times have changed, which is the central theme here. It’s also a great storytelling device to drop the viewer right into the heart of the story with a ready-made premise and a group of characters with established relationships and motivations.

Using an inventive mix of montage and freeze-frames reminiscent of news reportage, director Kinji Fukasaku efficiently establishes the scene. We learn that Gunji was sent to prison after the Hamamura family clashed with the Kohokukai clan, led by Noboru Kudo (Noboru Andô), for control of the dockyards. Only after a brutal battle resulting in the deaths or arrests of most men on both sides did the rival bosses realise they had been manipulated by Daitokai, a corporate front for a major Tokyo gang that wanted to take control of the docks.

In addition to the sporadic use of handheld vérité-style filming and photojournalistic montages, authenticity is further enhanced by the presence of Noboru Andô, the real deal. His screen debut was the biopic Blood and the Law (1965), based on memoirs he wrote while in prison about his time as a yakuza gang boss controlling Tokyo’s Shibuya district. Upon his release, he renounced his life of crime and found success as a singer, writer, producer, and actor. Sympathy for the Underdog was his 25th big-screen credit, and, along with most of the main cast, he had recently starred in Japan Organized Crime Boss (1969), an earlier film in Kinji Fukasaku’s ongoing series inspired by true stories and testimonies from real yakuza. I also enjoyed his cool performance in Hideo Gosha’s Violent Streets (1974), which focuses on a similar dynamic between the male leads who develop a camaraderie conflicted by past associations.

Gunji decides to get the old gang back together, but there are only a handful of men who remain loyal and willing. Fukasaku provides another helpful montage to introduce the ex-Hamamura men in brief vignettes, each named with onscreen text during a freeze frame. This is a big help because one of the most confusing things about most yakuza movies is the sheer number of names and territories one must try to keep track of, which is nigh on impossible if only mentioned in dialogue.

To announce his return, Gunji confronts Oba (Asao Uchida), the boss of the Daitokai, demanding compensation for the men he lost in the dockland war a decade ago and for his time served without turning state’s witness. He then gathers his men to discuss their comeback plans.

Finding Noboru Kudo badly injured in his derelict headquarters, Gunji offers him protection despite being old rivals. Kudo’s life-threatening injuries were a result of a failed attempt to kill Oba. Though on opposing sides, they now share a common enemy.

One can assume Kudo also served time, and much has transpired in their 10-year absence. Assessing their limited resources, the gang concedes there are no opportunities on their old turf. Old Man (Tôru Yuri) laments the passing of the good old days following the war when chaos provided ample opportunities for the bold and reckless. His remarks led Gunji to focus on Okinawa, the last territory relinquished by the US to Japan in 1971. This situation mirrored mainland Japan immediately after the wars. The Americans held onto the island for its strategic value during the Vietnam War and its importance as a trade hub. Its location and lack of definitive border controls during the transition of governance made it central to “The Okinawa System,” a major network for the international drug trade.

When Gunji’s clan makes its move on Okinawa Island, its first target is a whisky smuggling racket operating through contacts within the US military base at Naha. If they manage to seize control of that, they’ll then control the clubs and casinos the smugglers have been supplying. Their main obstacle is what they refer to as a punk street gang—new-style opportunists who don’t control a recognised turf and tend to leverage power through violence and intimidation. However, it turns out their leader, Mad Dog Jiro (Kenji Imai), is the brother of Yonabal (Tomisaburō Wakayama), an old-school yakuza boss who controls central Koza.

The initial conflict between ‘worthy enemies’ eventually develops into an uneasy alliance when the Daitokai move in to assert their dockland dominance in this new territory. How can Gunji change the course of events that seems to be heading for a replay of what happened ten years ago? His response surprises everyone involved and makes for an adrenaline-fuelled and visceral climax.

Having recently revisited Japan’s 1970s yakuza sub-genres while reviewing the first three Valiant Red Peony films (1968-69), I understand how the films of Kinji Fukasaku spearheaded the transition from the mythologised nostalgia of ninkyo eiga, with their period settings, to the brutally realistic jitsuroku eiga set against 20th-century backdrops. Fukasaku would soon redefine the latter with Battles Without Honor and Humanity (1973), which spawned a popular and influential franchise.

This shift to a more realist take on the gangster genre can be seen as part of a transatlantic dialogue with Hollywood. Fukasaku’s films were among those influencing Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather (1972). Similarly, America was moving away from the idealised (some might say revisionist) traditional Western and began telling more unflinching, brutal stories. For instance, Fukasaku undoubtedly took note of Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969), and its influence is evident in Sympathy for the Underdog. In turn, Peckinpah’s Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974) was reportedly guided by Fukasaku’s yakuza films.

Sympathy for the Underdog features a handful of old-school gangsters who still operate by strict honour codes, considering themselves successors to the samurai. However, their days seem numbered with the rise of violent street gangs and powerful new-style corporate yakuza who operate behind a façade of legality. It’s clear from the start that Gunji’s gang aren’t good guys. They’re still criminals but embody that old adage of honour among thieves. They strive to operate within their code of respect and reciprocity in an underworld where such concepts have become old-fashioned during Gunji’s absence.

Post-war cinema in Japan was, understandably, reflective and overshadowed by the aftermath of the atomic bombs and the ensuing US occupation. Whether the metaphor used to embody the cultural chaos and socio-political upheaval took the form of kaiju, nostalgic samurai stories, or more modern yakuza movies, narratives of transition were ubiquitous. The nation was searching for a new cultural identity to recognise and honour valuable aspects of their rich heritage while forging a way forward into an uncertain future.

Kinji Fukasaku reflects this with a distinctive narrative structure that tends to shape most of his yakuza films. Those familiar with Gustav Freytag’s structuralist theory of narrative, known as ‘Freytag’s Pyramid’, could instead think of ‘Fukasaku’s Valley’—a downward spiral where the action unwinds towards an inevitable and decisive event that completely changes everything, followed by the uphill struggle faced by the survivors in dealing with the ‘fallout’. Fukasaku’s Valley also contravenes Tzvetan Todorov’s widely applied media theory, which can be summarized as Equilibrium, Disequilibrium, and New Equilibrium, because he often denies us the satisfaction of the new equilibrium by ending on another disruptive event. This is one reason why Kinji Fukasaku has recently been reevaluated as one of Japan’s most important and innovative auteurs.

So, it’s wonderful that his films are being given a dust-off with a series of welcome restorations from boutique physical media labels such as Eureka Entertainment and, in this case, Radiance. This high-definition digital transfer is crisp and clean, retaining the velvety film grain in the low-light interior sequences and the generally rich colour palette, which makes some of the location shots seem washed out by comparison. These changes in colour grading aren’t a problem at all and capture an authentic 1970s aesthetic that’s sometimes lost in the restoration process.

A good portion of the action unfolds on the neon-lit night streets or in sleazy jazz joints. Takeo Yamashita’s score dominates the atmosphere, while the experienced cinematographer Hanjirô Nakazawa makes the most of unusual camera angles. He employs lampshades as formal blocks of luminous colour, picking out relevant details from deep shadows. He would return to work with Fukasaku the following year on Outlaw Killers: Three Mad Dog Brothers (1972) and again on the excellent Fall of Akō Castle (1978).

Kôji Tsuruta portrays Gunji almost as if he were a vengeful ghost, biding his time until he can seize the moment. His performance is minimalist, almost expressionless. His sparse dialogue and stillness become a strange form of action, or at least a catalyst for the actions of others. Often, his lack of response is, in itself, a chilling response that hints at a surplus of pent-up violence waiting for release. He wears dark glasses throughout, except for one poetically understated intimate scene with female lead Akiko Kudô. Here, we get a glimpse of his remaining humanity and his one hope of redemption. As expected from this high-calibre cast of seasoned actors, all the performances are measured and competent. However, Tomisaburō Wakayama, as the larger-than-life swaggering Yonabal with one arm and a scarred face, dominates and provides the most memorable moments until the final scenes. Here, Fukasaku returns to the almost docu-drama use of frenetic handheld camera and freeze frames.


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Limited Edition Blu-ray Special Features:

  • High-definition digital transfer.
  • Uncompressed mono PCM audio.
  • Audio commentary by yakuza film expert Nathan Stuart (2024)… in which he provides useful and detailed information about the key cast and crew which is hard to source elsewhere outside Japan. His enthusiasm for the genre cinema of Japan is clear as he shares valid opinions and analyses, mostly keeping his thorough commentary relevant to what we’re seeing on screen.
  • 27-minute interview with Fukasaku biographer Olivier Hadouchi (2024). As a Frenchman, he bases his astute analysis largely on auteur theory. He argues that Kinji Fukasaku has been unfairly overlooked as a significant director until recently and should be considered one of Japan’s foremost auteurs. He also explores the parallels with the French New Wave and directors like Julien Duvivier. This is followed by an in-depth analysis of Fukasaku’s defining themes, which tend to centre on groups of characters in extremis, hurtling towards their doom. The film is then placed within the context of the jitsuroku eiga genre before a more detailed discussion of the narrative structure and how it is codified into a pattern recognisable in Fukasaku’s other movies. A very thorough, thought-provoking, and educational discussion.
  • 26-minute visual essay on Okinawa on screen by film historian and author Aaron Gerow (2024). As Professor of East Asian Languages & Literature and Film & Media Studies at Yale University, Gerow’s well-placed to deliver another academic discussion that will undoubtedly be a revelation for many viewers. He starts by summarising other films set in Okinawa and how they’ve attempted to represent its unique, transitional culture without oversimplification. He discusses the complex issues of migrant workers, gender inequalities, and language suppression while providing a potted history of Okinawa: pre-war, wartime (which saw casualties reaching around a third of the population), the US occupation after the war, and its uneasy assimilation into Japan, with attempts to homogenise its culture. He then examines the representation of Okinawa in Sympathy for the Underdog, where the island itself can perhaps be understood as ‘the underdog’.
  • Trailer.
  • New and improved English subtitle translation.
  • Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Time Tomorrow.
  • Limited edition booklet featuring new writing by Bastian Meiresonne and an archival review of the film. Not available at the time of review.
  • Limited Edition of 3000 copies, presented in full-height Scanavo packaging with removable OBI strip leaving packaging free of certificates and markings.
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Cast & Crew

director: Kinji Fukasaku.
writers: Kinji Fukasaku, Fumio Kônami & Hirô Matsuda
starring: Kôji Tsuruta, Tomisaburô Wakayama, Noboru Andô, Asao Koike, Kenji Imai, Hideo Murota, Keijirô Morozumi & Akiko Kudô.