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SYMPATHY FOR THE UNDERDOG (1971) is a Yakuza movie directed by Kinji Fukasaku (THE GREEN SLIME, MESSAGE FROM SPACE, BATTLE ROYALE), a favorite director among fans of Japanese genre films of the late 20th century (1961-2000). This one follows the fate of a Yokohama Yakuza chief, newly released from prison after ten years, who gathers up his old gang and takes them south to Okinawa to try and muscle in on the rackets there. If you know your Fukasaku Yakuza movies, you should have a good idea of how this turns out. You won't see a romanticized vision of Yakuza life and you won't find a great deal of attention to Yakuza rituals. A corporate ethos seems to have taken over the Yakuza world, spelling doom for smaller old-style gangs. You'll see lots of blood and violence, all of it messy and none of it cathartic.
The Okinawa setting is a brilliant touch and gives the film a different look from the typical Yakuza movie. Okinawa is seen as a tropical resort and the buildings and streets have their own regional flavor and color scheme. The presence of a large American military base on the island (a source of significant controversy in recent years and the cause of at least one Japanese Prime Minister's downfall) means an active red light district and lots of Americans, black and white, in various roles in the film. Gunji, the Yakuza chief (played by genre favorite Koji Tsuruta), brings six men with him and proceeds to arouse the wrath of the island's long entrenched and better-armed gangs. In fact, my only quibble with the film is that in one confrontation after another, there is so little chance that Gunji and his men would survive that the credibility factor quickly gets strained. "Surely they would have killed him by now," I kept thinking. One can argue, however, that Gunji, dressed in dark suit and shades throughout, and never one to show fear in the face of overwhelming odds, manages to continually inspire caution in his would-be rivals, even when they could so easily dispatch him and his small, pitiful band. Plus, Tsuruta brought to this film a distinguished history of previous Yakuza portrayals.
There are a few major action scenes, including a massive shootout when Jiro, a gang leader who resents Gunji's intrusion, brings several cars full of men with automatic weapons to lay siege to the motel where Gunji and his men are staying. The subsequent finale, where Gunji and his remaining three comrades take on a large Yakuza contingent from the mainland (all former enemies of Gunji), starts out like a replay of the climax of Sam Peckinpah's THE WILD BUNCH, the influence of which is seen in another major sequence as well. Most of the violence in the rest of the film comes in short, often unexpected bursts, in marked contrast to the languid tone cultivated in other scenes.
The film's masterful color cinematography is given a beautiful transfer on Home Vision's DVD. The film has a nice, evocative jazz soundtrack. The extras include the original trailer, which gives away a lot of the ending; Fukasaku's filmography; and a 16-minute interview with Sadao Yamane, identified on the DVD case as "Fukasaku biographer." Yamane cites Peckinpah and THE WILD BUNCH as influences, along with another American director, Sam Fuller, and Gillo Pontecorvo's BATTLE OF ALGIERS. The trailer identified for me the big, scruffy actor who plays Yonabaru, the scarred, one-armed Okinawan crime boss. It's none other than Tomisaburo Wakayama, a year before he began playing Ogami Itto in the "Lone Wolf and Cub" series. Fukasaku went on to direct MODERN YAKUZA: OUTLAW KILLER (aka STREET MOBSTER, 1972) and the five-film YAKUZA PAPERS series (1973-74), all exemplary examples of his work in the genre.