In 1971 Toho Studios tried its hand at the yakuza chivalry (ninkyo) genre with Hideo Gosha’s The Wolves. For the better part of a decade ninkyo had been dominated by rival studio Toei, which had created a niche with films that often starred Ken Takakura as an honorable yakuza who rigidly sticks to the old-fashioned yakuza code even when surrounded by corruption and ruthless violence. Gosha’s offering, starring Tatsuya Nakadai, doesn’t attempt to stray from this established formula—quite the opposite, in fact—but it does offer a surprising level of character depth and gritty realism that should appeal to fans of yakuza eiga as well as cinema fans in general.
The film begins in the midst of a tense meeting in which rival gangs Enoki-ya and Kan’non-gumi are negotiating the construction of a railroad that goes through both their turfs. Enoki-ya, represented by Iwahashi (Nakadai), seems to be willing to offer a fair deal until they receive word that a section of the railroad has already been blown up by Kan’non-gumi. A fierce battle ensues between gangs, consisting mostly of up-close brawling and frantic wakizashi (short sword) slashing. Police eventually arrive to break it up; but not before both sides have been decimated and Iwahashi has personally slain the boss of Kan’non-gumi. Both he and Ozeki (Noboru Ando) of Kan’non-gumi are sentenced to long prison sentences for assault and homicide.
Four years later in 1927, the second year of the Showa era, sentence reductions are given to a vast number of Japan’s convicted criminals in celebration of the new emperor. Having served less than half of their intended sentences, Iwahashi and Ozeki are released from prison. A lot had changed in those four years, however. The Enoki-ya boss had recently died of a cerebral hemorrhage and the power vacuum left by the absence of both Iwahashi and Ozeki presented a unique opportunity for Asakura Genryu (Tetsuro Tamba), vice president of the Nationalist Party, to swoop in and act as a mediator between both gangs. Through his careful negotiations and the financial backing of the Japan Kyogiku Association he was able to unite the remaining Enoki-ya and Kan’non-gumi under the leadership of new bosses whom he basically hand-picked himself.
When Iwahashi returns he’s especially careful not to ruffle any feathers in the new regime, showing no resentment when he’s passed over as boss by a kyodai (sworn yakuza brother) of lower rank. He’s especially careful around members of Kan’non-gumi, going as far as begging one of their thugs for forgiveness after simply defending himself from an unprovoked attack. Nakadai is particularly impressive in these scenes, remaining outwardly stoic and sacrificing his own pride for the sake of the yakuza code and the safety of his brothers, but he also manages to convey the quiet rage bubbling just under the surface. His Kan’non-gumi counterpart, Ozeki, is stuck in a similar situation, but he’s not quite as willing to look the other way as Asakura Genryu manipulates both sides for his own gain. In sort of twin lead roles, these two actors bring completely different qualities to the table. Nakadai is brooding and cautious while Ando—a former yakuza himself—plays Ozeki with a bit more self-assured bravado.
Pulling aspects common to both the samurai and ninkyo genres, “The Wolves” is a uniquely character-driven yakuza film that augments a relatively simple, predictable plot with emotional depth and occasional unflinching realism.
Toho never really did assert itself in the traditional yakuza genre before Toei changed the game on them and shifted fan consciousness toward the ultra violent post-war portrayals of the lifestyle most of us are familiar with today. Bad timing and less-than-ideal circumstances allowed this film to be largely forgotten over the years save a pair of limited US screenings in 1972 and 1982, a stint on VHS in Japan, and an incredibly low-quality Artsmagic DVD release in the UK. It’s a shame, because Gosha’s take on ninkyo stands right up there with the best, and any movie fan should be proud to have this one in their collection.