Wives of the Yakuza (Gokudo no Onna Tachi)

Japan is filled with oodles of films about the Yakuza detailing both their misdeeds as well as their code of honor – but as the saying goes “Behind every good man is a woman”. The same might be said about bad men and the women behind them and this series of films tells their stories. Well-known journalist Shoko Ieda spent a great deal of time with many of these wives and she wrote a piece on them for a magazine that became the basis for a long lasting series of films. The first film came out in 1986 and at least ten more “Wives of the Yakuza” were produced from then through 1998 and yet another installment is due out later this year (2005). So it appears that this has been a fairly popular series of films to last this long. At this time, as far as I know only the first two are available with English subtitles though the next two in the series are out on DVD without subtitles.
The first two are enjoyable films as they fall somewhere between “The Godfather” and “The Days of Our Lives” with equal servings of gang intrigue and soapy melodrama with bite size amounts of action and nudity thrown in for good measure. The films in the series are connected only by theme and the characters generally do not cross from one film to another. The series also changed directors on a constant basis from one film to the next with only a few instances of a director doing more than one film. The image of a quiet wife waiting for her man to come back after a hard day of extortion to rub his back and make him tea is one that you should expunge from your thoughts – these are often tough broads who exert a large amount of influence in the Yakuza world – think Hillary Clinton – and they often take up the space that has been evacuated by their husbands due to various reasons – death, jail or vice.
Two actresses in particular dominated many of these films though as different characters in each of them. Shima Iwashita was already a well-known actress when she appeared in her first “Wives of the Yakuza” in 1986. Married to director Masahiro Shinoda, she had appeared in films since 1960 and had been in a few classic ones – “Late Autumn”, “An Autumn Afternoon” from Ozu, “Red Lion”, “A Ballad of Orin” directed by her husband, “The Demon” along with many others. She was to appear in eight films in the series and often played the implacable nerves of steel wife married to a high ranking Yakuza. Often co-starring with her is Rino Katase who was to appear in eight films as well. She wasn’t nearly as well known as her co-star and at least from the first two films as evidence provides the majority of the sex appeal in the films. Soft, curvy and vulnerable, she is the ying to Shima’s yang and is also more than willing to shed her clothes.

Wives of the Yakuza
Director: Hideo Gosha
Year: 1986
Production Company: Toei
Running Time: 119 minutes

By the time of this film, Hideo Gosha was perhaps past his samurai classics from the 1960s' and 70's but he is still more than capable of spinning a complex tale of internecine fighting along with a parallel story of two sisters at odds with one another. Gosha refuses to rush the narrative and though it seems at times to be slowly paced, this allows the various characters to be nicely fleshed out. In the final twenty minutes Gosha finally turns the volume up to full and trots out three terrific sequences in a row – the two sisters in a full on cat fight, another of a torrid sex scene that ends with a wonderfully startling exploitation image (the image is of an adult and spoiler nature) that takes in sex, nudity, guns and death and finally an abrupt assassination. He leaves you wanting more and I initially assumed the second film in the series would continue this exclamation mark of an ending, but it didn’t. There seemed like a lot of room left for another chapter in the lives of these two wives of the Yakuza.

While her husband is in jail, Tamaki (Shima Iwashita) fills in for him in order to run his gang, the Awazu – they are a sub-gang of the Domoto Group – the largest Yakuza family in Japan. She is primarily a businesswoman looking out for their interests and expanding wherever possible. In fact, while her husband has languished in jail the group has doubled their size and become a formidable part of the Yakuza world. Most of this is due to her astuteness and no nonsense attitude. She had once been the “number one girl in the pleasure district” where she had met her husband and seen a good thing, but now past her youth she is focused on maintaining a strong force for her husband to come out to. She is very fair in her dealings and uses force only when necessary and is willing to forgive transgressions if it serves her long term purposes – but when the occasion demands it she will impose hard discipline on her underlings – such as asking one of her men to lose a finger because one of his club employees was selling drugs on the side. In her traditional kimono garb, she cuts an impressive and formidable figure in the Yakuza world and those who underestimate her due to her gender soon regret it. One time they try and put a hit on her and she calmly reaches underneath her kimono and pulls out a gun and shoots them - later that night she has the house of the man who ordered the hit bulldozed with him and his family in it. Later she forgives him when he pledges feality to her - under the demands of his own wife.
Her sister, Makoto (Rino Katase), works as a bartender and lives with her elderly father. She has no connection with the Yakuza world and prefers it that way and has not seen her sister in many years. Though initially she is the demure and shy type by the time the film is over her naked breasts get more oohing and caressing than a newborn baby. She gets the attention of many unwanted admirers including Sugita (Masanori Sera) a Yakuza creep that she is warned by friends to stay away from.
The Domito Group is a loose confederation of various semi-autonomous gangs and when the group head dies immediate strains begin to unravel it from within. Unlike the secretive crime families in most countries, the Domito Group acts like any other corporation by holding press conferences to announce the plans of succession and the public follows their antics in fascination. The Horya branch of this “corporation” isn’t pleased with the new successor and breaks away – again announced formally to the press, but when the main family disagrees with this it’s time to put away the public relations tools and pull out the guns. Tamaki has allied her group with the main branch and tries to position the Awazu to be top dog by the time the air has cleared and her husband is released.
Tamaki also decides to intervene once again in her family’s life and tries to arrange a worthy marriage for her sister who she desperately wants to keep out of the Yakuza life, but on a short vacation in Guam Makoto runs into Sugita and after he forces her to have sex she falls for him hook, line and sinker – and him for her. His small gang though is aligned against her sister in the gang war and the two sisters find themselves on opposite sides. What is rather pleasing is that the relationship of Makoto and Sugita goes against expectations – they really do love each other and he promises that with her behind him he will become the “Capone of organized crime”. A sweet promise to your wife and she happily takes up den mother duties to his gang. This all leads methodically and intriguingly to the big bang finish that Gosha gives us.

My rating for this film: 7.0

Wives of the Yakuza 2
Director: Toru Dobashi
Year: 1987
Production Company: Toei
Running Time: 119 minutes

The Yakuza wives and their children from the Shigemune gang are going on a day outing to the beach and one of the gang members organizes a treasure hunt for the children with items such as guns and panties hidden about. The children are thrilled to find such “treasures”. The Shigemune are a small group with only fifty men under their control in the city of Osaka and their continued existence is based on tradition and keeping a low profile. Takaaki who has inherited the business from his father is a reluctant leader and leaves all of the day-to-day administration to his wife Yuki (Yukiyo Toake) while he gambles and plays around with young women. She is aware of this but seems content to allow him to do so and for her to concentrate on gang business. Their marriage is a childless one – she can’t abide children – but there is some underlying affection for one another residing below the surface.

Takaaki has run up huge debts with his gambling and philandering, but Yuki hopes to cover these with some land speculation around a new airport being built. When a rival and much stronger gang, the Bandai Group, edges into this profit center, Yuki begins to realize that her options are limited. They are not strong enough to fight back even when some of their men are killed and so she tries to use her wiles to keep her group together. The other gang makes her a buyout offer – sell them her gang and name and they will pick up her husband’s debts and give jobs to all her employees, but she has one last hope. She has met a gambler, Ryoji (Hiroaki Kurakami), and persuades him to go to a big game that the Bandai gang is running and to bet their fortune on chance or more likely the slight of his hand.
Asami (Rino Katase) is a single mother trying to make ends meet by occasionally modeling nude and other means. She desperately wants her son to get into a good school, but her status of being a single mother is being held against her. Her life is complicated even more when the Yakuza father of her son comes back into her life. This is Ryoji and he promises to go straight, but the Yakuza are out to make his life difficult or dead.
This has less flash than the first one and pours on the soap opera aspects a bit heavily at times. There is very little action in this as it primarily comes down to a drama consisting of the relationship between Yuki and her errant husband, her attempts to navigate the dangerous world of the Yakuza and then the relationship between Asami and Ryoji and the little triangle that emerges from this. Though not exactly exciting the film still is compelling in the manner in which the Yakuza are portrayed and these small lives within that structure and its focus on a small weak gang and how it attempts to survive in a world where bigger is definitely better.

My rating for this film: 6.0

(Yazuka Wives 2005)