Takashi Miike has a knack at Yakuza thrillers. Some might not be very good, some might be some odd sorts of deranged masterpieces. But with Graveyard of Honor, I can only imagine how fantastic the original Kinji Fukasaku film from the 70s was if this might possibly be Miike's best "serious" Yakuza movie. This is to say that Miike turns down a somewhat typical level of madcap gore and humor for an approach that is kind of staggering, as though Cassavetes had some input on the screenplay (or Abel Ferrara ala Bad Lieutenant for that matter). It's a solid piece of drama of a man, Rikuo Ishimatsu (in a performance that, within the range, is one of a lifetime from Gorô Kishitani ala young Mifune), who unwittingly becomes apart of a crime family after saving its boss while working as a dishwasher. He serves some time for attempting to kill another gangster, he gets out, the years pass and he gets bitter, and in a fit of panic he bites the hand that feeds him - he shoots his own boss.
From here on it's a path right to hell that Ishimatsu takes. Already one has seen him as a character with some demons he has trouble quelling. He's tough, maybe too tough, and doesn't have much of a sense of humor (which includes around his woman, a timid creature who soon gets into the dank mess that Ishimatsu puts himself into). He also turns into a full-fledged junkie, and burns more bridges than one could ever fathom. What Miike crafts here is something that might not be his most inventive work, but it displays him as someone who has the range to plunge into real bloodshed and tragedy. It's almost the reversal of the cartoonish mayhem of Ichi the Killer - where that you almost were given permission to chuckle at the carnage and excess of violence, in Graveyard of Honor it's grim, ugly, the blood flowing hard and with bodies writhing in total agony. It's a rare instance for the director to present things about as realistic as he'll get, in edgy hand-held and compositions.
But there is some style that Miike puts, appropriately and with an creative sensibility, on the material. The music crooning on and off is like that of New York jazz from the late 50s and early 60s, and I'm almost reminded of some lucid nightmare of a beatnik on junk ala William S. Burroughs and pulp fiction. As the downward spiral continues for this character, even if it starts to seem unlikely that it would go this far (the escape from prison alone, intense for the self-inflicted horror done to himself, is just enough to swallow), we go right down with this character in his oblivion. It's hard to turn away, and there are moments that are gruesome not so much for what's shown, which can be a lot, but the emotional impact. Not to sound pretentious, but I'm almost reminded of some damned Shakespearan king or something, only here it's a sensibility of total unadulterated nihilism that propels Ishimatsu to his horror of an end.
On the surface, it doesn't feel a whole lot different from other Miike Yakuza fare. Yet it's a little maturer, a little more tightly crafted and developed with the characters, and it has the mood of a filmmaker working outside of his reputation as a showman or provocateur. It's a real movie, one of the best in the Yakuza realm.