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Sympathy for the Underdog (Blu-ray Review)

3 min read

Best known in the west for directing Battle Royale, Kinji Fukasaku had spent the vast majority of his career before this revolutionising the Yakuza genre, adding a sense of realism (often basing the action on real gangland feuds) and formal energy the films of the preceding decade had lacked. These new films would come to be known as the ‘jitsuroku eiga', and would come to redefine Yakuza cinema for the 70s. What Radiance's new release affords is to see this key film in the form's development, a film that captures the moment where the genre's great director clicks into the style and themes that will make him a master.

Stepping out of prison into a vastly different world is Masuo Gunji, (Fukasaku veteran Kōji Tsuruta), an ageing Yakuza boss who has spent ten years inside after his gang was driven from Yokohama by Tokyo rivals. Reuniting with the few loyalists he has left he sets about restarting operations, settling in the new city of Okinawa with some success. This is until those former Tokyo rivals rear their heads again, sparking a multi-family spiral of violence.

So far so classic Yakuza, but what Fukasaku always possesses is a style and energy that his contemporaries could never match, particularly over such an extended period of time. His eureka moment of inspiration during The Battle of Algiers is felt here, him channelling that films ragged, kinetic energy, documentary-like, but also interested in combining the political and the human in a way that feels incredibly forward thinking. This streak of melancholy coupled with its dour protagonist looks to have been a huge influence of Takeshi Kitano's run of 90s Yakuza masterpieces.

But, crucially, the film comes two years (but four films, such was the rate Toei would work their directors) before Fukasaku would make his tentpole Battles Without Honor and Humanity that nailed down the characteristics of the jitsuroku eiga. It is a film that captures this style in development. The formal style is totally there but there is still one foot in the heightened dramatics of the preceding era. This can't help but make for some interestingly wayward tonal choices. Take Tomisaburo Wakayama's villain (better known to cult-film fans as the titular hero from the Lone Wolf and Cub films), who visually falls somewhere between Tony Montana and Chris De Burgh. He's a magnificently ripe villain, but with his scarred face, one arm and monobrow, it means every time he walks on screen it is like he has wandered in from another film. It could give his scenes the vibe of Gene Kelly dancing with Jerry, but Fukasaku wrangles it into feeling more like M. Emmet Walsh slithering through Blood Simple, like the film itself has had a demon roam into it, energising the film whilst never quite breaking its realist spell.

The disc also includes a superb commentary from genre expert Nathan Stuart who has a refreshingly unacademic tone, more friend excitedly telling you all this stuff they've learn as opposed to the badgered professor tone taken by many that do commentaries.

It's a great film, lovingly repackaged and historically situated, but beyond that it is a key moment in a still under appreciated genre in the west, one that allows you to view the form shifting right before your eyes.


  • High-Definition digital transfer
  • Uncompressed mono PCM audio
  • Audio commentary by yakuza film expert Nathan Stuart (2024)
  • Interview with Fukasaku biographer Olivier Hadouchi (2024)
  • Visual essay on Okinawa on screen by film historian and author Aaron Gerow (2024)
  • 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
  • Limited Edition of 3000 copies, presented in full-height Scanavo packaging with removable OBI strip leaving packaging free of certificates and markings


Sympathy for the Underdog is released on 24th June by