Long before he was courting controversy with Battle Royale, Kinji Fukasaku was casting an equally cynical view over Japanese society in a series of cop/gangster thrillers made during the seventies. Yakuza Graveyard is a fairly typical example, combining gritty urban action with soul-searching dramatics to slightly dated but still entertaining effect.
Tetsuya Watari cuts a Dirty Harry-esque figure as Kuroiwa, a grizzled Osaka cop with a messed up private life and a healthy disregard for his superiors. He's involved with a drug-addled prostitute whose husband he killed several years earlier during a bust, and his method of dealing with anyone who questions his unorthodox police methods is a swift punch to the jaw. Kuroiwa's life really gets complicated when he falls for the wife of an imprisoned Yakuza boss, and he becomes embroiled in a vicious gang-war that's about to explode.
While the main focus is Kuroiwa, Fukasaku is equally interested in the workings of the various Yakuza gangs that control Japan's streets, and their relationship to the police. We see the cops acting as peace broker between Osaka's two biggest crime families, Nishida and Yamashiro, and there is a neat irony to the way that Kuroiwa on one hand condemns this, while on the other enters into a close 'brotherhood' with his Yakazu rival Iwata, based on a mutual respect for each other's uncompromising attitude to life.
If Yakuza Graveyard's weaknesses are the two-dimensional characters, occasional lapses into melodrama and confused plotting, the acting is solid and there's plenty to recommend on a visual/stylistic level. Much of Fukasaku's photography is hand-held, a common technique these days amongst directors who believe that a shaky camera equals gritty realism, but pretty unusual for 1976. The violence is hard-hitting, and the relatively frank depiction of drug use and sexuality are indicative of the influence that Friedkin's The French Connection had on this type of movie in the late seventies.