Senior Lecturer, School of East Asian Studies, University of Sheffield
A prime example of this is Fuji Junko, who starred in yakuza films that charmed the critics of the era (Takasawa 1969, 70). Indeed, critical coverage of male lead and female lead yakuza films in the cinema press was roughly equal in the late 1960s (Kosuge 1968, 63), and positive critical comparisons between Fuji’s swordsmanship and that of the legendary Zatōichi character indicate that many female-led yakuza narratives were placed on par with male-led films. Furthermore, Isolde Standish argues that Fuji’s performances “opened up the genre to a female viewing position by specifically addressing issues of patriarchal loyalty as they applied to women” (2005, 309). On her debut, Tōei studios made much of the fact that Fuji’s father, Shundō Kōji, the principle producer of chivalrous (ninkyō) yakuza genre films, had strongly opposed her desire to become an actress. The shadow of her father stretched over Fuji’s star persona from the beginning; her first roles were dutiful daughter characters in yakuza and period films, including Thirteen Assassins (Jūsannin no shikaku; Kudo Eiichi, 1963) and Three Yakuza (Matatabi sannin yakuza; Sawashima Tadashi, 1965). However, the six-part Red Peony Gambler (Hibotan bakuto; Katō Tai, 1968–72) series propelled Fuji to the status of a household name.
Father figures were heavily present here, too, along with gendered themes. Fuji’s heroine Oryū, dubbed the “Red Peony” due to her tattoo, symbolically renounces her femininity in order to become a yakuza and avenge her murdered father. The origin story of Fuji’s star persona mirrored the narrative of the Red Peony Gambler series, in which Oryū becomes a yakuza out of necessity and against the wishes of her dead father. The centrality of the father figure to Oryū’s narrative, and to Fuji’s star persona, casts both as filial daughter characters. The Red Peony Gambler series, already at a “fever pitch of popularity” due to press coverage, even before its release in September 1968, emphasized Fuji’s filial characteristics; critics noted that her star persona, predicated on “beautiful daughter roles” in films such as Thirteen Assassins and Three Yakuza, was consistent with the role of Oryū (Kosuge 1968, 63). Even as she played Oryū in six films, Fuji continued to intersperse the series with strong daughter roles avenging dead fathers in other films, for example in Bright Red Flower of Courage (Nihon jokyōden: makkana dokyōbana; Furuhata Yasuo, 1970). (These were female entries into the chivalrous commoners of Japan series.)
Drawing on narrative themes consistent with her star persona, Fuji’s roles blurred the lines between yakuza film and melodrama, focusing on familial relationships and gender issues, including romance and the norms of female behaviors. In the Red Peony series, her character’s relationships are depicted using tropes borrowed from melodrama: love interests are sadly resisted, emotional friendships are based on the fellow suffering of other women, and small children are temporarily adopted. At the same time, the character exhibits the iron will and adherence to moral codes of the yakuza genre. In set pieces that bear “family resemblances” to the soft-core pornography (roman poruno) or the “pink” genre, Fuji’s body is both sexualized and representative of a nostalgic appeal to chaste femininity. The narrative tropes of Oryū’s tattooed shoulder and repeated fight scenes necessitate regular disrobing throughout the series; however, love interests are resisted as Oryū interprets her renunciation of female gender norms as a renunciation of heterosexual love.
In press interviews and coverage, the strong and ambitious core of Fuji’s star persona is wrapped in references to her innocence, filial position, and beauty. Fuji explicitly connected both modest femininity and the female yakuza film itself to the melodrama genre in a 1968 interview with Kinema Junpō, saying, “I want to become a melodrama actress, so I don’t want to show nudity” (Anon. 1968, 83). In many ways, Fuji’s statement sums up the delicate balance through which the yakuza film fused characterizations, tropes, and themes from other genres to create a complex “regime of verisimilitude.” Fuji’s chaste refusal to show nudity reflects the reliance on female-gendered tropes of innocence and beauty, which were central to female yakuza characterization, while her career goals, and the revelation that she demanded changes to the original Red Peony Gambler script, suggest a star persona predicated on strength and ambition. The sentimental tropes of melodrama blend with the sexualization of the pink film and the violence and austere morality of the yakuza genre to create a complex “regime of verisimilitude,” which was key to the film’s wide appeal.
The Japanese yakuza genre, particularly the case of Fuji Junko, demonstrates the shortcomings of scholarship predicated too heavily on a commitment to genre as a classificatory system. As scholars such as Neale, Stam, and Bordwell caution, by focusing too closely on whether a text or star fits our preconceptions of a genre, we risk missing the relevance certain texts and stars have for their wider publics. While “genre” is a keyword in the study of media, the concept should be used with caution. On the other hand, the skilful blend of genre influences revealed in the analysis of Fuji’s Oryū character and star persona demonstrates the use value of the concept of genre. Applying Neale’s theory of genre as process, we can see how hybrid genre texts such as the female-led yakuza film and Fuji’s star persona are first constructed by industrial genre expectations, then incorporate elements of other genres to meet and exceed audience expectations, and finally persuade critics of the text’s contribution to the genre corpus. Fuji’s Red Peony series is the perfect example of Neale’s “repetition and difference,” and at the same time, a reminder to proceed with caution when using the concept of genre for media study.