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Film / Nihon No Don

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"In this world, I may die, but my dreams won't."
— Boss Issei Sakura in Nihon no don: Yabohen

Nihon No Don (日本の首領, approximately translating as The Japanese Godfather or The Japanese Don) is a Japanese trilogy of organized crime films released from 1977 to 1978. Very loosely based on the real-life exploits of Japan's biggest yakuza gangs, the series was adapted from a novel by journalist Kazuo Kasahara and was produced by Toei, who earlier rewrote the rules of the yakuza genre with Kinji Fukasaku's Battles Without Honor and Humanity.note 

By 1977, attendances for Toei's yakuza films had gone down significantly, thanks in no small part to the advent of the television. In response, the studio decided to bring in veteran director Sadao Nakajima and assembled an All-Star Cast billed as "30 Years of Toei Men" with genre veterans Koji Tsutura, Bunta Sugawara, Hiroki Matsukata, Sonny Chiba, Mikio Narita, Nobuo Kaneko, and Tatsuo Umemiya alongside veteran actors Shin Saburi and Asao Uchida. Toshiro Mifune would later round out the cast for the two sequels, while Chiezo Kataoka replaced Uchida in the third movie.


The first film, Yakuza Senso: Nihon No Don (Yakuza War: The Japanese Godfather) chronicle the exploits of yakuza godfather Issei Sakura (played by Shin Saburi and based off real-life yakuza boss Kazuo Taoka), boss of Japan's most powerful crime syndicate, the Osaka-based Nakajima family note  and his attempts to be crowned "The Japanese Godfather", ruler of the yakuza underworld. By now the wily Sakura has conquered most of the rackets in Central and Western Japan, leaving only Tokyo and the Kanto area untouched. After being called in to help a major corporation deal with a blackmail problem, Sakura plans to move in to Tokyo. He assigns his Blood Knight Number Two Shuei Tatsumi (Koji Tsuruta) to lead the way with Tsukichi Sakoda (Sonny Chiba), Seiji Kataoka (Mikio Narita), and Shiro Matsueda (Hiroki Matsukata). However, the Tokyo gangs, spearheaded by Eizo Iwami (Bunta Sugawara) stand in his way, aided in secret by powerful political power broker Kikuo Oyama (Asao Uchida). A massive Mob War erupts for control of the Tokyo rackets as loyalties are tested and both sides manipulate the political and business worlds to one-up each other.


The second film, Nihon No Don: Yabohen (The Japanese Godfather's Ambition) takes place two years after the first, where the Tokyo gangs, now headed by Sakura's rival Kozuke Oishi (Toshiro Mifune), are now united under an umbrella organization known as the Kanto Alliance. Sakura, having recovered after a long illness, plans to take over Tokyo by manipulating the Japanese stock market. However, the corrupt dictator of the oil-producing Republic Of Gardenesia, President Annata (Youssef Omar),note  arrives in Japan with a lucrative oil deal that could mean billions of dollars in profit. Both Sakura and Oishi scramble to earn Annata's favor.

The third and final film, Nihon No Don: Kanketsuhen (The Japanese Godfather's Finale) sees Kikuo Oyama (now played by Chiezo Kataoka) fall victim to a rare stomach cancer. Naturally, with his position as Japan's most powerful political fixer up for grabs, both Sakura and Oishi try to succeed him. Oishi in particular is also pursuing his dream project: turning Saipan into the the Las Vegas of the Pacific. To this end he manipulates political party leader and Sleazy Politician Shigenori Karita (Satoshi Nishimura), whose son is romantically involved with Sakura's daughter to act as a go-between in a bribery deal involving corrupt US Senator J.H. Gerald (Tony Diamond). However, things go south when armed men arrive, steal the money, and try to make a getaway before being chased and killed by the police, who also recover the money. With a massive scandal on his hands, things get worse for Oishi when the bribery receipt disappears and ends up in Oyama's hands. The burning question remains as to who set up the robbery as both Sakura and Oyama plan to finish off Oishi before they can settle who gets to rule the Japanese underworld.

The trilogy contains examples of:

  • Artistic License – History:
    • The first film was primarily inspired by the Yamaguchi-gumi's attempts at invading the Tokyo-Yokohama area in the early 60s, traditionally the turf of the rival Inagawa-kai. In the movie, the Nakajima's attempts are somewhat bloody and several mid-tier bosses ended up getting killed. In reality, according to the book Yakuza the Yamaguchi's incursions did stir some trouble (and the attempted assassination of one Yamaguchi-allied boss), but no full-scale gang war broke out. The Yamaguchi-gumi and Inagawa-kai ended up joining hands in an alliance that saw both gangs collectively take control of most of the underworld.
    • Additionally, Koji Tsuruta's character, Tatsumi, did indeed have a real life-counterpart: Yukio Junichi, nicknamed "the slashing captain of the Yamaguchi-gumi". Eventually, when Tatsumi's violent tactics end up putting the gang in hot water, Sakura's son-in-law kills him with a morphine overdose. Junichi was actually ''kicked out'' of the gang and died due to lung cancer complications.
  • Batman Gambit: Oyama in the third movie plays both Sakura and Oishi against each other, while they too do this against each other and Oyama.
  • Cool Car: Oishi's personal car is a Cadillac Series 75, the company's highest-tier sedan.
  • Corrupt Politician: Oyama, President Annata, Diet Member Karita, Hirayama, and Senator Gerald, who all actively collude with Sakura and/or Oishi across the trilogy.
  • Deadly Doctor: Dr. Ichinomiya, though very reluctantly. By the end of the trilogy he can claim to have killed two major yakuza figures in Tatsumi and Oyama.
  • Dented Iron: In Kanketsuhen Sakura finally succumbs to a final heart attack after surviving several across the series.
  • Driven to Suicide:
    • In the first film, Sakoda does this after being thrown in the slammer.
    • Several happen in the second movie. Sakura's second daughter Makiko, Nurse Kaoru Miura after being roped into an Arranged Marriage with President Annata, and Matsueda after her suicide.
    • A variant happens in the third: When Sakura dies and Oishi claims final victory, Ichinomiya is left in a state of depression as his father figure is dead and his wife has left him following his dalliance with Nishimura's mistress. After resigning from his position as head doctor of a prestigious Tokyo hospital, he confronts Oishi and asks to be killed since he doesn't have the heart to do so. Oishi refuses, so Ichinomiya shoots him, misses, and is promptly shot to death by Oishi's bodyguards before being stabbed by a waiter.
  • Epic Movie: Of the jitsuroku or "true-life" films that Toei put out.
  • Gambit Pileup: The second movie consists of these in spades as enacted by Sakura and Oishi. The first half involves Sakura manipulating the Japanese stock market and discrediting a major shipping company under Oishi's control while the next involves Oishi and Sakura trying to appease the corrupt President Annata.
  • Gratuitous English: Happens twice; in the second movie when the scenes involving Al Sanders, and in the third movie, when Karita and Gerald meet to exchange the bribe money. This is topped off with the bribery receipt reading: I have received 4 cigars.note 
  • Handicapped Badass:
    • Sakura hobbles around on a cane battling heart disease while Oyama spends most of the third movie in the hospital, but even this doesn't stop them from trying to play Xanatos Speed Chess between themselves and Oishi.
    • Akira Kawanishi, despite being in a wheelchair and crutches while being sexually impotent, still manages to pull off a lot of complex financial schemes for Sakura. He's also the mastermind behind the Saipan robbery, and even manages to linger for a bit after being thrown off a flight of stairs and then shot.
  • Heel–Face Turn: Defied in the first film. After their aggressive attempts at expanding into Tokyo place police pressure on them, Nakajima underboss Seiji Kataoka decides to renounce his criminal way of life and dissolve his gang Flashforward to the next movie and he's working for Sakura as if nothing happened.
  • I Have No Son!: Sakura notably gives a cold shoulder to Makiko in the second movie and subjects Dr. Ichinomiya to a No-Holds-Barred Beatdown in the third.
  • It's Personal: Why Kawanishi masterminded the Saipan robbery. While he has his own personal greviances against Oishi for crippling him, Kanto Alliance thugs also shot up his sworn brother in a mob incident.
  • MacGuffin: The third movie has the bribery receipt Senator Gerald gives to Karita. It switches hands several times in the movie, before finally ending up with Sakura's son-in-law Dr. Ichinomiya, who burns it before he tries to kill Oishi.
  • MacGuffin Title: An unusual variation. The whole series is about middle-aged yakuza bosses warring for the title of "The Japanese Godfather".
  • Made of Iron: Sakura survives several major heart attacks across the series, while one of Oishi's lackeys points out Oyama's own willpower in the third movie:
    Nine toes in the grave and he's still kicking! Amazing!
  • The Man Behind the Man: Sakura is this to the Nakajima family; Oishi to the Kanto Alliance. Oyama has also been this for every major politician and gangster in the series.
  • Minor Crime Reveals Major Plot: The bribery case in the third film opens up the floodgates to Oishi's illegal activities.
  • Mutual Kill: In the third movie's ending, Dr. Ichinomiya gets stabbed by a young punk bartender trying to impress Oishi, but the doctor kills him with his last bullet.
  • Number Two: Sakoda, Kataoka, Matsueda, and Kawanishi all serve as this at various points in time to Sakura.
  • Old Soldier: Oishi served with the kempeitai during the war.
  • Post-Victory Collapse: Delayed, but happens to Sakura after Oyama's death and he briefly attains the title of "The Japanese Godfather".
  • Quick Draw: Oishi's bodyguards outdraw Shinsuke Tenbo at the climax of the second film when he tries to kill their boss. Somehow, he survives.
  • Red Baron: The title of "Japanese Godfather" is hotly contested by Sakura and Oishi.
  • Rank Up: In the first film, Matsueda is the secretary to Sakura's Number Two, Tatsumi. By the second film, he's taken Tatsumi's place.
  • Revenge Before Reason: Sort of. Dr. Ichinomiya in the climax of the third film decides to assassinate Oishi after his father-in-law dies, but not out of vengeance. He gets shot up by his bodyguards and getting stabbed by the bartender.
  • The Rival: Oishi, to Sakura.
  • Secretly Dying:
    • Tatsumi seems to be suffering from some respiratory related illness in the first movie. Dr. Ichinomiya eventually kills him to preserve the honor of his father-in-law after Tatsumi leads the gang into hot water.
    • Oyama has stomach cancer in the third film, while Sakura is battling heart disease across the trilogy. The latter eventually succumbs to it, while Oyama is killed off by Ichinomiya.
  • Short-Lived Leadership: Sakura rules as "The Japanese Godfather" for about a few days before succumbing to a heart attack.
  • Truth in Television: Kanketsuhen sees the Kanto Alliance attempt to expand their operations to Saipan with the intent of turning it into a gambling hub. Historically, the yakuza have indeed expanded to Saipan and other Pacific Islands, using them as drug-running fronts. In fact, the Kanto Alliance's real life-counterpart, the Inagawa-kai, were the first yakuza syndicate to go overseas, though in an odd case of Life Imitates Art, they only started to ramp this up long after the movies came out.
  • Undying Loyalty: Sakura's lieutenants are this to him in general. Except for Kawanishi.
  • We Can Rule Together: When Oishi comes under fire after the Saipan incident, Oyama offers ambitious Nakajima family underboss Akira Kawanishi a role as his Number Two after they finish off Sakura. Kawanishi accepts, but Oyama dies, Oishi goes free, and Kawanishi is later killed for his treachery.
  • Worthy Opponent: For all their bad blood against each other, both Sakura and Oishi both have a healthy dose of respect for each other and are likewise very civil when they meet face-to-face.
  • Xanatos Speed Chess: The second film has Oishi and Sakura doing this to each other, with Oyama Batman Gambiting both all the way in the third. It's Oishi who ends up winning.
  • Yakuza: Another Toei-produced yakuza film saga in the vein of Battles Without Honor and Humanity.
  • Victory by Endurance: Oishi outlives both Sakura and Oyama to be crowned "The Japanese Godfather".
  • Villain Protagonist: The cast is chock full of yakuza and their associates.
  • You Have Outlived Your Usefulness: Happens several times across the trilogy. Tatsumi in the first, Kataoka and Matsueda in the second; Kawanishi, Karita and his son in the third.
  • You're Not My Father: Oishi's daughter, Atsuko, in he third movie, writes a letter condemning her father for the police after he has her boyfriend killed.


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