19. Theater Of Life: Hishakaku (1963)

Director: Tadashi Sawashima

In the genre's early stages, yakuza films were known as ninkyo eiga, or “chivalry films.” The outlaw heroes portrayed during this time period were mostly kimono-clad loners with honorable intentions and charismatic postures that had women dropping down to their knees with ease.

Tadashi Sawashima’s Theater Of Life is highly regarded as the blueprint of this yakuza film era. The contradictory values of duty and personal feelings are clearly represented as the main protagonist Hishakaku falls in love with Otoyo, a courtesan. His subsequent prison stint separates the two, and the fact that other gangsters want to run all up in Otoyo as a jumpoff, instead of seeing her as a noble sweetheart, brings the pain to all involved.