Born in Ibaraki prefecture, Yanagimachi aspired to becoming a filmmaker while studying in the law department at Waseda University. After graduating and starting work, it was not until 1970 that he returned to his dream and became a freelance assistant director. Later, received guidance from Atsushi Yamatoya at Toei Film Company's education department. In 1974 he started his own production company, "production Gunro" (Wolf Production Team) and started a documentary project following the lives of motorbike gangs. After two years of production, his first work, God Speed You! Black Emperor, was completed in 1976. Despite an initially low-key release, the documentary received critical acclaim, and went on to a much wider theater tour. In 1979, Yanagimachi adapted A Nineteen Year Old's Map (written by Kenji Nakagami) to make his first screen drama. His first original scenario came in 1982, with a story set in Kashima, Ibaraki prefecture – Yanagimachi's home ground. In 1985 he collaborated with Kenji Nakagami once more to make Fire Festival, which was shown at the Cannes Film Festival, and subsequently in many other countries where it's shocking qualities gained much popularity. 1990 saw his first foray into international film making with Shadow of China, starring John Lone. In 1992, he directed About Love, Tokyo, the story of Chinese students in Japan, and in 1995 he went to Taiwan to make the documentary Wandering Pedlars. For 2005, Who's Camus Anyway? sees Yanagimachi's return to directing after a break of ten years.