Five films, three days, one director and more shouting than the house of commons. It has to be Kinji Fukasaku’s legendary series…
Battles Without Honor and Humanity: Kinji Fukasaku’s punch in the face to the yakuza genre’s traditional, stoic tales of camaraderie and redemption. Yes, the film contains a handful of characters that try and do the right thing as they see it, leading man Bunta Sugawara’s Shozo Hirono among others, but they can’t fight the ingrained dog eat dog mentality of those with more power and influence behind them. Face it, the bad guys are always gonna win.
All five films share the same blistering pace and energy; characters swear allegiance, change allegiance and sell each other out at such an alarming rate that it takes all your concentration to keep up with who’s shooting who, for whom and why. Disorientating action scenes, shot hand-held on location and in front of an unsuspecting public, are helpfully peppered with expositional narration, presented as spinning newspaper headlines from the Japanese press.
Battles Without Honor and Humanity is best enjoyed if you just sit back and let it wash over you, rather than trying to take in every character’s journey in every film. I tried (honestly, I did) to follow what was going on for the first 15-20 mins of each film but had to give up on more than one occasion half an hour in as my feeble brain just couldn’t hold the volume of plot thrown at it.
Although these five films were produced over only two years the action, based on controversial real life yakuza journals, takes place over an epic two decades. Starting post WWII and continuing up to the mid 1960’s each film is set a number of years after the events of the last. I’d like to say each film has something different to say; a differing take on the politics of the time but I can’t. The openings of each film introduce a different element of the politics of the time or a key event reflecting them, promising a new point to be made, but then go on to make the same point again. But maybe that’s the point; the cycle of violence and betrayal continues regardless. So, again its best to view Battles Without Honor and Humanity as a series, as a choir, rather than as separate voices.
The first film is easily the strongest, its impact perhaps the greater for being the first, the second’s a firm sequel and the last three fit together nicely as one longer entry.
So here’s my attempt at relaying what happens, broadly, in each film, with the minimum of spoilers. A part of me wants to write the whole thing in CAPITAL LETTERS, in keeping with Fukusaku’s bombastic style… Perhaps not.
Battles Without Honor and Humanity. For a more in depth review of this particular film please give my Fukasaku double bill a go. Battles Without Honor and Humanity is Shozo Hirono’s baptism by fire. We watch Hirono (Bunta Sugawara) as he gets chewed up by the corrupt, self-serving world of the yakuza. The naïve ex-soldier tries his best, misguided though his approach may be, to do what he thinks is right within the context of the situations he’s thrown into. He tries to keep those who eventually become his underlings, his ‘family’, out of trouble (i.e. the jail or the cemetery), despite their determined efforts to put themselves there for either a few extra yen or a small step up the ladder. Hirono doesn’t have a chance, he’s only one guy, a pawn, for those not prepared to share their power and influence.
Hiroshima Death Match. 1950, and the Korean war frames the second Battles film. So what do you do when your main character (Shozo Hirono) is still in prison? Well there’s always more meat for the (yakuza) grinder.
Enter Shoji Yamanaka (Kinya Kitaoji), one more hot-headed young punk with all to prove and nothing to lose. He too lands himself in jail pretty quickly, of course but two years later he’s back out and picked up by the Otomo gang, after causing a scene in a local restaurant. He sleeps with the boss’s niece, Yasuko (Meiko Kaji) and makes an enemy of his violent younger brother, Katsutoshi Otomo (Sonny Chiba); a man who wants for nothing except power and girls. Shoji is deceived into killing a business man, among other things, and generally used and abused until there’s not a character left he feels he can trust, if, indeed, there ever was one in the first place. Death is preordained, the small matter of when and how merely trivial footnotes in Shoji’s brutal and short career.
An all star cast with Sonny Chiba (The Streetfighter), who proves he can over-act and slam tables as well as anyone else in a fancy shirt, and the underused Meiko Kaji (Lady Snowblood) don’t stop events being just as incoherent as the first film. Who’s that guy? Where’s he come from? Now who’s being stabbed / shot / punched repeatedly in the face? Also anyone expecting some sass from Meiko Kaji will be disappointed, her character is minor and powerless; the world of the yakuza being a playground for boys not equal opportunities. None of this really matters though as the film’s colourful energy more than compensates for the ability to be able to follow it.
Proxy War. We’re told that many global wars are the result of US and Russian foreign interests. These wars are referred to as ‘proxy wars’ and during these conflicts lots of young men, who have nothing to do with either country, lose their lives. The vicious and greedy actions of the yakuza are likened here to the actions of two world super powers and their selfish ‘cold war’.
As mentioned already, Proxy War forms the start of a loose trilogy; here’s what happens.
Hirono’s on parole, effectively imprisoned in Kure city (Hiroshima) and unable to visit Tokyo. He’s seems content running, a scrap metal business, or rather guarding its interests and happy to not be a yakuza, proper. Until his old boss, the unscrupulous Yamamori (Nobuo Kaneko), volunteers to be his adviser, to keep him out of trouble whilst he’s on parole. For those of you who’ve seen the first few movies already, Yamamori’s the boss who cries crocodile tears to weasel himself out of trouble. His prime interest in Hirono is any information he may have on events brewing further up the food chain; despite his lowly status Hirono is still a well connected and well trusted guy.
Big Boss Muraoka is murdered and gang wars flower across Japan. Hirono takes a wayward youth under his wing. Eventually the proxy war heads to Hiroshima where Yamamori has plans to wipe out rival boss, Uchimoto, who has inherited Muraoka’s position. Uchimoto (Takeshi Kato) is an interesting character in that he never wanted the position of boss in the first place and backs away from any form of conflict; of course there are plenty of other men happy to step up on his behalf. As is Yamamori’s way he forces Hirono into a situation where he has to murder Uchimoto for him. Hirono turns the tables tricking Yamamori into a reconciliation with the man he hates. The film ends neatly with the needless death of the young man Hirono was supposed to be keeping safe.
Proxy War is a metaphor for global relations, only more complicated and fittingly it also has the most names to try and remember. One of it’s key themes is pride and its tendency to get in the way of good diplomacy. This film also marks the debut of Akira Takeda. Played by Nikkatsu superstar Akira Kobayashi, Takeda is a well dressed Otomo big shot from the capital. His performance demonstrates that it is possible to be a gangster quietly. He also proves himself Hirono’s strategic equal, Proxy War hinting at interesting relationships ahead.
Police Tactics. With the Tokyo Olympics round the corner and economic growth in full swing, the general public’s tolerance for yakuza street violence is on the wane. The police crack down, raiding, arresting and sentencing like Michael Gove in heat. Their impact is about as successful as Gove’s too; Uchimoto and Yamamori’s hatred for each other gathers momentum unabated. Basically the leaders hide away while everyone under them piles into each other in a frenzy of blood and Hawaiian shirts. It just doesn’t stop!
Hirono is back in prison again (why does he bother?) and Takeda becomes his replacement as Yamamori’s new lap dog while Yamamori and Uchimoto vie for the attentions of the larger families from Tokyo. If either pick poorly it could mean the end of their family or worse, their own lives.
I liked this one’s relative simplicity, I could actually follow most of what was happening, although this was in part due to many of the characters being more familiar and so more recognisable. In short, it does a solid job of being the middle movie, sandwiched, as it is, between Proxy War and Final Episode.
Next: Final Episode.
Will it be? Yes and no. Yes in relation to this boxset; no in relation to the cycle of death, retaliation, prison and more death. That, as Fukasaku, reminds us repeatedly, is never over.
Takeda (Kobayashi) has been chosen to led the Otomo family’s interests in Hiroshima. He unites the surviving gangs, who are somehow still not all dead and forms the Tensei group. Takeda wants the Tensei group to become a legit political party, hopes to be able to present a more positive image of the yakuza. Katsutoshi Otomo (Joe Shishido, reprising Sonny Chiba’s role from Hiroshima Death Match), is furious. He’s not convinced that an image change is what’s required, preferring the old ways of shouting and shooting – slicing and dicing, which of course have proved immeasurably successful so far. His reaction is partly jealousy, Takeda having been chosen over himself, a direct relation of the elder Otomo, and partly because, well he’ll miss all the shouting. And who knew Joe Shishido could shout and smash stuff as well as Sonny Chiba?
Takeda and Otomo (Jnr.) reflect the progressive and conflicting traditional attitudes explored throughout the film, Otomo even wears more traditional Japanese dress and the narrative here is built upon this conflict.
Hoping to wrestle control of Tensei, Otomo sells Takeda out and he’s arrested for possession of firearms. Unfortunately Takeda nominates Matsumura (Kinya Kitaoji), one of his own loyal supporters, as acting head. If you’ve been watching all the films in close succession you may recognise Kitaoji, slightly confusingly, as the chap who also played the doomed Shoji Yamanaka in Hiroshima Death Match.
This really upsets Otomo who, in response, breaks a record number of pieces of furniture across a variety of bars and clubs. After being hassled by the police, who, unsurprisingly don’t buy the Tensei groups’ new image, Matsumura renounces the group’s political aspirations against the wishes of Takeda. Shozo Hirono’s impending release only heightens the atmosphere as tension mounts over an ever-looming Tensei civil war. Hundreds of mirrored shades and Hawaiian shirts descend on Hiroshima in anticipation.
Takeda approaches Hirono hoping to prevent mass bloodshed; if you resign, he tells him, it will diffuse the situation. Nope. Hirono remains stubborn even when Takeda offers to resign alongside him.
Blood on the streets it is then. Death, retribution and more death. The guilt proves too much for the human haircut, who’s seen, let’s face it, more than his share of needless bloodshed, and Battles Without Honor and Humanity: Final Episode finishes with Hirono’s anti-climatic resignation from the thankless world of the yakuza.
The first Battles Without Honor and Humanity film is a truly magnificent experience and if you’re only going to watch one film from this series, make it this one. There’s more than enough to keep you engaged however if you decide to get stuck into all of them. Alongside the frenetic construction of the films themselves and their rousing scores, the returning characters of the hilariously manipulative Boss Yamamori (Nobuo Kaneko) and his equally unscrupulous sidekick, Makihara (Kunie Tanaka) are my personal high points.
If you’re a sucker for the violent and masculine world of the yakuza and you’ve a tolerance for angry men, in angry shirts, shouting, crying and falling over each other, Arrow’s (lovely) new boxset is definitely for you.