Fukasaku’s seminal series loses steam on its reboot, but kept afloat by a mighty yakuza ensemble…
In memory of Jō Shishido, this series looks back at 10 defining films and roles in his signature genre he had a massive impact on, from a few of his most famous to some virtually unknown in the West. Every entry begins highlighting a different aspect of his career, with #’s 10-6 for his greatest supporting G roles and #’s 5-1 for starring ones.
Part II: Studio Gangsters. After Nikkatsu studios fell apart at the end of the 60s then reorganized with almost exclusive dedication to their “roman[tic] porno” genre, all of the major stars from the yakuza/youth movie era either jumped ship or were pushed off to be replaced by younger, cheaper, sexier actors and directors. So Joe’s career would end up taking many new directions in the years to come including many bit roles as a free agent. Early in that phase, he did the previously unthinkable by joining Nikkatsu’s longtime rival in yakuza cinema, Toei.
The general distinction between the two was that Nikkatsu had mainly appealed to young Japanese with hip, youthful stories through the prism of yakuza while Toei aimed to create more raw, authentic and de-romanticized gang stories. Toei’s lead filmmaker Kenji Fukasaku spearheaded the genre movement known as jisturoku or “true account” films with stories based on real gangsters, events and violence (and indeed, real yakuza were said to be fans of Fukasaku and his gangster films).
#9. Hachiro Tachibana
“I’m also invited to this table!!!”
Just finishing his 8-year stint from loyally attempted but failed hit, Makio (Bunta Sugawara) has certainly paid his dues for his Yamamori gang. But to his bewilderment, he returns to finds the sly and violently jealous Aoki Naotake (Tomisaburo Wakayama) making aggressive and conniving power plays to take over alongside his loyalists and partners of convenience. But boss Yamamori himself (Nobuo Kaneko, oddly reprising his role from the first series while everyone else’s character changed) and his wife are also acting rather strange, not seeming to value Makio’s return and in fact essentially exiling him. At least low-level gangster Gen (Kunie Tanaka) has come to admire him as aniki (big brother).
So when trapped between feuding factions, increasingly getting pressured physically and mentally to throw his loyalties towards one, and getting extra trouble from interference and entanglements from other gangsters from other gangs, where could Makio find much-needed comfort? Love would be the very wrong answer — at least when your girlfriend is feisty Korean prostitute Keiko (Reiko Ike).
The main reason to be here is the incredible ensemble cast. Yakuza royalty from several different kinds of gangster subgenres is gathered here; Sugawara of course; Ike, infamous for films bridging the pink and yakuza genres perfectly summed up in her 1973 film title Sex & Fury, with a role that still brings a little of both with added vulnerability; Noboru Ando, former real-life yakuza boss with the very visible scars to prove it; and Joe, who dropped by for both the last part of the original series and the first part of this one — both where he’s batsh!t crazy.
If only they were actually given a story worthy of that gathering. While Fukasaku was never known as the most subtle or restrained of directors, when he was allowed to pursue his vision properly he could tell functional stories with irresistible flair so that the spaces between violence and intrigue didn’t seem too problematic, frivolous, or nonsensical (unlike say, Teruo Ishii on an average day). But he clearly wasn’t in charge here as much as he’d wanted to be or usually was, thus allowing some scenes, events and characters to go overboard in stridence. A couple of scenes as when a victim’s distraught elderly mother crashes in on a yakuza meeting with her son’s pictures to curse them are just plain bad. That’s partially offset by the pivotal killing/attempted killing scenes, with Fukasaku’s chaotic shaking camera making them look as excitingly frenetic as ever, but the story fails to do it proper justice as well.
Sugawara is pretty much just reprising his role in the series under a different name but quite similar circumstances of trying to maintain honor and values within the yakuza (and inevitably being forced to wreak havoc to try to put things back in order again). And that’s not even the only thing recycled here, as major elements of the whole story seem deja vu, particularly from the last “Part I” in the franchise.
Joe is a little more vaguely familiar, playing Maki’s old sparring partner and prison mate Hachiro. Even though his roles on both Battles movies are rather small, they’re interesting departures from the image he’d moulded for over a decade at Nikkatsu. There he was usually a cool, calm, calculating gangster whether “good” or “bad”, and even in his most ruthless roles he had a very controlled fury. That being said, either could just as easily be included on this list, because while Battles Part V is easily superior as a film, both of Joe’s roles get credit just for still managing to stand out amidst the huge and formidable casts mostly with bigger parts. While Part V’s Joe was a drunken lunatic, this one is a just plain lunatic (and not PC by today’s standards) who can “still bite someone to pieces”.
Joe’s fruitcake yakuza is about the only one on this movie Bunta really seems to fear — even forcibly cutting short his time with a renown prostitute (that’s how the movie puts it) upon the sight of his approach with a goon or two for an unannounced visit, still in traditional pyjamas and merrily laughing all the way. That prompts Bunta to threaten her into silence (i.e. not alerting them) then break the hell out via a window.
That brings us to another interesting aspect: how observantly fatalistic this entry is about women. While far from feminist, it makes it a point to show just how powerless women were in that whole world. It doesn’t revel in it like more than a few other yakuza movies do, but it’s not apologetic either — probably due to the script from Fumio Kōnami of Female Prisoner: Scorpion fame. It’s all exemplified in how Aoki is casually groping “his” women (probably more for showing off and projecting his power in his mind than amusement) as he’s discussing gang ranking, succession and distribution deals. Their clearly shown discomfort at it all delineates how Aoki’s side is “worse” than the other ruthless gangsters.
And even in more honourable protagonist Makio’s case, he has an extremely troubled and volatile relationship and an apparently dormant prejudice towards Keiko, throwing political and racial dimensions into the gender tensions. That renders a definite lust and probable love towards each other always hanging in the balance under internal and external factors (i.e. loving each other but never ruling out the possibility the other might betray or sacrifice them for the necessities of survival in yakuza life). That relationship is actually the movie’s most fascinating angle, but much like with the main action scenes and Joe, it’s underused and outweighed by less involving content.
Thus New Battles ended up being mainly for the purpose of a yakuza Family family reunion. And though it’s one of those rather sloppily thrown together reunions where some members get a little too boisterous and things aren’t fully kept in order, it’s still good to see everybody together.
Join us every Sunday for the latest in Joe’s Baddest Gangster Hits.
Fukasaku was one of the very few pre-1990s mainstream Japanese directors (i.e. not talking Oshima and the like) who frequently confronted issues of Japan’s uneasy history and relationship with minorities, particularly Koreans and hāfu (mixed). And on this film, he does it more directly than usual.
*gunfire* “Aniki! Aniki! Anikiiiiii!!!” *gunfire*