AKA: The Yakuza Papers Vol. 1
Director: Kinji Fukasaku
Writer: Koichi Iiboshi, Kazuo Kasahara
Producer: Koji Shundo, Goro Kusakabe
Cast: Bunta Sugawara, Hiroki Matsukata, Kunie Tanaka, Eiko Nakamura, Tsunehiko Watase, Goro Ibuki, Nobuo Kaneko, Toshie Kimura, Tamio Kawaji, Mayumi Nagisa, Asao Uchida, Shinichiro Mikami, Hiroshi Nawa
Running Time: 99 min.
By Kyle Warner
Throughout the 1960s, yakuza were typically depicted as honorable outlaws in Ninkyo eiga, or “chivalry films.” Often starring fan-favorites like Ken Takakura or Koji Tsuruta, these films depicted honorable yakuza doing battle with deceitful, backstabbing foes that didn’t live by the code. In the 1970s, the chivalrous gangster movies largely died out as the Jitsuroku eiga sub-genre of crime films surged in popularity thanks to the arrival of Battles Without Honor and Humanity in 1973. Jitsuroku eiga, or “true account films”, told more honest stories about yakuza in post-war Japan. There were others of its kind before 1973, but Battles Without Honor and Humanity was a game changer. Studios and audiences embraced this grittier, more true-to-life take on the life of crime, and a new wave of yakuza film classics (as well as poor imitations) quickly followed suit.
Battles Without Honor and Humanity opens with a shot of the mushroom cloud over Hiroshima. The Battles series is the story of the chaos of post-war Japan as seen through the eyes of gangsters and thieves. After the atomic opening credits are over, we go to a busy black market in the ruins of Hiroshima, where American soldiers attempt to rape a Japanese woman in broad daylight. They’re stopped by ex-soldier Shozo Hirono (Sugawara). Hirono is a drifter who spends his days drinking and apparently wandering aimlessly through the black market; still wearing his soldier’s uniform, he’s a man waiting on someone to write the next chapter of his life. After a friend is cut by a drunk yakuza with a sword, Hirono volunteers to get revenge, and kills the yakuza in the street. Hirono goes to jail, serves his time, and is eventually released, where he is greeted at the gates by yakuza who want to take him under their wing. . . And this all takes place in the first ten minutes or so.
Battles is a dizzying, fast-paced tale of bloodshed as men form alliances, kill friends, and lose themselves as they blindly chase after glory and riches. It’s chaotic — both stylistically and dramatically — and not always easy to follow. Names for the yakuza and their alliances flash on screen when they first appear, letting you know who’s who and where they stand, but in a film with such a large cast and a breakneck pace it’s easy to forget things along the way. It’s a bit like keeping track of the alliances and grudges in Game of Thrones without the helpful family flags and colors to remind you where everyone came from.
Bunta Sugawara’s Hirono is as close as the Battles series gets to having a main character. However, this is an ensemble effort, and Hirono often disappears for long periods of time while the other characters advance the plot without him. In the first film, Hiroki Matsukata (The Shogun’s Samurai) and Tatsuo Umemiya (Yakuza Graveyard) lend strong performances as Hirono’s two closest allies. Still, in the ever shifting landscape that is the film’s plot, it’s never clear how long your friends will remain on your side. Sugawara, Matsukata, and Umemiya do good work playing with those themes, as shifty eyes and a change in tone are sometimes the only key to a change in a character’s alliance. While Sugawara would stay on as the “main character” of the series, both Matsukata and Umemiya would return in later Battles films as totally different characters (they’re not the only actors to do so – this is another part of the reason why the series can be tough to follow at times).
Character actor Nobuo Kaneko (Ikiru) plays Hirono’s boss, Yamamori. Easily the oddest character in the film, Yamamori gets weepy when he should be strong and is cold when he should be compassionate. Often flanked by his dangerous wife, Yamamori demands complete respect from his crew but does little to earn it. What begins as a boss that the others want to believe in soon becomes a greedy little man and a threat to both friend and foe.
Late in the film, a man contemplating murdering a friend wonders, “Where did we go wrong?” That line seems to be the center of the story here, as men chase an impossible dream of being honorable men in a dishonorable time. Whenever the men resort to treachery and murder, things tend to go their way. When they stick to the old ways, things fall apart. Take for example a scene when a yakuza chops off his pinky finger, the old-school way of offering an apology to a fellow yakuza. After chopping the pinky in half, the finger goes missing, leading to a comedic search as gangsters look high and low for the missing digit. Then, after recovering the finger, they take it to the offended yakuza and he basically laughs it off, saying the gesture was completely unnecessary. Old-school honor goes unrewarded. Only the snakes profit in the post-war underworld.
Battles Without Honor and Humanity was based off the memoirs of convicted yakuza Kozo Mino. When the yakuza first heard of Mino’s written confessions, the publishers were threatened, and the story passed from one house to another until finally a magazine published it in serialized form. In the film, what is true to life, what is dramatization, and what is mistakenly based on the lies of a thief and murderer remains unclear. Even without the knowledge of Mino’s story being the basis for the film, Battles feels like a true story, mostly because it makes almost no attempt at giving these characters a path to redemption.
Battles Without Honor and Humanity is often called Japan’s answer to The Godfather trilogy. It’s easy to get caught up in that line of thinking – I make the comparison myself when trying to get friends interested in the series – but it’s somewhat misleading. Battles is like The Godfather in that it’s a legendary piece of cinema that happens to detail the rise and fall of gangsters after WWII (also: both were released within a year of each other). The similarities mostly end there. The Godfather is an operatic tragedy full of classic beauty. Battles Without Honor and Humanity is brutal, chaotic, and dirty – the filming style is mostly done with handheld cameras, lending the film the look of a documentary. It’s raw and in your face, a far cry from the visuals of Coppola’s classics, even in their most violent scenes.
Out of print on DVD for the longest time, the Battles Without Honor and Humanity series is being released on Blu-ray and DVD by Arrow Video in a limited edition set that contains all five films, plus a 120 page book, and The Complete Saga, a film that edits the first four Battles into one long movie. I’ll be reviewing the films and the set’s discs as I go. The first film looks great on Blu-ray, a fine upgrade over the old DVD. The sound has some noisy moments, but overall it’s a good track for a film its age. The special features on disc 1 include a ten minute interview with Takashi Miike, original trailers, and a commentary from Japanese film expert Stuart Galbraith IV. In the interview, Miike confesses his love for Battles and talks about his own films for a while. I would’ve liked the interview to be a bit longer but it’s an enjoyable extra for fans of both directors Miike and Fukasaku. Stuart Galbraith IV is one of my favorite English-language historians of Japanese cinema working today. His track offers some nice information on the genre, the time, and the talent involved on the film. It’s a worthwhile commentary for fans of the film.
Battles Without Honor and Humanity is an essential piece of Japanese cinema. It remains one of the most popular films of all time in Japan and the rest of the world is slowly catching on. Labyrinthine and chaotic, the film demands the viewer’s complete attention, and even then you’re liable to be lost from time to time. Even in the moments of confusion, the film is always so watchable and cool. Fukasaku and his cast make redefining a genre seem effortless.
Kyle Warner’s Rating: 9.5/10