AKA: Deadly Fight in Hiroshima
Director: Kinji Fukasaku
Writer: Koichi Iiboshi, Kazuo Kasahara
Cast: Kinya Kitaoji, Sonny Chiba, Bunta Sugawara, Meiko Kaji, Mikio Narita, Hiroshi Nawa, Asao Koike, Shingo Yamashiro, Hideo Murota, Tatsuo Endo, Yoshi Kato, Kinji Nakamura, Gin Maeda, Nobuo Kaneko, Toshie Kimura
Running Time: 100 min.
By Kyle Warner
After the huge financial success of Battles Without Honor and Humanity in January 1973, two sequels were fast-tracked and released that same year. Based on a true story supposedly discovered while researching the first film, Battles Without Honor and Humanity: Hiroshima Death Match (aka Deadly Fight in Hiroshima) could be considered the odd duck in the Battles series in that it’s the only one that doesn’t have Bunta Sugawara as the film’s lead. While Suguawara receives first billing in the opening credits, Hiroshima Death Match undeniably belongs to Kinya Kitaoji (Shinsengumi: Assassins of Honor) and Sonny Chiba (Kill Bill) who play a pair of lunatic yakuza at each other’s throats.
The story told in Hiroshima Death Match takes place both during the first film’s story and shortly after it. Down-and-out loser Yamanaka (Kinya Kitaoji) is a man with a death wish and a short fuse. Like others in the Battles series, he’s a man left without a purpose after the end of World War II. During the war, Yamanaka tried to be a kamikaze pilot but was too young for the program at the time. Now he carries himself in a similar manner, like a man who hopes to go out in a violent blaze of glory. After the unemployed Yamanaka eats at a restaurant without paying, the local thug Katsutoshi (Sonny Chiba) beats him to a pulp. Yamanaka vows revenge against Katsutoshi and all his men, which only makes the beating even worse. Other yakuza intervene and eventually nurse Yamanaka back to health. From there, Yamanaka joins the yakuza as an assassin and waits for the opportunity to put Katsutoshi in his crosshairs.
Yamanaka may be the center of the story but it’s Katsutoshi that kicks the film into gear. Sonny Chiba plays the villainous Katsutoshi over-the-top and potentially insane, often with one hand on a weapon and the other gripping his crotch. Representing the disrespectful hooligans that the yakuza have devolved into, Katsutoshi burns bridges wherever he goes and disrupts the fragile peace between yakuza families when he grasps at more power.
In the time since the original film, Bunta Sugawara’s Hirono has gone off on his own. Working out of a scrapyard, Hirono tries to stay true to his ideals, but he must decide whether to swallow his pride and accept easy money when opportunity comes knocking. Hirono doesn’t have nearly as much to do this time around and that’s too bad, but at least the film finds a believable way of fitting him into the story.
Added to Hiroshima Death Match is a romance subplot that provides the film with some much-needed humanity and also grants a few extra unexpected twists to the plot. Yamanaka falls for beautiful Yasuko (Stray Cat Rock’s Meiko Kaji), though their relationship is a complicated one as her uncle is also Yamanaka’s boss. Kaji’s role is one of the only notable female characters in the entire series – right or wrong, Battles Without Honor and Humanity is a story about the boys – and she makes good use of the material given to her here.
One of the things that Hiroshima Death Match emphasizes is how disposable the young yakuza are to their superiors. Similar to the role of the kamikaze pilot that Yamanaka once longed to be, his boss repeatedly sends him off on dangerous missions fully expecting that he may never return. Yamanaka, like fellow yakuza and the wartime soldiers before him, is used and abused by an unsympathetic system. Hiroshima Death Match’s final scene is one of the most powerful finales in the five film series, hitting home everything about the yakuza that director Kinji Fukasaku meant to convey.
The film may have a different central focus than the original but Kinji Fukasaku’s visual style returns intact. The action is messy and bloody (somehow even more violent than the first Battles), opting to avoid perfect shootouts and skilled sword techniques, regardless of how badass any of the characters are supposed to be. On the Blu-ray from Arrow Video, the new special feature included on this disc is a brief interview with Ryuzo Ueno, the series’ fight coordinator. It’s a surprisingly funny and enjoyable interview, with Ueno providing many short stories about how he got into filmmaking and his work on Battles Without Honor and Humanity. When you’re going through the set’s extras, be sure to remember Ueno’s interview.
Hiroshima Death Match has a narrower focus than the first film and is less chaotic as a result. It may not be as fascinating as the original Battles but there’s so much to like here, particularly the character-driven story performed by a stellar cast. Sonny Chiba brings madness to his bad guy role. Bunta Sugawara brings his signature cool. Nobuo Kaneko returns as the weaselly Yamamori. Meiko Kaji provides warmth and humanity. And Kinya Kitaoji gives us a complex man that’s been through the gutter before being given a gun and a reason to use it. Rage and love drive Kitaoji’s Yamanaka, making him a dangerous man that you want to like but just can’t fully trust. While Hiroshima Death Match may be remembered as the film that focused on a side-story instead of the main character of the series, at least it gave us a complicated and memorable character in his place.
Kyle Warner’s Rating: 8/10