September 13, 2006


YAKUZA PAPERS (aka BATTLES WITHOUT HONOR AND HUMANITY) box set Between 1973 and 1974, Kinji Fukasaku unleashed his five film YAKUZA PAPERS (aka BATTLES WITHOUT HONOR AND HUMANITY) series like a pack of rabid dogs and, like Hiroshima’s ruined Genbaku Dome (a shot of which closes every installment in the series) these movies are a shattered, shattering, smoldering ruin that looms large over Japan’s filmscape, saying everything there is to be said about the yakuza movie.

It’s a 634 minute movie, split into five parts, that teaches an alternate history of post-War Japan: one where honor died in one mushroom cloud and humanity died in the other. It’s the story of a country built on greasy whorehouse handshakes and backroom deals; a country where politicians need criminal muscle to get out the vote and then need said muscle to stand far, far away when the press photographers come calling; a country where who you pay off is more important than who you are.

It’s a grand, glorious gun opera and the best way to see it is all at once, one movie after the other smacking you in the head like a hammer. When you pick yourself up off the floor you’ll be bloodied and bruised and your skull will be splitting open with all the plotlines, characters, sub-plots, gang names and knotty alliances you’re having to keep straight, but your nerves’ll be buzzing. To sound like a snotty English major, it’s like reading Shakespeare’s "War of the Roses" cycle all in one sitting. You start doing it because you’ve perversely decided it’s good for you. You finish doing it because the project takes on a life of its own. You could stop after one, but by the time you finish the second you’re too far in to turn back and when you get to the third you’re out of control: you have to know what happens next.

Fukasaku dedicated his early directing career to overturning the myth of the noble yakuza which was carved into celluloid during the 1960’s in hundreds of movies that saw Takakura Ken (or a reasonable facsimile) reassert the ideals of chivalry and honor by hacking apart dozens of dishonorable opponents from a rival gang like so many roast chickens. A young director with a lot to prove, Fukasaku read the memoirs of Kozo Mino, a Hiroshima gang boss, and then hit the streets with a cast of dozens and the goal of proving that honor was like old gum: something you scraped off the bottom of your shoe. The club he’d use to kill this myth was BATTLES WITHOUT HONOR OR HUMANITY (1973).

Widescreen was the industry standard in Japan at the time but rather than using it to depict epic vistas, Fukasaku dropped his cameraman into crowded black markets and hellhole bars where the only light came from bare bulbs shaded with sheets of old newspapers. This movie isn’t so much handheld as hand-tossed with the camera whirling around, zooming dangerously, and turning on its side. Starting in 1949 it focuses on Shozo Hirono (shark-faced Bunta Sugawara) a soldier returned from the war who winds up joining the Yamamori family with a bunch of brothers and rising through the ranks.

A lot has been made about how confusing these movies are, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a more hermetic, closed-off world than THE YAKUZA PAPERS. It has its own cosmology, its own particular gods and demons, and it plays like a soap opera for men full of sweaty faces seen in close-ups, terse conversations, sudden votes, cigarettes ground out in anger, and opportune phone calls. But it’s also a series that’s as alive as Frankenstein’s monster freshly juiced up on lightning. The first movie starts with a lingering pan across the Hiroshima mushroom cloud, moves on to two impromptu arm removals complete with high pressure blood sprays, a rape committed by drunk GIs and the violence inches up from there until the delirious finale that makes the massacre at the end of THE GODFATHER look like an understatement. And the confusion is part of the fun. Just hang on and don't sweat the small stuff. It'll all get worked out by the end.

Shot one year after THE GODFATHER, which was a causative factor in studio Toei greenlighting Fukasaku’s film, the differences couldn’t be starker and they’re all summed up in the opening scene of BATTLES. THE GODFATHER begins with its shot of Marlon Brando hovering in the murk of his study and moves on to a complicated wedding scene that outlines the characters' relationship to each other. In BATTLES WITHOUT HONOR AND HUMANITY, Marlon Brando is replaced with the A-bomb before the movie moves into a complicated scene set at a black market that outlines the players for us, but these aren’t presented primarily as people with emotional connections but as wild dogs fighting over the scraps fallen off their masters’ table and their connections are economic, not social.

BATTLES WITHOUT HONOR AND HUMANITY was a hit, and Fukasaku made two more installments in 1973 and two more in 1974. But, again, unlike THE GODFATHER which traces the rise and fall of Michael Corleone, Fukasaku is painting a broader picture that ignores people in favor of portraying power. You don’t have to understand which family is fighting which to get a feel for the map that's being drawn. This is a movie concerned with history, not with feelings. Feelings happen, but they’re a by-product of power plays, not the focus of the movie.

BATTLES WITHOUT HONOR AND HUMANITY 2: DEATHMATCH IN HIROSHIMA turns Bunta Sugawara into a supporting character in the story of a young thug, Yamanaka (Kinya Kitaoji), who falls in love with his boss’ niece and gets his long-delayed wish to be a kamikaze pilot granted when he’s turned into a trained attack dog by said boss while a scarily-tanned Sonny Chiba, hand surgically attached to his crotch, struts the streets and kills at random. The mood is more psychological and the yakuza family conflicts are much reduced and easier to follow.

This flick also features one of the few lead roles by a woman and it’s easy to see why there aren’t more of them in these films. Dropped into the blood-slimed power struggles, Meiko Kaji (LADY SNOWBLOOD), howls like a flayed cat dropped in salt water. She ends the movie doubled over in psychic pain with scalding tears being pulled our of her eyes by fishhooks and except for a few bit players we won’t see women in the series again.

But that’s not to say there aren’t plenty of characters to sink your teeth into. To use that word again, this is a line-up that’s downright Shakespearean. The great villain of the piece is the treacherous Boss Yamamori who’s as liable to burst into tears as order a hit, and he’s matched in ruthless cunning only by his plump, cheerful wife. Sonny Chiba literally rips the scenery to shreds in his role as Otomo and Hiroko Matsukata as a tubercular bad guy with a good heart in the final two films holds your eyeballs like glue.

The greatest weakness of the first movie is also its greatest strength: Bunta Sugawara’s Hirono is the main character and his double-breasted purple suit is the center of gravity around which the rest of the cast revolves. But he doesn’t rise to the top. By the end of the first movie he’s fallen totally out of favor in the gang.

Relegated to supporting status in BATTELS WITHOUT HONOR AND HUMANITY 2: DEATHMATCH IN HIROSHIMA, Hirono’s slowly making his comeback because, as he drolly puts it, “I know a lot of people.” In BATTLES WITHOUT HONOR AND HUMANITY 3: PROXY WAR, the most compelling of the five movies, he gets a tragic comeuppance that makes you yearn for the villain of the piece to be punished. Gang wars are brought to a sudden halt by a suddenly rejuvenated police force in BATTLES WITHOUT HONOR AND HUMANITY 4: POLICE TACTICS and then things come to a realistic but somewhat anticlimactic conclusion in BATTLES WITHOUT HONOR AND HUMANITY 5: FINAL CHAPTER as Kinya Kitaoji returns as a totally different character, Matsumura, a young, sweat-less android who wants to transition the yakuza from street gangs to political action groups that make their money more legitimately.

Watching all five movies is an exhausting ride but it’s worth it. If you go in expecting a typical movie narrative, forget it. Go get a hotdog instead. The idea of setting up heroes and villains and then having the hero triumph in the last reel is thrown in the trash like a prom night baby. These movies are charting a social movement, from back alley fighters to the men whose back alley deals built Japan, powered industry and charted the course of politics. Personal stories aren’t all resolved, because they’re never all resolved in real life and besides, the real story on Fukasaku’s mind is where power went in postwar Japan. And that story runs in tracks that needs the blood of people for axle grease, but it doesn’t so much need people. If you're looking for something that provides traditional narrative satisfaction then you're in the wrong place.

Despite the size and scope of Fukasaku's achievement it's the details that make these movies come alive and keeps them from becoming stale history lessons. In a later scene in the series, Bunta Sugawara is cooling his heels in a jailhouse corridor when an old enemy is brought by on his way to court. They sit on the bench together for a few minutes, chatting about how they came to this point. Behind them snow blows in through a broken window and these two once-great gang bosses curl their toes in pain: they used to have the police in their pockets, but now they’re only issued slippers to wear in the heart of winter. It’s a telling, tiny detail of what happened to power in Japan. It went from the personal power built on fists, to corporate power wielded by men in comfortable offices. And the people who put them there can’t even keep their feet warm. And after five movies and gallons of bloodshed, that's the point Fukasaku is making.

(Buy yourself the box set of THE YAKUZA PAPERS and treat yourself to a day of movies that'll blow your teeth out.)

September 13, 2006 at 02:01 AM in Reviews | Permalink


wow. i was on the fence about the financial investment this box set requires, but it truly looks like it's worth it. thank you for the review

Posted by: J. J. Marley | Sep 13, 2006 6:20:23 AM

The BWOHH set is worth twice what it costs. It's absolutely amazing and an incredible achievement.

Truly Boss Yamamori is one of the most brilliant villains ever conceived. Smarmy, crying, ruthless, and willing to sell anyone out for a ham sandwich. I also thought Kunie Tanaka was also great as his oleaginous right-hand man. I've been noticing Tanaka more and more (in Lupin: Strange Psychokinetic Strategy, Ronin-gai, and Street Mobster 2) and he's great as a villain and as a sidekick.

Posted by: David Austin | Sep 13, 2006 7:28:12 AM

I too was on the fence but having loved "Battles Without Honor," I think I have to buy the box now.

Posted by: Simon Abrams | Sep 13, 2006 9:19:13 AM

These are some classic shizzle.

It's weird that the Japanese flocked to see the most complicated plot EVER SEEN AT THE CINEMA (it's a wild claim, feel free to disagree) in the 1970s, but now even JT's Election blows the plot-starved minds of UK film critics. Is the impenetrability of the BWOHH plot just a cultural thing? Is super-dense plotting the ingredient that film forgot? (was it Star Wars that killed it?) Perhaps De Palma's The Black Dahlia is the film plot-heads have been waiting for...

It's a shame Home Vision went bust, or they might have followed this up with the New Battles Without Honor & Humanity series. Oi, Criterion - sort it out.

By the way Grady, did your search for Fukasaku soundtracks (Toshiaki Tsushima) ever dig anything up? Hotwax don't seem to have re-released them yet.

Posted by: Richard | Sep 13, 2006 12:38:31 PM

Sounds amazing. btw, deepdiscountdvd.com has it for $63 (free shipping), which is a little easier to take than $90.

Posted by: Dave | Sep 13, 2006 5:22:22 PM

You talk a lot about new movies, but no one has said anything thus far about THE IKON film, a new "DaVinci Code" spin-off in the works at several of the major studios in Hollywood, and we find that quite surprising! "Code" grossed over $645 million dollars so far and the next one is probably going to do the same or better I hear thru the pipeline it's going to be another biggie. Are you going to look into this? Just curious.

Posted by: Paul UCLA Film Dept | Sep 14, 2006 7:36:31 AM

$63 is a great price, but this set is not for everyone. It's very complex, often hard to follow, and for me... does not work nearly as well on home video, as in the cinema. I would recommend a person go to Amazon.com and buy a used copy of the 1st film in the series, and then, if one wants more, re-sell the used copy and make the plunge for the series. Note that in the first 5-10 minutes of the 1st film, about a dozen characters are (and this is a loooooong stretch of the definition) "introduced" in - often blurred - action freeze-frames, and then the next 90 minutes is spent eliminating them. Of course, Japanese audiences probably knew something of who some of these characters were, since the series is said to have been based on real people and events, and thus, they might need no more intro to the characters than we in the U.S. would need of Bonnie & Clyde or Al Capone.

Posted by: Paul | Sep 14, 2006 10:18:56 AM

I enjoyed the series, but by the third film it gets a bit repetitive. Grady's point about the shifts of power is the main difference between the films (well put!), but I was glad I netflixed it because it would be a hard film series to go back to.

Posted by: Seth | Sep 15, 2006 8:46:44 AM

Totally agree with Seth. A Great watch, but I don't see myself going back to these.

Posted by: Plague | Sep 15, 2006 2:17:34 PM

I haven't seen the series yet myself (it's on its way), but just out of curiosity, why wouldn't either of you return to watch the series? The repetitivity? Violence? Too confusing? Just thought I'd ask...

Posted by: JON PAIS | Sep 16, 2006 7:18:26 AM

I actually enjoyed the first one more on a second viewing - the first time I was so busy trying to follow the twists and turns of the plot it was a bit of a distraction from the film's other pleasures.

Posted by: David Austin | Sep 16, 2006 1:16:01 PM

Great overview. I bought the first movie (a UK DVD release) several years ago and have been waiting for the rest of the series ever since. I wasn't even aware that a boxset of the movies was available!

This stuff is great cinema - it is difficult to follow because the movies depict chaotic post-war times in Japan. They are essential yakuza cinema.

Posted by: Jubei | Sep 24, 2006 6:29:26 PM

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