BATTLES_EXPLODED_V7

Kinji Fukasaku is best known these days (in the West at least) as the director of the modern cult classic Battle Royale. That was made right at the end of his long career though (he died before he could finish work on the film's sequel). He had an impressive 60-odd films to his name before that and if you travel to his native Japan you'll find he's probably most famous for his Battles Without Honour and Humanity series (a.k.a. Jingi naki tatakai or The Yakuza Papers or Tarnished Code of Yakuza) which Arrow Video are re-releasing in a mightily impressive 13 disc dual format Blu-Ray & DVD set.

The films make up an epic yakuza saga which is based on a series of newspaper articles by journalist Kōichi Iiboshi that were rewrites of a manuscript originally written by real-life yakuza Kōzō Minō. The screenplays create a complicated web of dishonour among thieves, with loyalties formed and broken as the bodies pile up.

The films in the series are Battles Without Honour and Humanity, Hiroshima Death Match, Proxy War, Police Tactics and Final Episode. My thoughts on the individual films follow:

Battles Without Honour and Humanity

Director: Kinji Fukasaku
Screenplay: Kazuo Kasahara
Based on a Story by: Koichi Iiboshi
Starring: Bunta Sugawara, Hiroki Matsukata, Kunie Tanaka
Country: Japan
Running Time: 99 min
Year: 1973

These films are densely plotted, so I won't go into too much detail, but I'll try my best to sum up the story in a (rather large) nutshell. Set in Hiroshima just after the Second World War, the first film in the series sees the rise of Shozo Hirono (Bunta Sugawara) from a soldier in the Japanese army to a powerful yakuza gang member. After he kills a yakuza who had disgraced a member of the Yamamori family, he's put in prison where he meets Doi family member Hiroshi Wakasugi (Tatsuo Umemiya). The two form a blood bond and Shozo helps Wakasugi get out of prison, who goes on to talk the head of the Yamamori family into putting up Shozo's bail. He of course becomes a part of the Yamamori gang after this sign of gratitude and works his way up the ranks quickly, before things get messy and rather complicated as the backstabbings and assassinations mount. Not helping matters is the concurrent rise of the Doi family's rebellious Tetsuya Sakai (Hiroki Matsukata) who wants the underworld to himself.

Battles1

The series is often referred to as the Japanese Godfather and I can see that in the rich tapestry of characters, complicated story and epic scope. However, where Coppola's saga is spread across a long and sumptuous Hollywood canvas, Fukasaku's series thrives on chaos, with its multitude of characters and loyalties crammed into standard-length episodes shot with a vivid energy, streets away from the grand beauty of Gordon Willis' photography in the Godfather films.

Fukasaku and his DOP Sadaji Yoshida shoot in a gritty documentary style, flinging the camera around in scenes of action and employing fast cutting editing techniques when required to create a fiery energy. Adding this style to the dense jet-bursts of narrative makes for a truly exhilarating experience. The film is too exhausting to work as a three hour film. You need the 5 shorter episodes to keep from running out of breath.

Some might say there's too much going on and there's a sense of melodrama to the presentation that won't be to everyone's tastes, but it's one of the most thrilling crime dramas I've ever seen. A veritable whirlwind of blood and testosterone that will make you need a stiff drink afterwards to get you back to Earth.

Hiroshima Death Match

Director: Kinji Fukasaku
Screenplay: Kazuo Kasahara
Based on a Story by: Koichi Iiboshi
Starring: Kinya Kitaoji, Bunta Sugawara, Sonny Chiba, Meiko Kaji
Country: Japan
Running Time: 100 min
Year: 1973

In the second episode, Shozo takes a bit of a backseat and we focus largely on a new pair of families – the Muraoka's and Otomo's. Caught in between these feuding gangs is Shoji Yamanaka (Kinya Kitaoji), a young upstart who gets beaten up by Otomo's son (the great Sonny Chiba) and his goons. Shoji vows to kill his attackers, but bides his time as he is brought into the Muraoka family. Here he meets the boss' niece, Yasuko (Lady Snowblood herself, Meiko Kaji), who he falls for in a big way. This doesn't go down well with her uncle as she's the widow of an honourable kamakazi pilot, so Shoji is forced to hide out. He's eventually re-accepted after he does an important job for the family, but his problems only get worse from there, leading to a devastating conclusion.

It's going to be difficult to review each individual episode without sounding like a broken record as they were shot back to back with largely the same crew (and whichever cast members hadn't been killed off), so share the same style and qualities. What I'll try and do instead is bring up things not mentioned previously, as well as point out anything that sets this episode apart from the rest.

Hiroshima Death Match 3

What this episode has that the first one didn't is more of an emotional core. The doomed romance between Shoji and Yasuko is spread throughout the film, providing a crux on which the usual complicated web of disloyalties can hang. Their relationship is quite melodramatically portrayed, but this is in keeping with the bombastic style of the rest of the films so it fits.

One thing I didn't mention previously is the violence, which a key selling point in all the films. The action comes thick and fast, particularly in this second film. Blood is sprayed all over the place, even on the screen from time to time as the gangsters sort out their quibbles with guns and occasionally swords or knives. Although the fake gore isn't particularly realistic looking by today's standards, the violence is portrayed in a realistically scrappy and messy way, making for incredibly visceral and intense action scenes. A bloody raid on the Muroaka base in this episode is a particular stand-out.

Once again I was blown away by the raw energy of the film and it's equally as strong as the first instalment, with the more personal central story adding a little more soul to proceedings.

Proxy War

Director: Kinji Fukasaku
Screenplay: Kazuo Kasahara
Based on a Story by: Koichi Iiboshi
Starring: Bunta Sugawara, Akira Kobayashi, Tsunehiko Watase
Country: Japan
Running Time: 102 min
Year: 1973

Episode 3, Proxy War, takes us into the dawn of the 60's with Shozo fresh out of prison and running his own family. Three main families are running things in Hiroshima at the start; as well as Shozo's Hirono family you've got the Uchimotos and Muraokas. The three work in reasonable harmony to begin with, but the murder of the Muraoka family's leader sparks a series of betrayals and conflicts that brings violence back to the streets.

The chief fly in the ointment causing the rift is Noboru Uchimoto (Takeshi Katō), who has his eye on the leadership position over the Muraoka family, but doesn't have the balls to fight for it. Instead he utilises some sneaky tactics and he's not alone. The ever sneaky Yamamori wants in on the action too and arranges for himself to be Shozo's parole guarantor so as to get closer to the Muraokas (Shozo has a close connection to that family). And the plot continues to thicken once two large out-of-town groups, the Akashi family and the Shinwa Group bring their war to Hiroshima and the local families try to vie for their loyalties.

Proxy War

This is possibly the most complex film of the saga as it focuses slightly less on the violence (although there are still some shocking moments) and more on the political allegiances that are tactically forged to gain power. As Shozo puts it in the film, “wiping out your rivals doesn't mean you win the game these days”. By bringing a young wannabe gangster into the story, Takeshi Kuramoto (Tsunehiko Watase), you see how the ground troops still become the victims of choices made at the top though.

The complexities of the group rivalries and relationships are thankfully explained in voice over narration regularly throughout the film and, to keep up the pace, some of the less exciting scenes of brothers being sworn in or meetings being held are whizzed through in stills whilst the voiceover tells us what happened. So the energy of the first two episodes is largely still there. I wouldn't say it's quite as exhilarating as either of those, but it makes up for this through the series' most engrossing story.

Police Tactics

Director: Kinji Fukasaku
Screenplay: Kazuo Kasahara
Based on a Story by: Koichi Iiboshi
Starring: Bunta Sugawara, Akira Kobayashi, Tatsuo Umemiya
Country: Japan
Running Time: 101 min
Year: 1974

After a lengthy voiceover narration explaining the events of the previous film, we're brought to 1963 where Japan is gearing up for the Tokyo Olympics in '64. Due to this and public outcry, there's a police crackdown on yakuza activities which isn't making life easy for the Hirono, Uchimoto and Akashi families who are at war with the Yamamori family and Shinwa Group. Shozo brings Hidemitsu Kawada and Tomoji Okajima onto his side, which initially causes a bit of a deadlock alongside the police presence. However, when a civilian is accidentally killed by the yakuza, the public and the media launch on them, causing the police to push even harder. Not helping matters is a pivotal gang murder that sparks mass violence once again.

Although the police presence is stronger here than before, the film still focuses on the turmoil amongst the gangs, not any police investigation. It does add a new layer to things though, as does the influence of the public and media (which the families use in different ways). Although all of the films do feel part and parcel of one another, working as one whole, the five episodes all have unique slants on what was set up in the first film. The second focuses slightly more closely on one personal story, the third puts more emphasis on political tactics and the fourth opens our eyes to the world outside the families.

Police Tactics

I felt there was a little more humour in this episode too, even though the grittiness is still there and the war escalates from in the slightly more subdued previous film. Some really nasty scenes counteract the few laughs too. There's a painful nose slice and some brutal use of a shotgun which has had its barrel sharpened to create a sort of bayonet end.

It felt like a slightly messy episode in terms of plot, but this is largely to make the final point that the war becomes fruitless and ends in tatters. In fact, this feels like the final chapter in the series as most of the main bosses end up arrested or murdered by the end. However, the criminal underworld never dies and there's enough of the families still in place to lead us towards the Final Episode.

Final Episode

Director: Kinji Fukasaku
Screenplay: Kôji Takada
Based on a Story by: Koichi Iiboshi
Starring: Hiroko Fuji, Gorô Ibuki, Nobuo Kaneko, Bunta Sugawara
Country: Japan
Running Time: 100 min
Year: 1974

The events of the previous film have left the families in a vastly different state than before. The Uchimoto family has disbanded, Shozo is in prison and the Yamamoto family's underboss Takeda (Akira Kobayashi), who played a pivotal role in Police Tactics, has united the remaining Hiroshima families to form the Tensei Coalition political party.

Takeda and many of the other gang leaders want to make their work legitimate and move away from the blood-stained code of the Yakuza. He brings in the young Matsumura (Kinya Kitaoji) to become head of discipline to avoid the old rituals. However, elder yakuza Otomo (Joe Shishido of Branded to Kill fame) feels this new approach is weak and is sacrificing their honour. To rub salt in Otomo's wounds, Matsumura is voted (in a rigged election) to be Takeda's successor as head of the Coalition and soon gets to exercise his power when Takeda is arrested for firearm offences.

Otomo and his supporter Hayakawa (Junkichi Orimoto) try to rile up the other members and, after Otomo attempts to have Matsumura killed, a rift is torn through the Coalition. This of course brings the old yakuza violence back and Matsumura himself announces the Tensei Coalition is no longer a political group and demands each member swear loyalty to him as boss. It can't end well, can it?

Final Episode

Maybe not for the gangsters, but Final Episode ties up the series very effectively for the audience. Although Shozo and Takeda take a back-seat for much of the film, the ending justifies this. The main threads are actually tied up more neatly than expected and, without wanting to spoil anything, it's not as bleak or as nihilistic a finale as I presumed. A closing voiceover is a little clunky, but all in all the final moments are poignantly reflective, bringing the chaos that brought us there into sobering focus.

It's probably the weakest episode overall though as it gets a bit too hammy from time to time and isn't quite as pacy or exciting. Maybe I was just burnt out from watching all of the series in around a fortnight though. Nevertheless, I still enjoyed it a lot and most of the qualities of the rest of the series are still on display. As mentioned, it certainly ties it all together nicely and brings the epic saga to an honourable close, which is more than can be said for many franchises and crime sagas (The Godfather Part III?).

The Battles Without Honour and Humanity set is out now on dual format Blu-Ray and DVD in the UK, released by Arrow Video. I saw the Blu-Ray versions of all the films and, as is to be expected from the label, the picture and audio quality is excellent. Most of the films have one scene that looks strangely bleached out or discoloured for some reason, but for the most part, the picture is clean with its scuzzy grain in tact. I'm presuming these are scenes that have always looked like that or can't be cleaned up any more effectively.

There are numerous special features spread across the 13 discs (6 Blu-Rays and 7 DVD's). The press release lists them more clearly than I ever could, so here's what it says:

BATTLES WITHOUT HONOR AND HUMANITY (DISCS 1 & 2)
- Brand new audio commentary by critic and author Stuart Galbraith IV
- Yakuza Graveyard a new interview with Takashi Miike about Kinji Fukasaku and the yakuza film genre
Original trailers for all five films

HIROSHIMA DEATH MATCH (DISCS 3 & 4)
- Man of Action a new interview with series fight choreographer Ryuzo Ueno
Original Trailer

PROXY WAR (DISCS 5 & 6)
- Secrets of the Piranha Army a new documentary about the troupe of supporting actors who appeared throughout the series, featuring interviews with original Piranha members Masaru Shiga and Takashi Noguchi, plus second-generation Piranha, Takashi Nishina and Akira Murota
- Tales of a Bit Player a new interview with supporting actor and stuntman Seizo Fukumoto
Original Trailer

POLICE TACTICS (DISCS 7 & 8)
- Remembering Kinji a new featurette about director Kinji Fukasaku and his work, featuring interviews with Kenta Fukasaku and film critic and Fukasaku biographer Sadao Yamane
- Fukasaku Family a new interview with Proxy War and Police Tactics assistant director Toru Dobashi
Original Trailer

FINAL EPISODE (DISCS 9 & 10)
- Last Days of the Boss a new interview with Final Episode screenwriter Koji Takada
- Original poster gallery for the series
Original Trailer

THE COMPLETE SAGA (DISCS 11, 12 & 13) [LIMITED EDITION EXCLUSIVE] - English-subtitled premiere of the 224-minute compilation edition of the first four films, previously screened only as part of a limited Japanese theatrical release in 1980 and on the Toei cable channel
Introduction by Complete Saga editorial supervisor Toru Dobashi

jingicard13

I've worked my way through pretty much all of these features. Standouts include the commentary on the first film which is nicely dense with facts and anecdotes about the production process and the film's reception. The choice of interviewees is good too. On paper it looks like they've just grabbed whoever they could, but actually people like fight choreographer Ryuzo Ueno are crucial to what makes the film work and of course Fukasaku and some others involved in the films are dead now so couldn't be featured in any new material. Takashi Miike's is worthwhile too, as he speaks honestly about the similarities and differences between his work and Fukasaku's, citing how the latter influenced him, but not gushingly so.

The 'Secrets of the Piranha Army' is a great piece. It's a fun look at the wild lives of the stunt men/bit part actors that made a living playing the tough guys in this series and numerous other gangster and action movies.

I wasn't sent the disc with the edited down Complete Saga, so I can't comment on that, but I can imagine it'd be an exhausting watch. It might make a nice refresher of what went down in the full version after you've got through that though.

All Arrow releases come with a small booklet too, which is usually filled with interesting ruminations on the film. This time around though we're treated to a 146 page book, called The Yakuza Papers. I haven't read it page to page yet I'm afraid, but what I've seen of it is mightily impressive. I particularly appreciated the 'family trees' at the end which explain the complicated members, loyalties and murders within and amongst the Yakuza families in the films.

Battles Without Honour and Humanity
4.0Overall Score
Reader Rating: (0 Votes)

About The Author

Editor of films and videos as well as of this site. On top of his passion for film, he also has a great love for music and his family.

One Response

  1. Weekly Round Up | Blueprint: Film

    […] Battles Without Honour (Dave) I watched the entire 5-film Battles Without Honour and Humanity series, from the director of Battle Royale, Kinji Fukasaku. Read my full, epic write-up over at Blueprint: Review. […]

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

To help us avoid spam comments, please answer this simple question to prove you are human: * Time limit is exhausted. Please reload CAPTCHA.