15:00 - 21st February 2016, by David West

Battles Without Honour And Humanity

Kinji Fukasaku’s five part film series about the power struggles of yakuza factions in post-World War II Japan has been cited as an influence by modern directors like Takeshi Kitano and Takashi Miike – a testament to the quality of this marathon gangland saga

The five movies cover a period of more than 20 years, centred about the conflict between rival clans (and just as often within individual clans) for control of the criminal underworld in Hiroshima. The protagonist of the series is Shozo Hirono (Bunta Sagawara), who we follow as he jostles for position and influence, but as he periodically winds up in prison, the attention shifts to those still on the outside.
It’s a bold move to take the star out of play for extended periods, but the script keeps events moving constantly, and the supporting characters provide plenty of drama of their own. The films feature a very large cast of players and characters are introduced with onscreen titles to explain who they are, which clan they belong to, and their position within it. This certainly helps, but the key figures soon emerge anyway.

Nobuo Kaneko is excellent as the oyabun (yakuza boss) Yoshio Yamamori, a manipulative, conniving schemer who is very careful to avoid ever getting his own hands dirty. Yamamori has a habit of bursting into tears with feigned passion to convince his underlings to risk their lives and freedom in furthering his own ends. His second in command, Makihara (Kunie Tanaka), is likewise a snake, squirming his way out of personal danger but happy to send underlings into battle.

Fukasaku never glamorises his gangsters or their deeds. It is the swindlers and cowards like Makihara and Yamamori who rise inexorably up the ranks, while the men who are willing to get bloody in the cause of their clan wind up either in jail or bleeding to death in a gutter. The director’s handling of the violence is kinetic and frantic. Fukasaku and cinematographer Sadaji Yoshida favour handheld cameras for the shootings and fight scenes, throwing the camera into the melee where it is tossed about along with the brawlers.

The yakuza in the Battles series are not the cool, unruffled gangsters who populate the worlds of John Woo, Ringo Lam, Takashi Miike and Takeshi Kitano. They are typically none too bright and their acts of violence have not the slightest hint of poise about them. There is none of the slow motion ballet of bullets that John Woo does so well. These yakuza run right up to their targets, so they don’t miss, and desperately keep firing in the hopes of putting their victim down before they can fight back or flee. It’s a messy and ugly business.

It’s also very much a man’s world. In the opening scene of the first film, the eponymous Battles Without Honour And Humanity, a Japanese woman flees through a crowd pursued by a squad of American GIs intent on raping her. She’s saved by the intervention of the future members of the Yamamori Clan who come to her rescue not out of any sense of chivalry but because they hate the Americans. The gangsters aren’t exactly paragons of virtue – one low level flunky in the Yamamori Family repeatedly forces his pretty girlfriend to offer herself to men that that clan wants to impress, inevitably with awful results for her.

The scripts are firmly grounded in the socio-political climes of the period. The first film begins just one year after the end of World War II, painting Hiroshima as a city teetering on the edge of anarchy as it tries to recover from the effects of the atomic bomb and post-war economic collapse. As the years pass, society discovers a new equilibrium, but the gangsters never stop their feuding.

Whilst the forces of law and order intrude from time to time to arrest and lock up gang members, the series is not interested in detailing the clash between the mobsters and the authorities. Instead it is focussed on their inter-factional rivalries and internal power struggles. As the years pass the faces may change, but the yakuza never change their nature.

In the last of the quintet, Final Episode, an oyabun named Takeda (Akira Kobayashi) attempts to transform his syndicate into a legitimate political organisation called the Tensei Coalition, hoping it will get the cops off their back and bring an end to the constant fighting, but his good intentions are inevitably doomed to meet with failure. All it takes is rowdy, macho gangsters from two rival factions to kick off and all the trouble starts again. Every brawl is seen as a loss of face to someone and wronged parties quickly demand redress.

The Battles series represented a break with the yakuza films of the past, which had typically cast the gangsters as men governed by a strict code. The ninkyo eiga, or chivalry films, were full of noble yakuza fighting for their honour. Even when Seijun Suzuki parodied the ninkyo eiga with movies like Kanto Wanderer and Tokyo Drifter, he was still playing with the established form, whereas Fukasaku casts all that aside. His yakuza only invoke codes of honour when it suits their agenda. Otherwise they are only too quick to lie, cheat and betray each other in their pursuit of advancement up the criminal hierarchy. Just like the title says, their battles are fought with neither honour nor humanity. But they’re still compelling to behold.

Long before he shocked audiences around the world with Battle Royale, Kenji Fukasaku revitalised the yakuza genre with these five fearless stories, inspired by interviews with a real gangster. Despite the scale of the story and sizeable cast, Fukasaku and his excellent lead Bunta Sagawara keep the momentum and tension running constantly across the decades of Hirono’s violent life.
SCORE: 4/5
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