Gangster pictures have glamorized the lifestyle of organized street crime and disparaged its methods and the likelihood its members would meet violent ends since well before the height of their popularity in the 1930s. In 1972, Francis Ford Coppola and author Mario Puzo adapted the latter’s novel, The Godfather, into the seminal film about the Italian Mafia—a lengthy, contemplative look at the Five Families in New York City following World War II. Over in Japan, a year later, director Kinji Fukasaku would begin a treatise on the Japanese Yakuza, and they would be the fastest, most frenetic, least apologetic gangster pictures ever made. The first of five was given the amazing title, Battles Without Honor and Humanity.
Fukasaku, who’d directed loads of movies in Japan, was perhaps best known in the U.S. for having directed the 1968 English-language horror film, The Green Slime (which was featured in the unreleased pilot episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000) and the Japanese segments of the bravura WWII movie Tora! Tora! Tora! in 1970. The last two features he directed before his death in 2003 were Battle Royale and its sequel. I tell you all these credits to simply illustrate that, even though I didn’t think I knew who he was before watching these Yakuza pictures, I absolutely did. He made five Battles movies between 1973 and 1974, based on writers Koichi Iiboshi and Kazuo Kasahara’s extensive research into the Yakuza, and the movies—especially the first—play out like a docudrama with tons and tons of violence.
The film begins in the mid-1940s in the Kure region of Japan. We’re introduced to several members of what will become the Yamamori crime family, chiefly the series’ protagonist Shozo Hirono (played by Bunta Sugawara). As the picture opens, we’re very quickly introduced to what postwar Japan is: a pretty sucky place to be. Hirono is a soldier with nothing to do until he and his friend see a woman being chased through the streets by American G.I.s who aim to rape her. Hirono and his friend fight the men off but then have to run from military police. This is a bombastic way to begin any film, and it’s followed by scenes of other soon-to-be-Yakuza in various kinds of black market activity—one even getting his arm cut off with a sword for having stolen from an underboss whom he’ll soon work under.
We get to see the men coming together into the new family, and taking the Yakuza oath, which involves ceremonial sake drinking. This is one of the few scenes of contentedness among the members. Soon, inner strife and turmoil begins to rip them all apart: There are warring factions, fighting among disagreeing underbosses, and eventually violent, bloody murders in public areas. The regular citizens are sometimes caught up in this, but for the most part the movie focuses on just the Yakuza, who do a pretty good job of killing each other off independently of law enforcement’s doing. With each gangland murder, a title comes up over still frame saying the name of the character and the date they died. This, coupled with the frenetic, handheld photography gives Battles Without Honor and Humanity newsreel style that draws the viewer in while seeming at a glance more distant.
Hirono is the typical noble criminal, with a very rigid moral center. Early on, we see that he is intensely loyal to Yamamori, even going so far as to offer to cut off his own pinky following a botched operation. He commits murders for his boss, and even willingly takes a prison sentence for one of them when caught. But it’s while Hirono is in prison that the gang starts to fall apart, and the bonds of brotherhood give way to greed and double-cross. When Hirono is released on parole in the early-50s, he barely recognizes his friends and the organization he believed in. Yamamori no longer commands his respect, instead seeming much more like a little man who’s afraid of everyone. Even Hirono’s ostensible best friend, Tetsuya Sakai (Hiroki Matsukata), has become full of himself and the two barely have anything to say anymore. But when Yamamori instructs Hirono to kill Sakai, he can’t bring himself to do it and tells his friend to make amends so the family can move forward. This doesn’t happen, and eventually Hirono is forced to branch out on his own.
Battles Without Honor and Humanity is a fast-paced, incredibly energetic movie with some amazing murder set pieces. Life and death in the Yakuza is almost cheaper than it is in the Mafia. There’s a lot less romance involved in the crime depicted here. It’s actually fairly easy to lose track of who everybody is since you don’t get to spend a whole lot of time with most of the characters. This is a movie that expects you to keep up, but even if you’re only half paying attention, the scenes are more than entertaining and it’s easy to get the gist. At the center of it, we have a brilliant performance by Sugawara.
Though this movie has a terrific ending, with Hirono breaking ties with the rest of the Yakuza in stylish and finite fashion (he shoots up all the “respects” left at the funeral for Sakai), it isn’t the end of the story at all. As I said, Fukasaku made five pictures in total in a span of just two years, following this one with Hiroshima Death Match and Proxy War in ’73 and Police Tactics and Final Episode in 1974. In them, we get to follow Hirono’s further gangland adventures up until the 1960s. A fantastic boxset of all the films was released by Arrow Films in the U.S. and UK. Highly recommended? Highly recommended.
Images: Toei Productions
Kyle Anderson is the Weekend Editor and a film and TV critic for Nerdist.com. If you have any Schlock & Awe recommendations for him, his Twitter is at your beck and call!