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Battles Without Honor and Humanity – Review

by Dane Benko

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Kinji Fukusaku’s epic five part Yakuza Papers series starts with Battles Without Honor and Humanity, a movie spanning the years 1946 to 1956 and going from the post-atomic bomb chaos of Hiroshima to a reindustrializing Tokyo during the Korean War. In just 99 minutes, a large cast of interconnected characters join sides and betray each other in an escalating series of causation and violence. The story is mostly framed around the perspective of ex-soldier Shozo Hirono. In the first act, Shozo joins with the Yakuza after going to prison; in the second, he goes back to prison after offing a Yakuza boss; and in the third, he is freed only to find his own family has betrayed him and all honor and code that was left in the Yakuza has mostly been cast aside for cold and calculating indifference.

The movie opens in Hiroshima in the wake of the atomic blasting, the streets filled with crowds like an exterior from Soylent Green (1973). In the midst of the chaos some American occupying soldiers attempt to rape a Japanese woman and a fight breaks out; in the midst of the fight Shozo’s friend gets into fisticuffs with a Yakuza, and so Shozo offers to hunt the gangster down to preserve his friends’ families’ honor. He goes to jail having earned the appreciation of the Yamamori family, and becomes blood brothers with a member of the Doi family. This is merely the beginning of interrelated events that result in subsequent violence and destruction.

Things get complicated pretty quickly. Relationships merge and shatter, deals are made and broken, people come into play and get killed. Fukasaku keeps up a mad pace whereby once scene of violence leads to an expositional scene of dialog where the characters attempt to resolve the conflict of the violence, and that resolution leads into another scene of violence and so on. The movie cross-cuts between these situations with few seconds allowed for transitions or setting and whisks through the years and characters with flashing moments of still frames as likely to emphasize the horror of a cut off limb as it is to briefly name the character or the year or the time of death. Granted, it is even more difficult to follow this film for Westerners as with such breathtaking pace to keep up with, they might not immediately notice that Shinkai and Sakai are different people with similar names, or that Shozo and Hirono is our same hero and the change of his name refers to whether he’s being referred to formally or informally but otherwise interchangeably.

However the wider importance of the movie is clear and despite blink-and-you-miss-it details, the overall ways in which one character’s choices create a response and counter-response isn’t difficult, it’s just complex. Fukasaku starts by showing a society suffering chaos and power vacuum from the destruction of World War II, that allows the Yakuza to gain ground in a manner that has sweeping significance to the state of the country afterward; as a result, the events of history also affect the Yakuza, so that the personal is made political and the political affects everyone. The Yamamori family gains power because of their defense contracting during the Korean War. It loses power because it dabbles in philopon dealing in the Shinkai family’s territory. Outside the movie the Korean War is killing people and the public is getting addicted to a popular drug. Inside the movie every defense contract and philopon sale results in the death of another character, inciting more rage and violence.

In this sense, this movie manages to make its character’s deaths astoundingly significant. It is easy to watch gangster movies and trust that minor characters will be in danger but the leads and principals, so to speak, will maintain their bickering. That is not the case in this movie. A character you may become attached to, like Shozo’s friend Wakasugi, is as likely to die as a character Shozo is conscripted to hit. Shozo himself is the closest we have to a stable, continuous character but disappears into prison for half the movie as the Yakuza families start digging ground for more graves to set him in. He’s also, as a disenfranchised hitman of the Yakuza who murders people for profit, the most respectable and heroic of the lot because of his code of conduct and general chivalry.  At one point he cuts his finger off in apology whereas just two scenes previously his blood brother fakes the traditional hara-kiri just to escape from prison. He is honest with the people he talks to and makes his decisions carefully. And it comes to surprise him that the gangsters he’s aligned with turn out to have second faces.

In addition to expositional details and its complex character choices are the smaller cues Kinji Fukasaku provide. For instance, the characters’ costuming improves from rags of old uniforms and street clothes to the suits of Western businessmen over time, all as money becomes less and less freely flowed through the ranks of the same characters wearing them. Don’t depend on remembering, “Okay, that’s the guy with the scar on his face” because many characters have them and you’re not always treated to the specific situation that caused it. Non-Yakuza family members are where Fukasaku plies some of his darkest and wriest jokes: they are most often used as leverage by one character to garner the sympathy and attention of another in a manner almost hysterical and clearly manipulative. Much of the expositional dialog serves two purposes, to lead the way into the next series of events that are about to take place and underscore how calculating and manipulative even our hero Shozo can be when navigating the world of the Yakuza, mind you again, the selfsame world that is causing ripple effects of chaos and destruction on the country of Japan and its business and politics abroad. Relationships, in this case, are mostly levers to be pulled, hence why every death has more significance than what is typically expected out of escapist cinema. Fukasaku manages to make one of the most violent and gritty movies of all time, and yet manages to keep that violence on a level where it is shocking and painful and one cannot become desensitized by it or treat it as aesthetic ‘action’ sequences.

Which makes this movie a textbook influence on other filmmakers who learned the style but missed the point. Elements of the Yakuza Papers approach to rough handheld violence and rapid informational dialog between complexly interrelated characters burns itself through subsequent Japanese cinema all the way to Takashi Miike as well as having no small influence on filmmakers abroad like Quentin Tarantino, but Battles Without Honor and Humanity makes it clear that the battles are based in a culture that has lost its honor and humanity, and that’s before they start to double-cross each other and coldly calculate the monetary worth of an opponents death—and this is only the beginning.

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Author: Dane Benko

Dane is an independent filmmaker and freelancer in Albuquerque, NM. Japanese cinema is a particular fascination of his.

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