Battles Without Honor And Humanity Movie Review
The problem, in post-war Hiroshima, is the power void, and the answer, for Hiroshima's petty criminals, is to organize. Shozo, who has unceremoniously dispatched an unarmed man at the film's outset, makes a blood pact in prison with a yakuza named Hiroshi Wakasugi (Tatsuo Umemiya). Once released, he joins his friends in organizing under boss Yamamori, only to find his sworn brother Hiroshi allied to a different gang. One gang crosses the other by rigging an election, and Hiroshi defects with tragic consequences. In the film's second half, Yamamori faces a mutiny within his own ranks until Shozo, again released from prison, brings the conflict to a head, setting the stage for the second film.
That's the skeleton. But Battles without Honor and Humanity moves along at such a brisk pace, and chronicles so many schemes, conflicts, and betrayals, that a proper synopsis would stretch to pages. (In fact, the current Home Vision Entertainment DVD edition of the film includes a very helpful fold-out chart delineating alliances, syndicate structures, and major battles of the thirteen different families as they unfold over the course of the five films.) Taken as a whole, The Yakuza Papers fills roughly the same amount of screen time as The Godfather trilogy, and the comparison is apt: the first Godfather film came out one year before Battles without Honor and Humanity, and the films have a similarly vast cast of characters and the same operatic scope. There's a direct style correlation, too. Director Kinji Fukasaku (who, in 2000, helmed the notorious and apparently undistributable Battle Royale) was clearly influenced by the American film; Battles without Honor and Humanity is grittier and less stylized than the studio yakuza films that came before it - it feels like American film from the 70s - and, as the title implies, the violence is more jarringly graphic. Watching the opening sequences in Battles without Honor and Humanity, with its dismemberments, attempted rape, and murders, you feel like you're seeing an Asian Godfather with the red turned up.
Fukasaku wasn't a craftsman, exactly; the five films in The Yakuza Papers were shot and released in the space of four years, and their visual style is fast and cheap by comparison with Coppola's stately pulp. (A score by Toshiaki Tsushima that recalls Ennio Morricone, combined with the vividness of the injuries, suggests that Sergio Leone was an influence here as well.) But Fukasaku had even more territory to cover than Coppola did; in Battles without Honor and Humanity alone, eight of at least 20 primary characters are killed, with the remaining films promising sizable massacres to follow.
Battles without Honor and Humanity, like the rest of The Yakuza Papers cycle, makes the claim that it's part social comment: this, it says, is what Japan devolved into following its murderous introduction to the atomic age, and that's why these films had to be made. Well, maybe. Mostly, it seems to me, Fukasaku was as taken with the violence he presents as any action fan. So it is that action fans, rather than social scientists, are directed to have a look. In that context, Battles without Honor and Humanity is a lot of fun.
Battles without Honor and Humanity is newly available on DVD in a single volume or as part of a boxed set including a disc of bonus material.
Aka Jingi naki tatakai, Tarnished Code of Yakuza, The Yakuza Papers, The Yakuza Papers, Vol. 1 - Battles Without Honor and Humanity.
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