by David Cornelius
So I just finished watching “Battles Without Honor and Humanity,” and I have no idea what the hell just happened. I mean, I got the basics down fine, but there’s simply so much movie crammed into a mere ninety-nine minutes that I’m certain it’s going to take at least another fifty or sixty viewings before I’ve picked up on every last detail.And it’s just the first in a five-movie saga, meaning I’ve got a whole lot of plot ahead of me, too. “Battles” is the opening chapter in Kinji Fukasaku’s epic series, which dropped all five films onto audiences in just two years, 1973 and 1974. (A brief title note: the series is referred to as both “The Yakuza Papers” and “Battles Without Honor and Humanity,” just to confuse things, I suppose.) This first entry is a whopper, covering a decade-plus worth of story, and doing so at lightning speed. The story presses on like a whirlwind, following in great detail the web of countless characters making up the Hiroshima underground following World War II. Blink and you’ll miss entire subplots.
"Undeniably one of the best, and most important, crime movies ever made."
Not only does the film refuse to let us catch our breath while following the story, it also never gives us a chance to recover from the garish, all-too-graphic violence. We spend the film in a daze, overwhelmed by wicked characters and their blood-soaked actions. Within the first five minutes alone, we’re treated to a rape, a beating, and two arms being chopped off with one sword. Oh, and still photos of an atomic blast, too.
This is how we first see Hiroshima, 1946. Still in recovery from a war that ruined a nation and a bomb that devastated a city, Hiroshima is a haven for crime and the yakuza, the heavily formalized Japanese version of the mafia, which is now beginning to get back on its feet, if in a darker, more chaotic version of its past self. As for the city, as we see it here, it’s nothing less than a living hell - even the American soldiers meant to restore order are busy attacking innocents.
In these opening scenes, we’re introduced to a good supply of characters, finally settling on Shozo Hirono (Bunta Sugawara), who meets Hiroshi Wakasugi (Tatsuo Umemiya) in a dank, overpopulated prison. The two become sworn brothers before Wakasugi stages a suicide, an attempt to get out of jail (knowing the prison doctors are unable to heal the wounds, thus forcing an early release). Skip ahead a bit, with Hirono now out of jail; he joins up with his old pals and decides to create a new crime family, under the leadership of Boss Yamamori (Nobuo Kaneko). A dispute with rival Boss Doi (Hiroshi Nawa) leads Wakasugi to break ranks and join up with his sworn brother… which kicks off an endless string of crosses and doublecrosses that leave several characters dead, others locked away in prison. And through it all, Hirono, a man of his word, remains loyal to Yamamori, despite everyone knowing that Yamamori is a man deserving of no such loyalty.
All of this spans from mid-1946 through late 1956, and if you think the crime epics “The Godfather,” “Scarface,” and “Once Upon a Time In America” are sprawling, you haven’t seen anything yet. “Battles” is a dynamic web of crime history (the series is purportedly based on the actual experiences of Koichi Iiboshi) that borders on the Shakespearean.
But it’s more than an impressive feat of storytelling and plot juggling (although screenwriter Kazuo Kasahara does deliver one of the most complex, most powerful crime dramas ever put to film). “Battles” marks a major change in Japanese history; even its very title suggests we’ve come to the end of the chivalrous samurai epics and respectable yakuza pictures of old. Director Fukasaku, having developed a darker, angrier style of filmmaking in his past few projects, brings with him to this project the freedom of sex, language, and violence necessary for this kind of story, and he uses it in every frame he can. “Battles” is an angry film, one seething with commentary on post-war anxiety and the dark society it created. Such anger creates an electricity, and, complemented by a visual style influenced by the bold cinema evolutionaries of the 1960s and early 70s, the film explodes with a fiery jazz beat.
Most daring of all is not the blood and guts, but the honesty with which Fukasaku and Kasahara handle the characters. For the most part, these are not noble warriors, but punks, jerks, and selfish backstabbers. They cry when faced with death, they become buffoons when blubbering for their life. Let’s not back away from what’s real, Fukasaku tells us with his film. Let’s examine everything, especially the less attractive sides, that makes us human.
There’s a great sequence early in the film in which Hirono vows to cut off his little finger in order to pay for a mistake. The vow accepted, Hirono’s friends then swarm around him, and the group is then faced with a new problem: how, exactly, does one cut off his own finger? The scene (and the events that follow) is handled with a darkly comic truthfulness. This is not the calm, cool manner that we often find in movie gangsters. This is bumbling reality, awkward and confusing.Although “Battles” is the first chapter in an on-going series, the film manages to wrap itself up nicely enough to work as a stand alone movie, too. (Granted, it was made without the thought of sequels, but keeping the sequels in mind makes it hard to see this entirely as a separate entity.) Things end with just the right wickedness that it fits with the tone of the film; this is the right ending at the right moment. And yet it also leaves the viewer hungry for so much more. Which, fortunately, Fukasaku is ready to deliver, four times over.
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originally posted: 03/19/05 16:21:09