by David Cornelius
Director Kinji Fukasaku bombarded us with garish violence and complex storytelling with “Battles Without Honor and Humanity,” but it turns out he was just getting warmed up. In “Battles Without Honor and Humanity: Deadly Fight In Hiroshima,” part two of his epic “Yakuza Papers” series, the filmmaker already begins to toy with our expectations, using Shozo Hirono (Bunta Sugawara), the hero (of sorts) of the first movie, as more of a secondary character. Plus, the series folds back on itself, with “Deadly Fight” opening in 1950 and carrying us through 1955, allowing this film to overlap entirely with the first.The main thread of “Deadly Fight” involves Shoji Yamanaka (Kinya Kitaoji), whom we first see trying to cheat in a gambling house run by the Otomo family. Katsutoshi Otomo (Sonny Chiba), the hotheaded Otomo son (and, dangerously enough, heir to the throne), rewards Yamanaka’s efforts with a solid beating. He’s taken in by Yasuko (Meiko Kaji), with whom he falls in love… except she turns out to be the niece of Boss Muraoka (Hiroshi Nawa), the head of the largest of all the Hiroshima crime families. Ouch.
"A second chapter that's every bit as powerful as the first."
As with the last film, this is all thrown at us at lightning speed. This is plot crammed into just a few early scenes, leaving us plenty of time for Yamanaka to be alternately disgraced and brought back in as a hero multiple times. The link to Hirono: Yamanaka befriends him in prison, which then allows a reunion later in this chapter. Turns out he’s started his own family, although times are tight for newcomers.
Meanwhile, the rival families battling for power in Hiroshima come to blows over everything from kickback deals involving the local race track to zigzagging alliances creating assassination after assassination. Along the way, Yamanaka becomes a fierce killer - or he is, at least, in the eyes of those around him.
The rapid fire tone and complex structure of the first movie returns, although this time, Fukasaku and scripter Kazuo Kasahara manage to tighten things up a bit. We’re only covering half a decade, instead of a full one, allowing the film to retain its manic pacing yet spend a little more time with character depth and plot shading. (Even Toshiaki Tsushima’s outstanding Morricone-influenced musical score, while still far from subtle, is pulled back: gone are the blaring trumpets of the first film, signaling the death of a character, replaced here by less frequent musical assaults.) The whole thing manages to slow down for a tense finale in which Yamanaka breaks out of prison, eventually landing himself in hiding from the cops. It’s curious to see this sprawling work gradually contract its view, taking us from a broad panorama of the gang wars to the personal fears of one man in hiding. And as capable Fukasaku is at painting a wide landscape, he makes this quiet finale just as gripping; the unexpected shift in focus creates genuine suspense.
If “Battles” dealt with the decay of a post-war society, “Deadly Fight” then covers the beginnings of a return to order. There’s an interesting turn midway through the picture, in which we’re told that the killing of one boss - and the subsequent removal of his family - leaves a gap that’s filled not by another boss, but by the police. The gang warfare reigns supreme for so long, and then, without us realizing it, we’re watching instead a showdown with actual authority. Anarchy is fading away, and if this is so, how can the anarchists thrive?
This is perhaps answered with the Katsutoshi character. He represents the new generation of yakuza, unwilling to settle for the old ways, eager to evolve. Granted, he’s still one major psycho, but hidden somewhere among the lunacy of his actions is a know-how for remaining relevant in a changing Japan.
As this happens, however, the running theme of angry, unflinching realism remains. Unwilling to deify the characters and glamorize their actions, Fukasaku delivers more unlikables, all of them quivering cowards when faced with death, all of them brutal backstabbers only concerned with their own hides. Even the little touches keep us grounded in reality: while one group of characters is busy getting tattooed, all of them whine and flinch the entire time. To Fukasaku, criminals are just ordinary guys who hide their weaknesses by playing tough, and here, the movies show us the tough guys with their defenses down.
This is none more evident than with the Yamanaka character. This is a weasel, to be sure, but he wants desperately to be a badass. The more people he kills, the more confident he becomes in himself, yet he always remains a weasel, always hiding behind his gun. So when we learn that Yamanaka is regarded as a great yakuza, we sense a touch of irony in the narrator’s voice. Reputation, his words warn us, doesn’t have to match fact.And with tough guy facades leading to tough guy fame, it’s easy to see why so many ordinary men here become desperate to put themselves up as smooth criminals. Fukasaku is unwilling to let this stand. With his “Yakuza Papers” series, he’s out to show us that behind every legend, there’s just an ordinary guy. This point is crystal clear in “Deadly Fight,” which, like its predecessor, stands out as an impressive tale, both on its own and as part of a saga.
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originally posted: 03/19/05 16:22:43