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Battles Without Honor and Humanity: Police Action
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by David Cornelius

"The masterpiece series of yakuza films is still going strong."
5 stars

The third chapter in Kinji Fukasaku’s “Yakuza Papers” saga is the one with “war” right in the title, but it’s part four, “Battles Without Honor and Humanity: Police Tactics,” that really shows the battles brewing. This is perhaps the most violent of the bunch, with the graphic nature of the gang warfare shown in its rawest form.

Continuing his theme of an evolving, reconstructed Japan, “Police Tactics” take place entirely within 1963, making it the tightest yet of all the films. By now, the nation is fully back on its feet, casting aside the anarchy of the post-war era and charging straight on into modern times, so much so that the country is gearing up to host the 1964 Olympics. As such, the government, fueled equally by citizen outrage and global image, is eager to clean up the streets. As the title indicates, the police play a role in this chapter that’s far larger than anything we’ve seen from these previously powerless, invisible forces.

But while their power grows, they still play a relatively minor role in the overall storyline. Law enforcement is, for the most part, an outside force with which to be reckoned, a stumbling block on the way to all-out yakuza war.

For “Police Tactics,” the Hiroshima feud is boiling over yet sits on hold. Shozo Hirono (Bunta Sugawara), still on parole, is under tight scrutiny from police officials, leaving him unable to make a strike on his rival and former boss, Yamamori (Nobuo Kaneko). Yamamori, on the other hand, is stuck dealing with a growing army, supplied by supportive crime families, which has swarmed upon Hiroshima and is racking up enormous hosting expenses for the Yamamori family - it seems all this support, without a battle to fight, leaves the men with nothing to do but spend Yamamori’s money.

It’s a win-win for the cops, who realize that either Yamamori will go bankrupt or be forced to make a move, one that would land him in jail. But there is a third option: negotiation. And so, as it’s been for the movies before it, part four contains its fair share of impossibly complex dealings and double dealings, weaving a larger and larger web of yakuza politics.

“Police Tactics” makes its mark by bringing in a new generation. Remember, it’s been eighteen long years since the events of the first film, with Yamamori and his fellow bosses growing old (and, possibly, weak), and with Hirono settling into a bitter middle age. (Side note: consider Sugawara’s performance during this series. It’s striking to remember that these films were made in the course of a mere two years, and yet, with just a squint of the eyes and a shift in stature, Sugawara has been able to age nearly two decades on camera. It’s a small part of a dynamic performance, a tightly calculated acting job that holds the entire series together. Of all the excellent performances in this series - and there are dozens of them - Sugawara delivers the absolute best.)

With the characters of the earlier films now putting on the years, they’ve settled into a world of talk, not action. They’ve grown up, become businessmen. (One boss, a particular coward, is seen repeatedly contemplating shucking it all and instead devoting his time to his taxi company.) Compare this, then, with the itchy actions of the younger family members who crave action. To them, all the deals, truces, promises, and debates the older generation produces are empty. This new blood has the fire of angry youth, and they’re eager to strike out.

This youthful energy works its way down from the top, with Yamamori’s captain, Akira Takeda (Akira Kobayashi), representing the second generation, and with a handful of various miscreants representing a blossoming third generation. For Takeda, Yamamori’s decisions are endlessly bad; just as Hirono was the ignored voice of reason for the Yamamori family in the first movie, Takeda is the ignored voice of action in this one. You can see Takeda desperate to break off from his boss, yet, like Hirono before him, he is unable to do so.

As for the third generation, we see that the anger of youth is still here, except with this generation, separated from the horrors of World War II, there’s not the post-war angst against which to place their rage. Instead, their fire comes from growing up in a city ruled by gangs. To become a man, one must join a family. (Without intending to, Fukasaku has painted a touching portrait of future gang life around the world. Children grow up in a world of violence, and eventually they truly believe that the only way to earn respect in life is to join a gang and continue the cycle.)

The most powerful of all the subplots in the “Yakuza Papers” series can be found in this chapter. Young Hiroshi Yazaki begins his life of crime taking bets on baseball games. He’s quiet, stays out of the way. He even befriends members of rival families - he’s a good kid. But then, late in the film, he’s offered a job: kill a rival, the same rival Yazaki befriended. This death will open up countless opportunities for the kid’s boss, and besides, the job pays an outrageous sum of money.

It’s a downright frightening scene, the seduction of this (semi-)innocent into the larger world of violence. After all, we’re already concerned for the teen, having watched in horror as he ogled his first gun - and the newfound power it holds - in an earlier scene. And now we’re seeing him fully sucked into the darkest corners of this world.

Yet we understand his decision once we see his home, located in the middle of Hiroshima’s “A-bomb slums.” This miserable life of poverty is pushing teens into gangs, and poor Yazaki is merely the latest casualty.

That Fukasaku leaves this as a mere subplot, paying it only enough attention to make its point, not so much as to make it the main point, shows how carefully he’s constructed his film series. “Yakuza Papers” is an epic that paints its picture with large strokes, yet leaves space for the finest of details. The large and the small combine to bite down hard on the themes of endless violence in an uncontrollable underground. And, as always, his eye remains unflinching, coldly watching, refusing to whitewash a single incident.

The surprise in “Police Tactics” is in how neatly the film wraps up. It leaves an opening for a fifth chapter, but not a requirement; the series could end here quite nicely. (Indeed, Fukasaku wanted to end here, but was convinced by the studio to do one more chapter.) The finale is perhaps the most downbeat of the saga so far, making it the most fitting: Fukasaku and screenwriter Kazuo Kasahara go for extreme nihilism here, telling us that every deal, every action, every death was all for nothing. This was a war that left many dead, many more injured, with millions spent, all with nothing to show for it.

“The Yakuza Papers” exists to show the complete futility of such a life. The scene in “Proxy War,” in which a gang attack leaves the cremated remains of a former friend crushed and strewn on the street, was only a small touch, it seems; here, everyone’s life has as little value as those poor, trampled ashes. And so we head into the final chapter feeling beaten. The entire cast of characters has been reduced to a group of meaningless lives. What could Fukasaku possibly do for a finale?

link directly to this review at http://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=11905&reviewer=392
originally posted: 03/19/05 16:25:00
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USA
  15-Mar-1974 (NR)
  DVD: 07-Dec-2004

UK
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