by David Cornelius
There’s a scene in “Battles Without Honor and Humanity: Final Episode” in which a police official reveals an enormous chart filled with names of the countless yakuza families in Hiroshima, Kure, and Kobe. We know exactly how he feels: throughout the five films of Kinji Fukasaku’s “Yakuza Papers” saga, we’ve become overwhelmed with the sheer volume of character and plot. In fact, Home Vision’s DVD box set of the series comes with a similar chart, outlining the tangle of moves made by the top players. It’s helpful, but only to a point. By this fifth and final entry in the series, our heads are properly reeling from information overload.Fortunately, Fukasaku’s series is a work of sheer cinematic brilliance, and “Final Episode” does not disappoint. It lives up to its title by finally putting a cap on the various strands of the saga. But first it must overload us one more time.
"At long last, the epic conclusion."
As the film begins, we’ve jumped ahead three full years, and the narration is fast to fill in all the gaps. It turns out the violence-in-the-streets panic created during the gang war of the last two films had caused a tidal wave of public outcry, which led to an increased police crackdown on the entire Hiroshima underground. The result: the various families united, and in an effort to clean up their public image, formed the Tensei Coalition, a political action group dedicated to erasing the criminal reputation of its members.
But there’s unrest within the group, as chairman Takeda (Akira Kobayashi) chooses as his successor the youthful Tamotsu Matsumura (Kinya Kitaoji) instead of the older but less reliable Katsutoshi Otomo (Jo Shishido, replacing Sonny Chiba from the second film). (Side note: making a point about the inescapable obsoleteness of aging criminals, Otomo, who was once seen as the dangerous voice of a new, young generation, is now viewed as too old, too settled in, too irrelevant.) The tension escalates further when Takeda’s thrown in jail, leaving Matsumura as temporary chairman - his first act as such is to revoke the coalition’s political standing and return to the old ways of the yakuza, with all members swearing allegiance to him, no less.
And where does our old pal Shozo Hirono (Bunta Sugawara) fit in to all this? It seems he’s due to be released from prison very soon, leaving all of his enemies duly nervous. After all, with Hirono returning to power, the entire political structure of the Hiroshima underworld will shift.
What they don’t know is that Hirono is tired of the yakuza life. As are many other players, presenting our latest theme for the film series. The life of a criminal is for the young; with age comes too many memories, too many regrets. The desire to chuck it all grows every day, and while the family dealings are inescapable at times, the lure of retirement is increasingly sweet. Sugawara spends the entire film looking drained, reminding us once more of his magnificent performance throughout the series. Here, with just a glance or a shift of the body, he indicates his character’s internal desires. He’s done with the politics and the backstabbing and, most of all, the killing. He just hasn’t found his way out yet.
Speaking of killing, the violence in “Final Episode” is so sparse that the movie feels almost quaint compared to its blood-soaked predecessors. There are only a few on-screen murders and beatings; the rest of the film deals instead with backroom politics and the ever-changing yakuza society.
Fukasaku realizes this, however, and he understands that with less violence, the impact of what we do get then becomes all the more powerful. And so he crams as much shock as he can into those few scenes, creating an experience that’s intense not for the crushing, unremitting nature of the non-stop violence, but for the sudden shock of unflinching violence in a story elsewhere absent of it.
Of course, Fukasaku continues the series’ tradition of showing us the ugly side of the life of crime, with another tale filled with blubbering cowards and selfish traitors. Consider a scene right before a particularly nasty assassination. One character, realizing he’s no killer, pisses himself at the mere thought of shooting his target. His friend, taking the gun and seizing the moment, begins a shooting spree that’s clumsy in its rage. Death in so many gangster flicks is seen as glorious and slick; here, it’s ignorant, sloppy, real.
(The film’s best indicator of this sloppy realism comes during one darkly comic scene in which a team of thugs scramble to find a suitable weapon with which to assassinate a rival. The weapon they find? A spear gun. The result? The poor kid trips before making the hit and shoots himself in the foot.)It’s appropriate that the “Yakuza Papers” series would end on a (comparatively) quiet note. The killers here, having spent their youth creating bloody pulps out of each other, now have nothing else to give. They’re spent. The fury of youth still rages, as it always will, but it’s all background noise to these aging main characters. And like the characters themselves, we leave Fukasaku’s epic battered and breathless, having witnesses twenty-five years of gangland violence at its ugliest. Fukasaku’s work here is one of the finest moments in gangster cinema history. But it’s also among the most exhausting. Fukasaku has managed to do what so few filmmakers before or after him have managed: he’s left us every bit as wiped out as his characters.
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originally posted: 03/19/05 16:25:46