Battles Without Honor and Humanity: Proxy War

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 03/19/05 16:23:49

"The weakest in the series... and it's still a phenomenal work."
5 stars (Awesome)

So we’re now halfway through Kinji Fukasaku’s “Yakuza Papers” saga, and if things seem slightly less chaotic, it’s not anything on the part of the film itself. “Battles Without Honor and Humanity: Proxy War” is every bit as crammed with violence, sex, and storylines as the first two movies, but now, perhaps, we’re starting to finally grow accustomed to Fukasaku’s insane style. Just a little.

A “proxy war,” the narrator informs us, is a term taken from the Cold War. Many viewed world politics in a manner that suggested the needs of the United States and Soviet Union were so great that everything eventually flowed to those two powers. Everything that happened around the globe was designed to serve them. Therefore, any war not directly involving these two nations still somehow managed to work in their favor - a proxy war.

The term, then, was adapted for life in the Japanese underground: the larger crime families can easily manipulate the smaller ones to fight their battles for them. In “Proxy War,” the two families pulling the strings are the Akashi and Shinwa families, out of Kobe.

But, of course, the film isn’t concerned with these families directly. No, we’re back to our old friends in Hiroshima and its smaller neighbor Kure. The film jumps us ahead to 1960, with Shozo Hirono (Bunta Sugawara) still struggling to grow his own empire, stuck making a living by guarding a scrap metal junkyard. On parole, he’s under the thumb of the cops and his sponsor - but his sponsor feels it’s time to move on, offering up Hirono’s old boss, the backstabbing, incompetent Yamamori (Nobuo Kaneko) as a new sponsor. This forces Hirono to work once more with the man he despises.

Despite getting stuck under the scheming ways of Yamamori, Hirono still manages to eke out some power of his own, thanks mostly to his being a rare man of honor whose friendship is valued by many of the neighboring families. A confidant to many, Hirono has the dirt on everything that’s going on in Hiroshima, placing him in between many a rivalry. It’s through Hirono’s clear eyes that we see the tide of loyalties and divisions that escalate to all-out war; Hirono understands the strings that are doing the pulling, when few others do.

Unlike the first two chapters, “Proxy War” doesn’t quite manage to stand as well on its own as a separate work. This middle act seems to exist so the characters can be moved around like chess pieces, setting up the bigger conflicts of the next film. Whereas the four other films in the series contain finales suitable for their own individual stories, “Proxy War” keeps building until its final scene forces us into a “what’s next?” situation - not a cliffhanger by any means, but not a clean ending either.

This is not to diminish the movie, however, which still crackles with all the excitement (and confusion) of the rest of the series. Fukasaku’s greatest achievement, it turns out, is not the rawness of its realistic examination of an unglamorous world, or the way he manages to translate the rage of youth into a cinematic language all its own, but the lengths to which he goes to let his story evolve naturally. Along with screenwriter Kazuo Kasahara, Fukasaku has managed to keep things constantly moving in his series. The filmmakers realize that they’re speeding us through the years, and they construct a story that fits such rapid transit. (Many other film series merely attempt to repeat familiar storylines and character traits, with little variation between the chapters; Fukasaku sets up his saga as one long, ever-changing story, a singular tale in which the main players follow massive character arcs.)

Beginning a trend started in the later half of part two, “Deadly Fight In Hiroshima,” Fukasaku works to peel away the anarchy of the post-war era. By the time “Proxy War” rolls around, we’re now a full fifteen years away from World War II, and Japan is back on its feet, working to become a major force in international business. This is mirrored by a scene between Hirono and the slimy Uchimoto (Takeshi Kato), in which we learn that Uchimoto has been cozying up to every top player in town, becoming sworn brothers with everyone he can, all to position himself as the successor of the Muroaka family. Hirono warns that such connections may later come back to haunt him, forcing loyalty issues in future disputes. Uchimoto brushes off such possibilities, instead talking up the advantages of connections. It’s a world of international business now, Uchimoto suggests, and you can’t advance by remaining an isolationist.

Fukasaku, always the sharp social commentator, sees the connection with real-life Japan. It’s a new world, bigger and more complicated than ever before. The anarchy is over, now grow up and act like a businessman for a change. (The point is even hammered home by the costumes, which feature many of the big players in garishly colored 1960s suits. No longer in leftover Army uniforms or slick darker suits, the criminals now are equals of the corporate community.)

But don’t expect an evolution into business wear to mean a softened touch. No, the families here still revel in a good, long bloodletting. Dismembered fingers and hands remain common gifts, and nobody’s above a solid beating. The characters may be maturing, but their level of violence stays the same - as does Fukasaku’s portrayal of it, always unflinching, always eager to capture only the worst in humanity.

With “Proxy War,” Fukasaku reveals his Shakespearean intentions. This is not the third movie in a series, but the third act in a five-act story. As such, it’s here we settle in for the long haul, and although the shock of the first two entries may be wearing off (if only the smallest bit), the overwhelming complexities of the overall picture is just now starting to sink in. The pieces are now in place, and Fukasaku has some grand moves ahead.

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