Its easy to see where Battles without Honor and Humanity came from. Executives from Toei Studios were probably sitting around after having just seen The Godfather (1972) and telling each other that they could make a movie like that. Yakuza are like the Mafia, right? Toei may not have been able afford to make a lavish production like Coppolas film, but they could make something that would resonate with Japanese audiences.
The resulting movie is quite possibly the most popular in director Kinji Fukasakus long career, successful enough that Toei produced four sequels before the end of 1974. Fukasaku is better known in the States for his early sci-fi flick The Green Slime (1968) and the more recent shock epic Battle Royale, but The Yakuza Papers (as the entire series is known) has been given its due with a prestigious DVD set release from Home Vision Entertainment. Its a testament to the mans skill that Battles Without Honor and Humanity is a compelling viewing experience despite its lack of most of the traditional elements of strong narrative. The movie is supposed to be based on a true story, though presumably the names have been changed and heavier emphasis has been placed on the gory bits.
The story opens in the happy-go-lucky setting that was Japan just after World War II. Shozo Hirono (Bunta Sugawara) and his friends are former soldiers with few prospects. They hang out at the local black market, which is also frequented by various yakuza, at least one of whom is not averse to cutting the arms off of people who piss him off. (Cue the arterial spray!) When they pick on one of Hirono's pals, however, Hirono shoots the offending gangster, knowing that he will go to jail.
A meeting of 'Scowlers Anonymous.'
Hirono helps his cellmate, a yakuza captain, escape from prison in a hare-brained fake suicide plan. As thanks for this another mobster named Yamamori (Nobuo Kaneko) bails Hirono out of the overcrowded Japanese penal system. With Hirono and his friends now in his debt, Yamamori forms his own yakuza family with these men as the backbone. Hirono, happy to have some direction in life, shows remarkable loyalty to the cowardly and capricious Yamamori through the brutal decades ahead.
The movie largely chronicles the conflicts between the Yamamori family and the rival Doi family, both of whom vie for territory in and around Hiroshima from 1946 to 1956. The movie quickly settles into a pattern of establishing a grudge between two characters, then following it through to an inevitable outburst of violence that leaves one of the characters covered in red paint. Often it's difficult to keep a handle on who all of the characters are and what their motivations might be, but as they usually end up dead it's best to focus on Hirono and not get too bogged down trying to figure out all of the side stories.
Where would crime movies
be without this shot?
As much as Sagawara's character grounds the film's story, the actor himself grounds the picture's style. Some of his castmates are in full-on caricature mode, but Sagawara restrains himself. The result is something of a study in contrasts; even though he himself is a murdering gangster, Hirono usually comes off as the only reasonable (and honorable) person in the room. The rest of the cast is excellent, particularly in the case of the cowardly and conniving Yamamori, but it's not hard to see why Sagawara was picked to play the character around whom the film (and later, the entire series of movies) revolves.
There are some moments of humor that throw the film's grimness into relief. When a gambling dispute devolves into a slap fight between rival mobsters, Hirono offers to cut his little finger off as penance -- a fairly traditional (if gruesome) Yakuza display of atonement. The problem is that he doesn't know how to do it! Yamamori's wife has to explain the technique, and even then they manage to temporarily lose the severed digit. Since the whole point is to deliver the finger to the rival boss, this bit of incompetence is particularly embarrassing.
If you don't want to get shot
lose the stupid blue glasses.
Though this sort of bumbling is par for the course with the Yamamori family, it doesn't seem to affect their success in "organized" crime. The streets of Hiroshima are apparently ruled by simple ferocity instead of smarts. Those gangsters willing to pull off the most hits -- many of them on public streets in broad daylight -- gain the upper hand. Since the Yamamori family is the craziest of the bunch, they usually come out on top. Yamamori's habit of squeezing his subordinates for maximum percentage and the family's penchant for infighting, however, means that that top position is always a shaky one.
Speaking of shaky, director Fukasaku films most of the action with handheld cameras to give it a documentary feel. He also favors close-ups when shooting exteriors, which seems like an odd choice, but may have been necessary to mask the lack of period locations. It also makes the whole movie a slightly disconcerting viewing experience, because being in the same room with these characters is often too close for comfort. The movie has a relentless rhythm, which helps mask the lack of the central narrative. Hirono is really the main character, but he spends most of the last half of the film in jail, completely off screen. Even so Fukasaku delivers exciting vignettes about the birth of the Japanese underworld. It's an exercise in style over substance, but a thrilling one.