I’ll get this out of the way — this is one of my favorite yakuza movies. Jingi Naki Takakai – or as it’s known in English, “Battles Without Honor and Humanity” — is a major turning point in the yakuza genre and indeed in all of Japanese film. By the time it was made in 1973, Fukasaku had made a name for himself with titles like Blackmail is My Life and Sympathy for the Underdog. ‘Battles’ was his most ambitious project to date, including even Tora!Tora!Tora!, the blockbuster film he co-directed with Richard Fleischer in 1970. Battles Without Honor and Humanity was the first film in the “Yakuza Papers” series, which included four sequels over a two year period. Together they form a saga following the same character to the top of the criminal world and can be watched as one eight hour film.
I only review movies I think are important, so what makes this one special? You have to look at it with earlier yakuza movies. As much as I love films like Tokyo Drifter and Blackmail is My Life, they are part of an earlier, more romantic school of yakuza storytelling. The protagonist in films like those is a criminal, but no matter how many wrongs he may commit and how many bodies he leaves in his wake, you feel for him. Fukasaku’s take on the protagonist is different; he acts honorably, he proves his bravery plenty of times and yet you can never treat him as a hero. The casting choice was deliberate, too. The young Bunta Sugawara was unknown to audiences and wouldn’t remind them of more heroic past roles. Fukasaku’s direction of this character, I believe, shows the perversion of film in its glorification of violence and calls into question the audience’s predilection for yakuza. You are meant to be drawn in by these characters and repulsed by their actions at the same time. Coincidentally, the American film High Plains Drifter [directed by and starring Clint Eastwood] that came out the same year as ‘Battles’ used the same message to such effect that it prompted an open letter of disapproval from John Wayne, who claimed it was an unbecoming misrepresentation of the western myth and “the true spirit of the American pioneer.” Like Eastwood’s western, Fukusaku’s film was a bit shocking at first.
Let’s talk symbolism. Fukasaku set Battles Without Honor and Humanity in Hiroshima in 1946. It doesn’t seem like a stretch to say that he’s attempting to connect wartime violence with criminal violence. The opening sequence shows imagery of the atomic bomb and speaks of the war’s ‘carnage’ giving way to the postwar’s ‘mayhem’ — in both instances the word “bouryoku” which is also part of the word for ‘gangster’. Pretty straightforward. The main character, Shozo Hirono, gets his baptism by fire in a conflict involving an attempted rape by American GIs — another war connection. Fukasaku gives constant reminders that we are in early postwar Japan, which we’re familiar with from Stray Dog and Drunken Angel. It was obscure, but the song “Bengawan Solo” [featured prominently on the Stray Dog soundtrack] which was more of an upbeat, playful tune, was used in ‘Battles’ on the radio during a scene with dialogue about scheming and murder plots. The song and dialogue create a dissonance; this dreamland you know from the other yakuza movies is all wrong, and here’s what the underworld’s really about. Fukasaku is changing the way we look at yakuza. For all their vices, the old-school yakuza hero was a gentleman with romantic relationships. With Shozo, we get this:
Just because Fukasaku distanced this film so markedly from earlier yakuza movies doesn’t mean it lacks stylistic content. While it doesn’t use the color themes a Seijun Suzuki film would or the lighting techniques Kurosawa would have tried, ‘Battles’ stays fresh with wild cinematography and a variety of framing techniques for the still shots. Interior shots use other characters for framing, particularly those who are listening to but not participating in the conversation. Exteriors use alleys, buildings, scrap metal and just about anything else to frame shots. As many exterior shots as there are, few of them show much sky — the feeling is that the audience is a group of spectators in the claustrophobic, gutter-like underbelly of postwar Japan.
This movie has been called Japan’s Godfather, and I can certainly see why, but it’s much more high-paced. For one, it’s only an hour and forty minutes long. And you remember that scene from The Godfather where the Don is shot and Fredo cries in the street? That scene happens once every five minutes in ‘Battles’. There’s a lot of violence, a lot of characters to remember, and the confusion is exacerbated every 15 minutes or so when someone is inevitably back-stabbed and loyalties change. However, in spite of the fact that the main character is actually out of the picture for long parts of this movie, the acting and writing in particular don’t fail to keep you engaged. Scenes between Bunta Sugawara and Hiroki Matsukata [who you may recognize as the lead in Blackmail is My Life] are electrifying and suspenseful.
By the end of the film, it’s unmistakable that the old yakuza hero is long gone, probably still “drifting” or “wandering” somewhere. The new breed is in-your-face and deals with the real problems of crime and war. Gone are the days of bloodless gunshot wounds and instant death. Fukasaku makes sure you see the bloody clothing and hear the moans as they writhe. Perhaps his best personal touch is the freeze frame after every death as white letters display the victim’s name and date of death [an effect that would return for 2000's Battle Royale] and trumpets blare in lament. Death is treated differently here, and the protagonist even crashes a funeral he thinks is overly superficial.
Battles Without Honor and Humanity is a great movie that doesn’t have to be watched the way I did, with an academic approach. If you can get past the violence and appreciate that it’s shown for a reason and that the film is trying to be different from earlier examples of the genre, you could watch it quite casually. And consider yourselves lucky — for years it wasn’t available to Western audiences but now it can be found on Netflix and Amazon.