Kaiju Shakedown: Kinji Fukasaku
Battles Without Honor and Humanity: Final Episode
Forty years ago last month, on June 29, 1974, a shot of Hiroshima’s ruined Genbaku Dome hit cinema screens like an epitaph, marking the end of Battles Without Honor and Humanity: Final Episode, the final film in Kinji Fukasaku’s epic secret history of post–World War II Japan, The Yakuza Papers. Essentially one 634-minute movie split into five parts, this is the story of a Japan where honor died in one mushroom cloud and human sympathy was incinerated in the other. It’s the story of a country built on greasy whorehouse handshakes and backroom deals, where politicians need criminal muscle to get out the vote, and who you pay off is more important than who you are. It’s a grand, glorious gun opera and the best way to see it is all at once, one movie after the other smashing into your face. When you pick yourself up off the floor, your skull will be splitting from keeping track of all the plotlines, characters, subplots, gang names, and knotty alliances, but your nerves’ll be buzzing.
Starting in the 1960s, Toei had become a factory for yakuza movies. By 1967, 37 of their 55 features were yakuza flicks, all of them ninkyo type, which were mythic man-tales about a noble yakuza like Takakura Ken (or a reasonable facsimile thereof) reasserting the ideals of Japanese chivalry and honor by hacking apart dozens of dishonorable opponents from a rival gang. But the real yakuza never had a scrap of honor. In the 19th century, the yakuza were a part-time secret army for the right-wing government, breaking up strikes and labor unions, while ultranationalists like Toyama Mitsuru regularly forged brief truces between yakuza and the police to promote his agenda. When Japan held its first open elections in 1892, Mitsuru brought together an alliance of yakuza, ultranationalists, and cops under orders from the Minister of Home Affairs to wage a violent campaign to tip the election to the right. And it was the yakuza who helped run Japan’s official Opium Monopoly Bureau dedicated to building a thriving opium trade in China to undermine that country’s stability.
And it wasn’t just the Japanese government who cozied up to the yakuza. After World War II, the occupying Americans were terrified of Communist agitation, and the yakuza were allowed to control the black market for food in exchange for breaking strikes and attacking the headquarters of left-wing politicians. Most importantly, the Americans secured the release from prison of Class A war criminal Yoshio Kodama, a major yakuza figure. As long as he helped them fight Communism by using his vast smuggling network and his political connections to do their dirty work, they turned a blind eye to his drug dealing, murder, and general yakuza-ing.
The real yakuza were a million times more interesting than the cinematic yakuza—especially for Fukasaku, who was born and raised in postwar Japan.
“I grew up surrounded by the ruins of war,” he said in an interview for Patrick Macias’s book Tokyoscope. “Life was extremely difficult. It was like living in a constant state of violence . . . We were living under the U.S. Occupation . . . This was a great humiliation . . . As a boy aged 14 or 15, this had a tremendous impact on me. I was very upset about it.”
Starting in 1972 with Street Mobster, Fukasaku pioneered a new kind of yakuza movie, the jitsuroku or “realistic” style, shot primarily handheld. His chief inspirations were the newsreels that played before features, not only for their camerawork but also their content. During the late 1960s and early 70s, Fukasaku was watching newsreel footage of a breathtaking series of riots, protests, assassinations, attempted coups, public suicides, and police actions, as the Japanese government (with occasional yakuza assistance) stomped the political left to death. (These were some of the events dramatized years later in Koji Wakamatsu’s harrowing United Red Army.)
When the Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper began publishing Koichi Iiboshi’s two-volume, interview-based memoir of Kozo Mino, a jailed Hiroshima yakuza boss, Fukasaku jumped on the project. Teaming up with screenwriter Kazuo Kasahara they went to Hiroshima and did extensive research, interviewing many local yakuza and putting together their nonfiction epic. In 1974, Kasahara wrote: “We could not say that the films were true in the publicity material [but they] are close to a true record.”
Battles Without Honor and Humanity
The five Battles Without Honor and Humanity movies (released in 1973-74) would be the bomb Fukasaku would use to explode not just the myth of the righteous yakuza, but also the myth of Japan’s post-WWII recovery. Fukasaku viewed the series—set in Hiroshima, not Tokyo—almost as science-fiction films. Talking to Chris D. in his book, Outlaw Masters of Japanese Film, he says: “The Battles Without Honor films are also set outside Tokyo, in Hiroshima right after the war. There was a lot more street crime, much more mindless violence and many gang wars in struggles for supremacy . . . The genesis of the extreme violence with the gangsters almost appearing right out of the dust and smoke of the mushroom cloud . . . that’s why we used the stock footage of the bomb going off at the beginning of the film.”
Though it was shot one year after The Godfather, the differences between Coppola’s film and Fukasaku’s couldn’t be starker and they’re summed up in their opening shots. The Godfather begins with a shot of Marlon Brando hovering in the murk of his study and moves on to a complicated wedding scene that outlines the characters’ relationships. In Battles, the figure of Marlon Brando is essentially replaced by Little Boy, which presides over these movies like a malignant irradiating god, with the yakuza spreading across the nation like cancer. When Fukasaku’s players are presented they’re shown as wild dogs fighting over the scraps fallen from their masters’ tables. Their connections are economic, not emotional.
Battles Without Honor and Humanity
The first Battles focuses on Shozo Hirono, a soldier returned from World War II who winds up joining the Yamamori-gumi (Yamamori gang, or family). He and his band of bloody brothers spend all five movies rising up, and falling down, the ranks. Hirono is played by the shark-faced Bunta Sugawara, a 40-year-old actor who had bounced from minor failure to minor failure before meeting Fukasaku. Speaking with Macias, Fukasaku said: “From growing up in the postwar era, I was attracted to characters who had only violence and strength to believe in and depend on. I was hoping to meet actors who had the same kind of feeling, and that was when I encountered Bunta Sugawara. I was delighted to find that we shared the same kinds of ideas . . . I don’t think I would have realized how much fun it could be making a film without Sugawara.”
Fukasaku has a blast in Battles, constantly upsetting expectations. Widescreen was the Japanese film industry standard, but rather than using it to depict epic vistas, Fukasaku dropped his camera into crowded black markets and hellhole bars. The famous yakuza dignity degenerates into farce as solemn pinkie amputation ends with a chicken stealing the amputated digit. Full of close-ups on sweaty faces, terse conversations, sudden votes, and cigarettes ground out in anger, with close to 50 speaking parts, there’s some confusion about who's who and which faction is trying to kill which other faction, but the joke is that Fukasaku’s yakuza are occasionally just as lost as the audience.
Battles Without Honor and Humanity: Deathmatch in Hiroshima
Battles Without Honor and Humanity was a hit, and Fukasaku began turning out the sequels. But, again, unlike The Godfather which traces the rise and fall of Michael Corleone, Fukasaku ignores following individual characters because he’s telling the story of postwar power. That’s why Bunta Sugawara’s Shozo becomes a supporting character in Battles Without Honor and Humanity: Deathmatch in Hiroshima (73). This film is based on the life of Yamakami Koichi, whom Kasahara met while doing research for the screenplay. Kasahara, who was trained as an Army reservist but was too young to be called up, later wrote of this second film: “I intended to write an elegy to Yamanaka, a youth who trained in the military tradition, but was too young to have actually gone to war. He offers his oyabun [boss] the loyalty he once offered the state. He uses his 24-caliber pistol, a substitute zerosen, freely, as he assassinates people while whistling a military tune . . . In reality I had wanted to expel the vestiges of that time which remained within me.”
Deathmatch in Hiroshima opens at the dawn of the Korean War and centers on a character named Yamanaka (Kinya Kitaoji), who falls in love with his boss’s niece (Meiko Kaji, Lady Snowblood) and gets his long-delayed wish to be a kamikaze pilot granted when he’s turned into a trained attack dog for the yakuza. The mood is more psychological and the yakuza family intrigues are greatly simplified, but the film also features one of the series’ only female characters. Dropped into the blood-slimed power struggles, Meiko Kaji watches the men she loves die like dogs (her husband was a kamikaze pilot), and she howls like a flayed cat thrown into a salt water bath. Seeing the yakuza from a female point of view is almost too harrowing. Except for a few bit players, we barely see any women in The Yakuza Papers again.
Battles Without Honor and Humanity: Proxy War
But that’s not to say there aren’t plenty of characters to sink your teeth into. The great villain of the piece is the treacherous Boss Yamamori, who’s as liable to burst into tears as order a hit, and he’s matched in ruthless cunning only by his plump, cheerful wife. Sonny Chiba literally rips the scenery to shreds as Otomo, a scarily tanned yakuza thug, hand surgically attached to his crotch, who struts the streets like a demon from Hell. But it’s Bunta Sugawara’s Hirono, the soldier turned gangster, who is the de facto main character, and his double-breasted purple suit is the center of gravity around which the rest of the cast revolves.
By the end of the first movie, Hirono has fallen completely out of favor. Relegated to supporting status in Deathmatch in Hiroshima, he slowly makes his comeback because, as he drolly puts it, “I know a lot of people.” In part three, Battles Without Honor and Humanity: Proxy War (73), the most compelling of the five movies, he gets a tragic comeuppance. Set against the backdrop of the U.S. and USSR’s own proxy wars in Vietnam and Cambodia, this middle installment depicts a bloody battle of succession in which Hirono is forced to choose sides in a stupidly pointless power struggle.
Battles Without Honor and Humanity: Police Tactics
Battles Without Honor and Humanity: Police Tactics (74) starts in 1964, on the eve of the Tokyo Olympics, when Japan wanted to show off its recovery and police flooded the streets to stop the embarrassing yakuza bloodshed. In real life, that was the era of Kodama’s Kanto-kai, an ambitious attempt to form a pan-yakuza, ultranationalist secret army. It was also the era when the yakuza began giving up brawling in bar rooms for voting in board rooms, funneling their massive wealth into legitimate businesses. The series comes to a realistic but anticlimactic conclusion in Battles Without Honor and Humanity: Final Chapter (74). Actor Kinya Kitaoji returns as a totally different character, Matsumura, an android-like young man who doesn’t seem to sweat. He wants to transition the yakuza from street gangs to political groups, and men like Hirono are no longer necessary. The yakuza have penetrated legitimate business and politics so deeply that there’s no longer any difference between the two. To Fukasaku, Japan didn’t have a gang problem, Japan was a gang. As the final movie ends, the Genbaku Dome looms on screen one last time, a reminder of the shattered ruins of Hiroshima that didn’t mark the end of a war, but the beginning of another. A war that the average people lost.
These movies chart a social movement, from back-alley brawls to the back-alley deals that built Japan, powered industry, and shaped politics. But while the focus is on power, it's the personal details that bring these movies to life. Later in the series, Hirono is cooling his heels in a jailhouse corridor when an old enemy is brought by on his way to court. They sit on the bench together for a few minutes, chatting about how they got to this point. Behind them, snow blows in through a broken window and these two once-great gang bosses curl their toes in pain: they used to have the police in their pockets, now they’re wearing cheap government slippers in the middle of winter. It’s a telling, tiny detail of what happened to power in Japan. It went from the personal clout built on fists, to corporate authority wielded by faceless men in comfortable offices. And the people who put them there, whether they’re voters or the yakuza, can’t even keep their feet warm.
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