Sympathy for the Underdog (博徒外人部隊, Kinji Fukasaku, 1971)

Toei’s stock in trade through the 1960s had been the ninkyo eiga, chivalrous tales of noble gangsters set before the war and implicitly in a less corrupt Japan in which jingi could still triumph over the giri/ninjo conflict if at great personal cost to the idealistic hero. By the end of the decade, however, audiences were growing tired of yakuza romanticism particularly in the wake of grittier youth dramas produced by Nikkatsu. Originally conceived as a kind of sequel to Japan Organised Crime Boss, Kinji Fukasaku’s Sympathy for the Underdog (博徒外人部隊,  Bakuto Gaijin Butai) marks a shift towards the jitsuroku or “true account” trend of the 1970s which would come to dominate the genre following the success of his Battles Without Honour and Humanity cycle two years later, employing many of the same techniques from onscreen text to shaky handheld photography but doing so within the confines of moody noir as the hero emerges from a 10-year prison sentence into a very different Japan. 

When Gunji (Koji Tsuruta) gets out, he steps into an empty, windswept street his incongruous zori sandals clashing with his smart suit and sunshades and marking him out as a relic of a bygone era. He’s met only two loyal underlings, his gang apparently now disbanded following the death of his boss who refused to take his advice as regards the big name gang from Tokyo attempting to muscle in to their Yokohama territory. Part of the missing post-war generation, Gunji has no illusions about going straight, wandering into their former HQ now a derelict building and calling the guys, who’ve since moved on to more legitimate occupations, back together. He knows he can’t take on Daitokai with his meagre forces and so settles for extracting from them some compensation money to get out of town, later teaming up with Kudo (Noboru Ando) a similarly orphaned former member of a rival Yokohama gang wiped out by Daitokai, and resolving to relocate to Okinawa where he is convinced the post-war gangster paradise is still very much in existence. 

Okinawa was only “returned” to Japanese sovereignty in 1971, having been governed by the Americans since the end of the war, and of course maintains a large American military presence up to the present day. As such to Gunji, and in a yakuza movie trope which persists right into Takeshi Kitano’s Boiling Point, it exists in a permanent post-war present in which the conditions of the occupation are still very much in play. Gunji knows that he and his guys are products of the post-war era, they cannot adapt to the “new” world of corporatising yakuza in which street brawls and petty thuggery have given way to more sophisticated kinds of organised crime, and so they retreat into an Okinawan time warp, determining to steal turf from under two rival gangs who control between them the ports and the red light district mediated by black market booze from the American military.  

Fukasaku was apparently inspired by Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers, intending to make a comment on resistance to American imperialism on the mainland though it has to be said that this is extremely ironic given that Japan is itself a coloniser of the Okinawan islands where there has long been a demand for self-determination and recognition of a distinct identity which has often been subject to oppression in the face of conformist Japanese culture. Nevertheless, the film continues the persistent theme that the chaotic post-war era which has come to a close thanks to rising economic prosperity in the time Gunji was inside is inextricable from the American occupation, implying that Okinawa is in a sense the last frontier and the only viable territory for men like Gunji who, like the melancholy ronin of the Edo era, lack the skills to live in time of peace.  

Nevertheless, modernity is also on its way to Okinawa and where there’s money there are gangsters so as expected Daitokai eventually rear their heads on the island pushing Gunji towards the revenge he didn’t want to take. The Okinawa he inhabits is one of loss and nostalgia, taking up with a sex worker who reminds him of the Okinawan woman who left him when he went to prison and perhaps playing into the slightly complicated political dialogue which positions Gunji as an ironic “migrant worker” salmoning back to Okinawa as many Okinawan youngsters are forced to travel to the mainland for work while the islands themselves remain, it’s implied, mired in poverty and crime economically dependent on the American military. Indeed, the head of the dock gang brokers a deal with Daitokai predicated on the fact that there is plenty of cheap labour available at the harbour. “Good place for a long life” he ironically adds, shortly before all hell breaks loose. Shot with typical Fukasaku immediacy, Sympathy for the Underdog looks forward to jitsuroku nihilism but does so through the prism of film noir cool as its fatalistic hero submits himself to his inexorable destiny.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

A True Story of the Private Ginza Police (実録・私設銀座警察, Junya Sato, 1973)

By the early 1970s the ninkyo eiga (pre-war tales of noble yakuza) had begun to fall from favour. Modern audiences were perhaps unconvinced by the romanticism of the honourable gangster caught between personal loyalty and his inner humanity, real life thugs are rarely so high minded after all. The cinema industry may have been in decline, but the consumerist revolution was well underway, the economic miracle was nearing completion, and there was perhaps a readiness to reckon with the recent past from a position of relative safety. The jitsuroku eiga did just that, providing a more “realistic” depiction of the yakuza life based on the recollections of real life gangsters and incorporating the aesthetics of reportage with the use of stock footage, newspaper montage, narratorial voiceover, and high impact text recording the names of characters along with the times of their deaths. 

Released in the same year as Kinji Fukasaku’s Battles Without Honour and Humanity which has perhaps become the jitsuroku archetype, Junya Sato’s A True Story of The Private Ginza Police (実録・私設銀座警察, Jitsuroku: Shisetsu Ginza Keisatsu) paints an even bleaker picture of the immediate post-war era as one in which chaos and inhumanity rule. The pre-credits sequence follows demobbed soldier Watarai (Tsunehiko Watase) who finds himself in a bombed out warehouse where a woman is drinking around an open fire with a US serviceman. Standing motionless he stares at an upper balcony where another woman is having sex with a black GI. It seems this woman is known to him, perhaps his wife or in any case a woman he thought he was coming back to. She is not overjoyed to see him, breaking down in tears while he spots a baby girl crying in the corner who also happens to be black. Unthinkably he takes the child and throws her into a flooded area of the floor below, chasing the mother when she goes after the baby, strangling and then bludgeoning her to death with a rock. 

All of this has happened in the first five minutes. There will be no heroism here, no noble act of resistance only shame and desperation. These are men brutalised by war who’ve come home to a land in ruins where the enemy is now in charge, ruling their streets and sleeping with their women. They are humiliated and resentful, many of them still in uniform likely because they simply have no other clothes. Sato introduces us to the later gang members in turn beginning with a scene which echoes those of the Battles Without Honour series as Iketani (Noboru Ando) is chased and beaten by an angry mob in the chaos of the marketplace after being accused of stealing. Masaru (Tatsuo Umemiya) meanwhile is beaten by GIs who come to the rescue of a sex worker he tries to rape, offended when she tells him she doesn’t go with Japanese customers dismissing him as “just another defeated soldier”. Iwashita (Hideo Murota) uses his service revolver to commit an armed robbery to get money to gamble. Only the gang’s later leader, Usami (Ryoji Hayama), is introduced without a wartime record, named only as a pre-war gangster. The gang is forged when they meet by chance in a gambling den and bond over a grenade, mounting a military operation against the Korean street gang who hassled Iketani by bombing their HQ. 

A few months later they’ve become the “Private Ginza Police Force” of the title, now all in smart suits, loud shirts, and sunshades. They have their eyes set on ruling the area, taking down rival gangsters the Nakane brothers through cunning and trickery, turning an underling by threatening his family. But there is no honour among thieves and the gang is only a temporary arrangement intended to last only as long it’s useful. Iketani goes his own way, starting a small business running black market goods from China, bribing the police to turn a blind eye while Usami runs a conventional protection scam targeting the Chinese owner of a cabaret bar, Fukuyama (Asao Uchida), run as a front for black market smuggling. The problems start when Iketani learns that Fukuyama has been colluding with a government accountant to misappropriate money intended to be used for subsidies. 

This world is infinitely corrupt, from the easily bribed policemen to the civil servants out for all they can get and those who merely make use of them like Fukuyama and Iketani. While the guys get rich opening gambling clubs in Ginza, a wide scale famine creates a shantytown of starving poor at Ueno station where six die per day from hunger. Iketani is in someways the “noble” thug, he looks after his guys and pays attention to their lives, perhaps even claiming that his black market activities are a public service but it’s still every man for himself and if he’s assuming post-war chaos is on its way out he is sadly mistaken. Having got him hopped up on heroine and used him as a ghostly assassin, the gang jokingly refer to Watarai as a zombie, somehow surviving every bizarre death experience that comes his way including being buried alive, but they are walking dead too, soulless men who left their humanity on the battlefield. Fearing the game may be up, Masaru suggests one last hurrah blowing their ill-gotten gains on sake and women. “I’ll show you how rape is done,” Usami deliriously exclaims”, “how we used to do it on the continental front.” Meanwhile, Masaru throws notes all around the room screaming “Rejoice! There will be no tomorrow” sending all into a Bacchanalian frenzy as they cram as much cash as they can grab inside what little clothing they still have on.

All moody, anarchic jazz score and canted angles, Sato’s post-war Tokyo is a world of constant anxiety, a maddening no man’s land of fire and rubble inhabited by ghosts of men who died long ago for whom the war never ended. In true jitsuroku fashion, the picture ends on a note of fatalistic nihilism, the screen filled with red as the narrator cooly informs us what became of our heroes as they find themselves consumed by the futility of their lives of violence.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Cash Calls Hell (五匹の紳士, Hideo Gosha, 1966)

“Life is made of gambles” according to the villain of Hideo Gosha’s 1966 Shochiku Noir Cash Calls Hell (五匹の紳士, Gohiki no Shinshi). Sometimes dismissed by contemporary critics for the wilful vulgarity of his late career yakuza films, Gosha was most closely associated with jidaigeki but here makes a rare foray into B-movie crime, a genre which perhaps aligned with the so-called “manly way” philosophy which imbued much of his work. Led by frequent star Tatsuya Nakadai the men of Cash Calls Hell are indeed all suffering manfully, each desperately floundering in the post-war society while quietly resentful in being locked out of its growing prosperity. 

The hero, Oida (Tatsuya Nakadai), is the son of a meek civil servant whom he resented for his passivity. Oida was determined to make something of himself, and so he invested his efforts not in hard work and dedication but in personal relationships, seducing the boss’ daughter in order to win her hand and thereby advancement and security. Meanwhile, he was preparing to unceremoniously ditch the bar hostess who’d been supporting him while he made his way to the top, only after arguing with her on a car drive home he gets into an accident in which a father and his little girl are killed. Oida’s bright future is ruined in an instant. He’s asked to backdate a resignation letter, his engagement is cancelled, and he also owes compensation to the widowed mother Natsuko (Miyuki Kuwano) whose face, filled with rage and resentment, he is unable to forget. With no money to pay her, he winds up in prison which is where he meets soon-to-be released Sengoku (Mikijiro Hira) who has a proposition for him but refuses to give any further details, instructing him to find a woman named Utako (Atsuko Kawaguchi) as soon as he’s released. 

As Utako relates, the job involves knocking off the three men on her hit list for which he will be paid a cool 15 million yen (5 million each). Advised to not to ask any further questions, Oida decides to go along with it after all he has nothing left to lose, but as he begins his investigations he becomes increasingly confused and conflicted. As we discover, the men were all part of a gang that robbed a syndicate of Hong Kong drug dealers, and it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that Sengoku wants them out of the way so he won’t have to divide the loot when he gets out. The money is many ways beside the point, what the men wanted was a way to kick back against the various forces which oppressed them and took their revenge on society through crime. The first, Motoki (Hisashi Igawa), is a former policeman who ran off with a gangster’s wife and subsequently went all the way to the dark side. Umegaya (Kunie Tanaka) is the son of a career criminal who wanted some control over his life and to care for the woman he loved. Embittered former boxer Fuyujima (Ichiro Nakatani) had his dreams shattered when gangsters crushed his hand because he refused to throw a fight. 

Sengoku, who was left lame after being injured in the aerial bombing during the war, recruited them all by exploiting their resentment. Fuyujima describes the men as wandering like ravenous dogs. They are already imprisoned, framed by the chainlink fence which divides them from the well-to-do salarymen killing time at the driving range. “Life is half made of luck and circumstances” Sengoku tells them, echoing his words to Oida, handing them agency in crime in asking them to “bet” on him. “We can’t sink any lower” he rationalises, “now we must get back on our feet”. Oida is much the same. He’d sunk as far as he could and thought nothing of taking these men’s lives to save his own, but resents being used by Sengoku and is probably figuring out that a man who doesn’t want to split his loot in four won’t be keen to split it in half either. He is also burdened by a sense of guilt and responsibility, both to the widow of the man he killed in the accident and to Motoki’s small daughter Tomoe (Yukari Uehara), about the same age as the little girl who died with him. 

Natsuko, it turns out, has since become a bar hostess, herself sinking in the cruelty of the post-war landscape, now wearing a sparkly cheongsam in echo of the “Golden Dragon” syndicate running the club where Umegawa works and the Hong Kong gangsters hot on Oida’s trail. Indulging in a stereotypical B-movie Sinophobia, the implication is that crime is a foreign phenomenon, the threat lurking in the shadows dressed oddly more like a 30s bootlegger from a Hollywood gangster flick than a triad drug trafficker and killing with the point of his umbrella. Oida’s redemption is sparked by his sense of responsibility towards the orphaned little girl who continues to follow him around, latching on to him as a sympathetic figure entirely unaware of his relationship to her father. In the end he declares that he wants the money in order to buy back his soul having sold it to Sengoku in agreeing to take on the job without knowing what it was, but also wants to make restitution to Natsuko which he later does in a poetic if perhaps insensitive fashion that implies he can in a sense restore the child he killed by substituting it with another. 

Oida is one of Gosha’s “manly” heroes, surviving at all costs but finally defending his sense of honour in regaining his humanity. Nevertheless, Gosha is also keen to demonstrate the various ways the women suffer at the hands of irresponsible men, each of the wives endangered by their husbands’ transgressions and Natsuko forced onto the fringes of the sex trade by Oida’s thoughtless crime. Opening in a bold negative with the heist that started it all, Gosha shoots in true noir style all shadows and canted angles through a series of episodic set pieces including a chase pregnant with symbolism through a “purification station” scored by moody jazz before ending on a fatalistic POV shot. Life is a gamble after all, but is this a loss or a victory? With the world the way it is, who could really say.


Lone Wolf and Cub: White Heaven in Hell (子連れ狼 地獄へ行くぞ!大五郎, Yoshiyuki Kuroda, 1974)

lone-wolf-and-cub-white-heaven-in-hell-japanese Ogami (Tomisaburo Wakayama) and his son Daigoro (Akihiro Tomikawa) have been following the Demon Way for five films, chasing the elusive Lord Retsudo (Minoru Oki) of the villainous Yagyu clan who was responsible for the murder of Ogami’s wife and his subsequent framing for treason. The Demon Way is never easy, and Ogami has committed himself to following it to its conclusion, but recent encounters have broadened a conflict in his heart as innocents and seekers of justice have died alongside guilty men and cowards. Lone Wolf and Cub: White Heaven in Hell (子連れ狼 地獄へ行くぞ!大五郎, Kozure Okami: Jigoku e Ikuzo! Daigoro) moves him closer to his target but also further deepens his descent into the underworld as he’s forced to confront the wake of his ongoing quest for vengeance.

Ogami and Daigoro have made it to Snow Country, meanwhile Lord Retsudo is receiving a dressing down from a superior over his total failure to eliminate the Lone Wolf or his Cub. It seems Ogami has already despatched all three of Retsudo’s sons, and so now Retsudo pledges his daughter, Kaori (Junko Hitomi), skilled in the use of daggers and every bit as fine a warrior as her defeated brothers, in the mission to end the Ogami threat.

Things do not go to plan and Retsudo is forced to approach his one remaining son. An illegitimate child born to a concubine, disavowed, and hidden away in the mountains, Hyoe (Isao Kimura) is not well disposed to his estranged father’s request to save the Yagyu clan to which he feels only rage and resentment. Sending his father away, Hyoe nevertheless decides to take on Ogami in the hope of embarrassing the Yagyu by taking him out first. Possibly having spent too much time alone, Hyoe’s plan involves a number of strange rituals beginning with resurrecting three of his men as emotionless (yet intelligent) zombies meant to terrify Ogami and his son into submission.

Throughout the series, we’ve seen Ogami’s world darken as the straightforward missions of eliminating corrupt lords eventually gave way to more morally dubious assignments with the tragic story of Oyuki and later the assassination of an entire family in order to preserve the legitimate arm of a historical clan. Along the way, Ogami has met “true samurai” and villainous cowards, but his encounters with honest men and women have only served to shake his heart as he guides his young son onwards bound for hell by way of death or violence.

The pair have never been afraid before, but Hyoe’s plan hinges on pushing Ogami’s mind into those dark places, preventing him from fighting back against his supernatural soldiers. Death has always surrounded them, but the price of Ogami’s vengeance is brought home to him when Hyoe’s forces unceremoniously wipe out the entire population of an inn where Ogami and Daigoro are staying whilst hovering in some nearby trees to remind them that this is all really their fault and the longer they keep on down this path, the more the innocent will suffer. The zombie trio threaten to destroy Ogami’s human emotions – joy, sorrow, pleasure, and anger, leaving him only with fear. Unbowed, Ogami faces Hyoe but the pair have more in common than they thought and so round one ends in a stalemate.

White Heaven in Hell, though not intended as a conclusion to the series, neatly brings things full circle as Ogami visits his wife’s grave, recalling his familial tragedy and reinforcing his bond with Daigoro. All of the films have, in some way, dealt with functional and dysfunctional family, each commenting on the unusual relationship between Ogami and his son. Finally meeting face to face, Retsudo takes Ogami to task for the loss of his children which Ogami throws right back at him – after all, all he did was defend himself against a threat Retsudo himself instigated. Ogami eventually tells him that he hopes Retsudo becomes so lonely that he goes completely mad. Retsudo’s pointless manoeuvring has cost him dearly in the loss of each of his legitimate children, eventually forcing the acknowledgement of his illegitimate son and daughter whose hatred of him also leads to their undoing. So great is Hyoe’s loathing of the Yagyu, that his last ditch attempt at revenge is in trying to convince his own sister, Azuma, to bear his child and create a new line to finish them off once and for all.

Kenji Misumi declined to return for this instalment, claiming the series had become too much like a Western which is a little ironic as White Heaven in Hell leaves the arid deserts behind for the frozen ice plains of the north. Yoshiyuki Kuroda, making his first and only contribution to the series, had a strong background in horror cinema which might explain the sudden appearance of the supernatural elements in what has been, up to now, a fairly grounded exercise even if somewhat outlandish. This is also the only script with which original creator Kazuo Koike was not not involved and bears the least relation to the then ongoing manga. Still, the action is undoubtedly innovative as the baby cart’s wheels are swapped for skis and Ogami faces off against an entire army of enemies on a snow covered hillside. Kuroda sticks more closely to Misumi’s aesthetic than Saito had done though steers away from the painterly cinematics in favour of showcasing the snow covered terrain, driving Ogami deeper into hell as his heart freezes over but denying him the vengeance that has become his life’s work. White Heaven in Hell is the last outing for Ogami yet refuses to close the circle, his quest may be a never ending one, plunging both himself and his son into an inescapable cycle of violence and regret as the Demon’s Way stretches on endlessly towards an uncertain destination.


Original trailer (subtitles in German for captions only)

The Yakuza Papers Vol. 1: Battles Without Honour and Humanity (仁義なき戦い, Kinji Fukasaku, 1973)

Snapshot-2015-12-07 at 11_06_36 PM-930280086When it comes to the history of the yakuza movie, there are few titles as important or as influential both in Japan and the wider world than Kinji Fukasaku’s Battles Without Honour and Humanity (仁義なき戦い, Jingi Naki Tatakai). The first in what would become a series of similarly themed movies later known as The Yakuza Papers, Battles without Honour is a radical rebooting of the Japanese gangster movie. The English title is, infact, a literal translation of the Japanese which accounts for the slightly unnatural “and” rather than “or” where the “honour and humanity” are collected in a single Japanese word, “jingi”. Jingi is the ancient moral code by which old-style yakuza had abided and up to now the big studio gangster pictures had all depicted their yakuza as being honourable criminals. However, in Fukasaku’s reimagining of the gangster world this adherence to any kind of conventional morality was yet another casualty of Japan’s wartime defeat.

The story begins with a black and white image of a mushroom cloud with the film’s bright red title card and now famous theme playing over the top. This is Hiroshima in 1946. Things are pretty desperate, the black market is rife and there are US troops everywhere. Shozo Hirono (Bunta Sugawara) has just returned from the war (in fact he’s still in his uniform). He gets himself into trouble when he intervenes as an American soldier attempts to rape a Japanese woman in broad daylight in the middle of a crowded marketplace. He manages to cause enough of a commotion for the woman to escape but the Japanese cops just tell him not to mess with the GIs. Things don’t get much better as one of Hirono’s friends is assaulted by a yakuza. They get some rival yakuza to help them get revenge and in the commotion Hirono accidentally kills someone and is sent to prison for 12 years. In prison he meets another yakuza who wants to escape by pretending to commit harakiri and promises to get his yakuza buddies to bail Hirono out if he helps. From this point on Hirono has become embroiled in the new and dangerous world of the Hiroshima criminal underground.

Battles Without Honour and Humanity has a famously complicated plot entered around the various power shifts and machinations between different groups of yakuza immediately after the end of World War II. The film begins in 1946 and ends in 1956 though many of its cast of tough guys don’t last anywhere near as long. The picture Fukasaku paints of Japan immediately after the war is a bleak one. Even if some of these guys are happy to have survived and finally reached home, they’ve seen and done terrible things. Not only that, they’ve been defeated and now they’re surrounded by foreign troops everywhere who can pretty much do what they want when they want. They just don’t have a lot of options – if they don’t have connections to help them find work when there’s not enough to go around then it isn’t surprising if they eventually fall into to crime. Also, having spent time in the military, the yakuza brotherhood provides a similar kind of camaraderie and surrogate family that you might also find in an army corps.

It all gets ugly quite fast. Largely the yakuza are making their money profiting from the political instability, resenting the US occupation yet reaching deals with them to support their efforts in the Korean war and then selling new and untested drugs at home (with less than brilliant results). Betrayals, executions, assassinations in previously safe places like a bath house or the barbers – these are a long way from the supposedly honourable gangsters of old. One minute Hirono is offering to cut off his finger as a traditional sign of atonement (though no one knows exactly what you’re supposed to do in this situation and it all ends up seeming a little silly) and taking the rap for everyone else’s mistakes, but his friend faked harakiri to get out of jail and everyone is double crossing everyone else whichever way you look.

The whole thing is filmed in an almost documentary style with captions identifying the various characters and giving the exact time of their demise (if necessary) as well as a voice over giving background information about the historical period. The film is inspired by real life yakuza memoirs and there are parts which feel quite like a bunch of old guys sitting in a drinking establishment and recounting some of their exploits.

This new postwar world of heartless gangsters is a tough one and almost devoid of the old honour-bound nobility, however somehow Fukasaku has managed to make it all look very cool at the same time as being totally unappealing. You wouldn’t want to live this way and you definitely don’t want to get involved with any of these guys but somehow their self determined way of life becomes something to be admired. That said, there’s a sadness too – that even in the criminal underworld there used to be something noble that’s been obliterated by the intense trauma of the war. You can rebuild, you can move on from the destruction left by the war’s wake but there’s no going back to those days of “honour and humanity” – if they ever existed, they’re gone forever now.


Battles without Honour and Humanity is available in blu-ray in the UK as part of Arrow Video’s Battles Without Honour and Humanity: The Complete Collection box set.