The Story of a Man Among Men (修羅の群れ, Kosaku Yamashita, 1984)

The ninkyo eiga, chivalrous tales of noble gangsters standing up for the little guy with decency and honour, had been Toei’s mainstay throughout the 1960s but a decade later the image of righteous yakuza had been well and truly imploded by the advent of the jitsuroku or “true account” movie which drew inspiration from real life tales of post-war gangsterdom using voiceover narration and onscreen text for added authenticity as it proved once and for all that there was no “honour and humanity” to be found in the gangster life only nihilism and futility. Still, the ninkyo, like many of its heroes, proved hard to kill as 1984’s Story of a Man Among Men (修羅の群れ, Shura no Mure) perhaps proves. A throwback to an earlier era with its infinitely noble hero and unexpectedly if not quite happy then defiantly positive ending, Kosaku Yamashita’s manly drama nevertheless adopts some of the trappings of the jitsuroku in its infrequent use of voiceover and emphasis on concrete historical events. 

The hero, Ryuji Inahara (Hiroki Matsukata), is like many heroes of post-war gangsterdom an orphan though his story begins in the mid-1930s as he’s recruited by a friendly yakuza at a karate dojo. As his teacher explains, Ryuji has already been offered a job with the police but given the chance to join the other side instead immediately agrees, explaining that his life’s ambition has been to gain revenge against the force that ruined his father and destroyed his family, gambling. He chooses to do this, however, not by destroying gambling dens everywhere but by becoming a gambler himself determined to be a winner which is, it seems, a textbook example of having learned the wrong lesson. Still, his noble gangster cool stands him in good stead in the yakuza world where he quickly earns the loyalty of other men, rapidly advancing up the ranks to head his own gang by the crime heyday of the mid-1950s. 

As the title implies, this is a story of a man, a very manly man, among other men. The gangster world is intensely homosocial and founded on ideas of brotherhood and loyalty. Thus, Ryuji finds a surrogate father figure in fellow gangster Yokoyama (Koji Tsuruta) who constantly gives him advice on what it is to be a proper man. “Don’t be a fool, don’t be too smart, and most of all don’t be half-hearted” he advises, later adding “you can’t be a man if you’re dirty about money”, and “taking action isn’t the only way to be a man. It takes a man to have patience.” (this last one as Ryuji hotheadedly discharges himself from hospital to get revenge on a punk who got the jump on him outside a shrine). To be a man, Ryuji intervenes when he sees some less than honourable young toughs hassling an old couple running a dango stand at the beach and the young woman from the caramel stall next-door, throwing his entire wallet on their counter to make up for the damage in what will become something of a repeated motif. His manliness earns him the eternal devotion of the young woman, Yukiko (Wakako Sakai), who eventually becomes his devoted wife against the will of her concerned mother who is nevertheless brought round on realising the love she has for him because of his intense nobility. 

Indeed, Ryuji lives in a noble world. He’s a gambler by trade but only because he hates gambling and is trying to best it. He doesn’t participate in the seedier sides of the yakuza life such as drugs or prostitution and is also in contrast to jitsuroku norms a humanist who defiantly stands up against racism and xenophobia, taking another gambler to task for using a racial slur against a Korean opponent while opting to befriend the “foreign” gangs of Atami when eventually put in charge of the lucrative area rather than divide and conquer. This is apparently a lesson he learned from his flawed but goodhearted father who hid a Korean man and his daughter from the pogroms after the 1923 earthquake because “we’re all the same human beings”. Spared the war because of an injury to his trigger finger, Ryuji kicks off against an entitled son of a gang boss for acting like a slavedriver while working at a quarry but earns only the respect of his superiors further enhancing his underworld ties because of his reputation as a standup guy willing to stand up to oppression. 

Such an intense sense of uncomplicated righteousness had perhaps been unseen since the ninkyo eiga days, and Ryuji’s rise and rise does in that sense seem improbable as his goodness only aids his success earning him the respect of over 1000 foot soldiers even as he finds himself in the awkward position of having to exile one of his most trusted associates for getting too big for his boots and disrespecting the yakuza code. His children also suffer for their connection to the gangster underworld, but are reassured that their father is a good man if with the subtle implication that he has damned them as his father did him. Shot with occasional expressionist flourishes such as crashing waves or a midnight sky, A Story of a Man among Men is not free from manly sadness and indeed ends on the sense of a baton passing from one era to another but does so with an unexpected sense of moral victory for its righteous hero who vows to bring his manly ideas with him into a new age of gangsterdom. 


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Law in Ghost Island (幽霊島の掟, Yasushi Sasaki, 1961)

The post-war world was one of increasing globalisation which brought with it anxiety as well as hope as Japan readied itself to step back onto the world stage. The populist cinema of the early ‘60s is marked by ambivalent attitudes to international influences, not just towards creeping Americanisation and its perceived costs but perhaps somewhat uncomfortably towards the wider world and Asia in particular with the same old prejudices which had marked the previous 20 years rearing their heads once again. Voice of the post-war era, the films of Hibari Misora are, by contrast, about as forward looking and progressive as it was possible to be but Law in Ghost Island (幽霊島の掟, Yurei-jima no Okite) in which she plays a noticeably smaller part, is a bizarre exception in which a “lawless” melting pot outpost must be “civilised” by Japanese influences else the creeping rule of thuggish Asian gangs finally reach Japan “proper”.

We’re deep in the Bakumatsu. The Black Ships have already arrived and there is considerable political trouble brewing back in Japan. That’s not our immediate concern however because we’re on a creepy boat with slovenly ronin Yagi Hanzo (Hashizo Okawa) and a mysterious woman wearing a cheongsam (Hibari Misora). Fellow petty gangster and slave trafficker Bunji (Chiyonosuke Azuma) is suspicious of Hanzo, but decides he’s probably just an unlucky retainer on the run from something or other and might prove useful. Therefore, on arrival at Dragon Island, Bunji starts on trying to recruit Hanzo for his boss Chou Yang Po (Isao Yamagata), but Hanzo’s his own man and he hasn’t come here looking for a job. Fearing Hanzo is a government official here to bring the law down on all their heads, Chou tries to force him to harm a man they have in custody and believe to be working for the state. Hanzo gets round this by breaking a chair over the man’s back but leaving him otherwise unharmed, keeping his cover (if that’s what it is) firmly intact.

During his stay on Dragon Island, Hanzo will meet several other shady characters, many of them dressed in outfits more usually associated with the Chinese, Indians, nondescript “islanders”, and strange movie pirates, but what must be assumed is that though Japan “owns” this distant island it is unable to police it and as such it has become a den of scum and villainy in which various tribal gangs vie for hegemony and control over the lucrative smuggling hub which has unwittingly formed in direct response to Japan’s unwise policy of internal isolation which is itself at breaking point thanks to Perry’s Black Ships which we later hear are also on their way to Dragon Island.

Our key into this conflict is the crazed child of the leading gangster, Isakichi (Hiroki Matsukata), who dresses like a cowboy and likes to showoff his hard-won saloon credentials as sharpshooting libertine and all round party animal. Hanzo is not as impressed by this as Isakichi was hoping though an awkward sort of camaraderie eventually arises between them. Meanwhile, Isakichi has fallen in innocent love with the sister of his childhood best friend who is deep into a putative resistance movement hoping to end the stranglehold the smugglers have placed over the previously peaceful island.

Misora’s Madame Song, for some reason posing as a Chinese sex worker, hints at the various ways nothing is quite as it seems in her astute observations of the world around her, sensing that Hanzo is hiding something but also assuming that he is on the “right” side. There is conspiracy everywhere – the putative revolution at home is sending its shockwaves all the way out here as our unscrupulous gangsters try to procure guns to send to various sides on the mainland, while Madame Song ironically laments that what Dragon Island needs is to be more like Japan which is to say ruled less by law itself than an internalised acceptance of the proper order of things. Uncomfortably, it also probably means sending the people who aren’t wearing kimono somewhere else and trying to stop them tricking nice women from Kyushu into coming to tropical islands where they discover they’ve been trafficked into sex work and are unable to leave.

Among Toei’s lower budgeted efforts, Law in Ghost Island bills itself as a supernatural tale and does indeed open with a creepy scene of a misty boat but Hanzo doesn’t end up anywhere like the isle of the dead only a fantasy tropical “paradise” filled with zany movie pirates. Somewhere between pirate fantasy and western, Law in Ghost Island is closer to the kind of spy spoofs Toho would start producing in a few years’ time and even ends with a strangely comic scene in which just about everyone reveals themselves as spy for the same side during the climactic final shootout having been too busy playing spy games to figure any of it out before.

The final messages too are uncomfortable and ambivalent as Hanzo affirms that if there were more “good samurai” Japan would not become lawless like it is here while also claiming Dragon Island for the mainland in fear external forces may use it as a base to attack Japan. The smugglers pay heavily for their “treachery” in contributing to internal mainland chaos while the revolutionary islanders declare their intentions to make the island a better place, which mainly seems to mean making it more “Japanese” which is a fairly ambivalent message whichever way you look at it. Misora only sings two songs and is relegated to a minor mystery in the strange goings on of Ghost Island which features absolutely no ghosts or supernatural intrigue. It does however perhaps shine a light on a strange moment of cultural flux however how unflattering that mirror may turn out to be.


Brief clip of some of Hibari’s songs (no subtitles)

The Bullet Train (新幹線大爆破, Junya Sato, 1975)

bullet train posterFor one reason or another, the 1970s gave rise to a wave of disaster movies as Earthquakes devastated cities, high rise buildings caught fire, and ocean liners capsized. Japan wanted in on the action and so set about constructing its own culturally specific crisis movie. The central idea behind The Bullet Train (新幹線大爆破, Shinkansen Daibakuha) may well sound familiar as it was reappropriated for the 1994 smash hit and ongoing pop culture phenomenon Speed, but even if de Bont’s finely tuned rollercoaster was not exactly devoid of subversive political commentary The Bullet Train takes things one step further.

A bomb threat has been issued for bullet train Hikari 109. This is not a unique occurrence – it happens often enough for there to be a procedure to be followed, but this time is different. So that the authorities don’t simply stop the train to find the device as normal, it’s been attached to a speedometer which will trigger the bomb if the train slows below 80mph. A second bomb has been placed on a freight train to encourage the authorities to believe the bullet train device is real and when it does indeed go off, no one quite knows what to do.

The immediate response to this kind of crisis is placation – the train company does not have the money to pay a ransom, but assures the bomber that they will try and get the money from the government. Somewhat unusually, the bomber is played by the film’s biggest star, Ken Takakura, and is a broadly sympathetic figure despite the heinous crime which he is in the middle of perpetrating.

The bullet train is not just a super fast method of mass transportation but a concise symbol of post-war Japan’s path to economic prosperity. fetching up in the 1960s as the nation began to cast off the lingering traces of its wartime defeat and return to the world stage as the host of the 1964 olympics, the bullet train network allowed Japan to ride its own rails into the future. All of this economic prosperity, however, was not evenly distributed. Where large corporations expanded, the small businessman was squeezed, manufacturing suffered, and the little guy felt himself left out of the paradise promised by a seeming economic miracle.

Thus our three bombers are all members of this disenfranchised class, disillusioned with a cruel society and taking aim squarely at the symbol of their oppression. Takakura’s Okita is not so much a mad bomber as a man pushed past breaking point by repeated betrayals as his factory went under leading him to drink and thereby to the breakdown of his marriage. He recruits two helpers – a young boy who came to the city from the countryside as one of the many young men promised good employment building the modern Tokyo but found only lies and exploitation, and the other an embittered former student protestor, angry and disillusioned with his fellow revolutionaries and the eventual subversion of their failed revolution.

Their aim is not to destroy the bullet train for any political reason, but force the government to compensate them for failing to redistribute the economic boon to all areas of society. Okita seems to have little regard for the train’s passengers, perhaps considering them merely collateral damage or willing accomplices in his oppression. Figuring out that something is wrong with the train due to its slower speed and failure to stop at the first station the passengers become restless giving rise to hilarious scenes of salarymen panicking about missed meetings and offering vast bribes to try and push their way to the front of the onboard phone queue, but when a heavily pregnant woman becomes distressed the consequences are far more severe.

Left alone to manage the situation by himself, the put upon controller does his best to keep everyone calm but becomes increasingly frustrated by the inhumane actions of the authorities from his bosses at the train company to the police and government. Always with one eye on the media, the train company is more preoccupied with being seen to have passenger safety at heart rather than actually safeguarding it. The irony is that the automatic breaking system poses a serious threat now that speed is of the essence but when the decision is made to simply ignore a second bomb threat it’s easy to see where the priorities lie for those at the top of the corporate ladder.

Okita and his gang are underdog everymen striking back against increasing economic inequality but given that their plan endangers the lives of 1500 people, casting them as heroes is extremely uncomfortable. Sato keeps the tension high despite switching between the three different plot strands as Okita plots his next move while the train company and police plot theirs even if he can’t sustain the mammoth 2.5hr running time. A strange mix of genres from the original disaster movie to broad satire and angry revolt against corrupt authority, The Bullet Train is an oddly rich experience even if it never quite reaches its final destination.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Yakuza Papers Vol. 5: Final Episode ( 仁義なき戦い: 完結篇, Kinji Fukasaku, 1974)

800x1200srAnd so, the saga finally reaches its conclusion. Final Episode (仁義なき戦い: 完結篇, Jingi Naki Tatakai: Kanketsu-hen) brings us ever closer to the contemporary era and picks up in the mid ‘60s where Hirono is still in prison and Takeda, released on a technicality, has decided to move the yakuza into the legit arena. The surviving gangs have united and rebranded themselves as a political group known as the Tensei Coalition. However, not everyone has joined the new gangsters’ union and the enterprise is fragile at best.

Hirono’s sworn brother, Ichioka, is one such antagonist and after the Coalition’s accountant is clumsily gunned down in the street, tempers start to flair. Though the Coalition is nominally headed by Takeda, an up and coming youngster, Matsumura, is winning a lot of respect for his level headed judgement and ability to form long term plans. He wants to move away from the image of the traditional yakuza with their missing fingers and bad attitudes to something a little more media friendly. However, the old guard including the veteran, Otomo (now played by Jo Shishido), aren’t willing to see the bigger picture and continue to behave in the old ways requiring swift and bloody justice for their fallen comrade. The older generation maybe on their way out, but that doesn’t mean they can’t cause a little trouble on their way. Despite the best efforts of the younger guys the cycle of violence seems set to continue, will anything ever change at all?

According to Fukasaku, almost certainly not. Though Matsumura is accounted to be a good guy by both of our “heroes” Hirono and Takeda, his yakuza revolution seems doomed to fail. This kind of coalition is completely pointless if not everybody joins and obviously not everybody is going to. Following the public outcry and subsequent police crackdown in the previous film, the yakuza feel the need to reform their image, keep the violence off the streets and appear generally less scary than the image they’ve hitherto cultivated. Now it suits them to conduct themselves in a more dignified manner, more like regular businessmen than thugs in flashy suits.

Meeting at the prison in the end of Police Tactics, Hirono and Takeda both agree that their era has passed. They still aren’t quite old men, but they aren’t young and this violent world isn’t for them anymore. Their resolutions are both that the general environment has changed making the way they’ve lived so far untenable, but also that if they attempted to live that way again they simply wouldn’t survive any longer (perhaps they are “better off” in jail). Hirono spends most of the movie off screen again, in prison, writing his memoirs. Before coming out he seems set on “retirement” but once released he decides to return to the yakuza world. It’s not until the end of the film when once again confronted by the senseless violence of gang warfare that he finally decides to retire. Matsumura may have been trying to change things, but more young guys are dying so fast there’s barely any point learning their names and what really does it get you in the end? Can you live freely, has the world really changed at all? From Hirono’s late middle age viewpoint, the answer is no.

Final Episode follows the same basic formula as the other films in the series with the narrative voice over, frenetic handheld camera work, captions and freeze frames. The violence may be a little less frequent but appears bolder in its execution. These youngsters are messier than their forebears – the gunning down of the Tensei accountant is a clumsy affair carried out by two amateurs in the middle of a crowded street. Random weapons are constructed with pretty much anything that’s lying around during a street fight. These young guys are a different kind of desperate and have no idea how to conduct themselves in a subdued way.

We’re almost up to the the contemporary era of the film. It’s getting on for 25 years since Hirono came home from the war and joined a different kind of battlefront. Japan’s development has been startlingly rapid – from post-war rubble to hosting the olympic games and a newly burgeoning prosperity. Hirono and those like him have found themselves riding the wrong wave as their fortunes continue to dwindle just as the legitimate world is coming into its own. When Hirono and Takeda were talking at the prison at the end of part four they knew something had come to an end. They had no place in this world anymore – unless you become a ruthless boss like the hated Yamamori (still harbouring dreams of domination well into his dotage), the yakuza life is a young man’s game. Once again we finish on a shot of the ruined dome and a reminder that the strong will always prey on the weak. Fukasaku’s prognosis for the future is grim but, it has to be said, accurate.


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

 

The Yakuza Papers Vol. 2: Hiroshima Death Match (仁義なき戦い: 広島死闘篇, Kinji Fukasaku, 1973)

81ZkRgBFyyL._SL1378_If you thought the story was over when Hirono walked out on the funeral at the end of Battles Without Honour and Humanity think again – we’ve barely scraped the surface of the post-war Hiroshima criminal underworld chaos. The aptly named Hiroshima Death Match runs in parallel with the events of Battles Without Honour taking place in roughly the same time, 1950-1955, but features a new protagonist relegating Bunta Sugawara’s Hirono to the sidelines where he appears as a weary observer of the cruel yakuza world. This time our hero, Yamanaka, is younger – too young to have offered his life as a kamikaze in the war as he apparently wanted to, and is one of the thousands of young men who’ve found themselves alone and without futures thanks to both the after effects of World War II and the ongoing Korean War.

Hiroshima Death Match ties itself into Battles Without Honour and Humanity quite neatly when the protagonist, Shoji Yamanaka (Kinya Kitaoji), is sent to prison after taking a knife to a room full of guys who accused him of cheating in a gambling den. There he comes into contact with the first film’s hero, Hirono (Bunta Sugawara), who offers him some food whilst in solitary but then disappears for the vast bulk of the film. When he gets out, Shoji finds himself in trouble again when he can’t pay for his meal in a restaurant and offers to work off the bill. The waitress, Yasuko (Meiko Kaji), refuses and tells him to just forget about the money and leave when he’s done but Shoji is insulted by her “charity” and things kick off between him and a gang of yakuza also in the restaurant at the time. Yasuko turns out to be the widowed niece of a yakuza boss and after recovering in her care Shoji agrees to join the Muraoka gang to get revenge on the guys who beat him up.

Whereas Battles Without Honour and Humanity took as its protagonists the young men who’d returned from the war to a ruined and defeated country, Hiroshima Death Match focuses on the generation below who were too young to fight themselves but have still been marked by the after effects of the conflict. At the beginning of the film Shoji has nothing, he’s ashamed of cheating and gets upset when caught which only fuels his youthful and violent anger. He doesn’t seem to have any family to help him or honest work to go to and so, of course, he ends up a yakuza. Once again, the yakuza take the place of a traditional family offering both a place to belong and a degree of emotional and financial support – for a price.

When Shoji inevitably falls in love with Muraoka’s widowed niece, he discovers his surrogate father’s love is not quite unconditional. Yasuko has a young daughter and was married to a man who died a kamikaze war hero. Muraoka does not want her to remarry lest she shame her husband’s memory unless he keeps it in the family by marrying her off against her will to her huband’s brother. Shoji’s affair with Yasuko continues to cause a rift with Muraoka and he’s torn between a desire for a peaceful future with the woman he loves and loyalty to his gang boss to whom he owes so much. Muraoka’s own morals are shown to be far from the traditional yakuza ideals and he’s not above using Shoji’s strained loyalties to his own advantage eventually with tragic consequences.

Like Battles Without Honour and Humanity, Hiroshima Death Match is shot in the same quasi-documentary style with a weary sounding narrative voice over and frequent freeze frame captions identifying the characters along with their gangs and positions as well as their dates of demise at the appropriate time. The ruined Atomic Bomb Dome (now the Hiroshima Peace Memorial) continues to loom large over the proceedings as we’re reminded at the end that this isn’t the only blood that’s been shed here. Even more so than with Battles, Fukasaku rams home the senselessness and futility of violence. The film ends with Hirono attending another funeral (though this time in a black suit and melancholic air) where the bosses reap in consolation money and gamble at the wake. He gives his old bosses a sideways look as they laugh and joke while a young man who they all now account as some kind of legendary yakuza hero lies dead for no reason at all. What does this sort of life amount to in the end? The only reward for a life of violence is a lonely grave.


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