A Fugitive from the Past (飢餓海峡, Tomu Uchida, 1965)

Fugitive from the past“There’s no way back” intones a spirit medium in the throws of a possession early on Tomu’s Uchida’s three hour police procedural, A Fugitive from the Past (飢餓海峡, Kiga kaikyo, AKA Straits of Hunger). Her message will be repeated frequently throughout the journeys of our three protagonists – a guilty man seeking escape from himself, the hooker with a heart of gold who thinks of him as a “kind person”, and the obsessive policeman whose quest to find him threatens to destroy his own family and chance of ongoing happiness. Beginning in 1947, Uchida’s adaptation of the novel by Tsutomu Minakami is a cutting indictment of post-war inequalities but is also keen to remind us that the war was merely a symptom and intensifier of problems which existed long before and are likely to survive long after.

In 1947, three men in military uniforms attempt to escape from Hokkaido after committing a crime while the island is subject to a typhoon warning. Using a ferry disaster in which hundreds of people have been killed as cover, the men steal a boat and try their luck on the stormy seas. Only one of them makes it. Once all the bodies from the ferry are accounted for, two more are discovered and later identified as recent parolees from Abashiri prison. The dead convicts are then linked to a local robbery, murder, and arson case in which a large amount of money was stolen leaving the third man, described by witnesses as bearded, tall and imposing, the prime suspect in the deaths of the two prisoners as well as the original robbery.

Calling himself “Inugai” (Rentaro Mikuni), the “third man” takes off with all the money and ends up forging an unexpectedly genuine connection with a cheerful prostitute just on the way back from her mother’s funeral. Yae (Sachiko Hidari), claiming to have seen through to Inugai’s kindly soul, seems to reawaken something within him but the next morning he moves on leaving only a vast a mount of money and some nail clippings behind him. Meanwhile, Yumisaka (Junzaburo Ban), the dogged policeman who discovered the convicts’ bodies, tracks him at every turn.

The world of 1947 is a hellish one in which perpetual hunger is the norm and crushing impossibility all but a given. Inugai is starving. With rationing in place the black market is flourishing while the unscrupulous profiteer off the back of other people’s desperation. This is a land of defeat where to survive at all is both shame and victory, yet somehow you have to go on living. Inugai, like many a hero of golden age Japanese cinema, is engaged in an internal war to erase the dark past, drawing a veil over what it took to move from post-war privation to economic prosperity. He does however take his unseeing further than most in adopting a new, more respectable persona, remaking himself as self-made man and wealthy philanthropist keen to “pay back” the society which has been so supportive of his “success”.

Thus when Yae, whose attempt to remake herself in the capital has fared far less well, spots Inugai’s photo in the papers and decides she just must track him down, it’s not that Inugai fears blackmail or even really that she poses a threat but that she shatters the integrity of his carefully crafted post-war persona and reminds him who he really is. A climactic storm mirroring that which illuminated their first meeting also graces their last as “Inugai” finally resurfaces, committing an impulsive act of animal violence which tugs at the strings of his new life and sets the whole thing unravelling.

Yae used Inugai’s money to pay off her debts and get out of the brothel, but even if the Tokyo of 1947 was warmer than that of Hokkaido it was no more kind and her attempt to lead an “honest” life was quickly derailed by underworld crime and unforgiving law enforcement. Realising there’s nowhere left for her to go she resigns herself to life in the red light district but does at least manage to find a “nicer” establishment run by a kindly older couple where the girls are like one big family. Her meeting with Inugai has come to take on mythical proportions in her mind – she even worships a tiny relic of him in the form of one of his nail clippings. Hoping to repay his kindness she commits herself to hard work and barely spends any of her money on herself, dreaming of the day she will one day see him again.

Yumisaka, however, mirrors Yae’s devotion in his all encompassing “hate” for Inugai as his obsession consumes him, costs him his job, and threatens to ruin his family. Alerted by two more bodies washing up out of the sea, a young detective (Ken Takakura) puts two and two together and gives Yumisaka a chance to vindicate his long held convictions but what they discover through the shifting sands of invented truths and corrupted memories is a legacy of suffering and resentment which runs far further back than the recent wartime past. As Yumisaka later puts it, those who’ve never been poor or miserable cannot understand the desperation felt by those who have in the presence of money. Inugai, poor and trapped by circumstance, longed to escape the drudgery of Hokkaido life but couldn’t live with what he did to do it and so conjured up another history for himself.

Still, the truth will out and there really is “no way back”, not for Inugai or for his nation which seems determined to continue unseeing the darkness of the previous 30 years as it begins to find a degree of comfort once again. Incorporating strong spiritual overtones from the sutras Yumisaka is so strangely adept at reciting to the gloomy intoning of the spirit medium, Uchida imbues all with a heavy sense of dread as a man attempts to outrun his fate by running from himself only to be tripped up by sudden moment of panic born of a lack of faith in his only true believer. A chronicle of the post-war era, A Fugitive From the Past makes poverty its ultimate villain but attempts to paper over spiritual corruption with the pretty trappings of conventional success will only end in ruin as the unresolved past eats away at the foundations of a brave new world.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Brutal Tales of Chivalry (昭和残侠伝, Kiyoshi Saeki, 1965)

brutal tales of chivalry posterBrutal Tales of Chivalry (昭和残侠伝, Showa Zankyo-den) – a title which neatly sums up the “ninkyo eiga”. These old school gangsters still feel their traditional responsibilities deeply, acting as the protectors of ordinary people, obeying all of their arcane rules and abiding by the law of honour (if not the laws of the state the authority of which they refuse to fully recognise). Yet in the desperation of the post-war world, the old ways are losing ground to unscrupulous upstarts, prepared to jettison their long-held honour in favour of a dog eat dog mentality. This is the central battleground of Kiyoshi Saeki’s 1965 film which looks back at the immediate post-war period from a distance of only 15 years to ask the question where now? The city is in ruins, the people are starving, women are being forced into prostitution, but what is going to be done about it – should the good people of Asakusa accept the rule of violent punks in return for the possibility of investment in infrastructure, or continue to struggle through slowly with the old-fashioned patronage of “good yakuza” like the Kozu Family?

Here is where we find ourselves in the 21st year of the Showa Era (1947) – the small marketplace in Asakusa is rife with black marketeers and illegal goods, but it’s still the only mechanism by which people are able to survive. The market is overseen by the elderly patriarch of the Kozu Family, Gennosuke (Tomosaburo Ii), who does his best to ensure a kind of “fairness” in its operation, at least in as far as yakuza rules extend. His territory is currently under threat from a rival gang – the Shinsei (literally “new truth”) who obey no such rules and are growing ever more ruthless in their quest to control the local area. Their big idea is to build an entirely new marketplace with a roof to make it a permanent and pleasant place for traders to do business – they will finance this through a kind of crowdfunding paid for by the merchants themselves who will also be paying protection money and kickbacks to the Shinsei. Everyone approves of the covered market project, even the Kozu, but if it means letting the Shinsei assume control is it a price worth paying?

This is a question which faces prodigal son Seiji (Ken Takakura) who returns from the war to find his city in ruins, Gennosuke murdered by the Shinsei, that he is now the new head of the Kozu, and that the woman he loved has been given away in a dynastic marriage to man from another minor clan. Before he died, Gennosuke was able to dictate two important instructions – that Seiji was to take over, and that the gang should proceed on a note of peace, avoiding violence or aggression where possible, leading by example rather than attempting to crush their new rivals. Seiji, having just returned from one battlefield is intent on following Gennosuke’s orders but how far can he really survive on the moral high ground when his opponents are content to fight dirty from down below?

The “Showa” era spanned some 60 years of turbulent Japanese history but in 1965 it was just under 40 years old and already beginning to generate the complicated feelings of nostalgia which are still attached to it today. Showa is right there in the Japanese title as if it were an age already passed but it’s clear in 1965 that something has shifted, one age has or is beginning to give way to another. The desperation of the post-war world with its empty, rubble strewn vistas and population filled with hunger and despair has ebbed away now that Japan is back on the world stage following the 1964 Olympics and the economy has as last begun to pick up. The young no longer fixate on the rights and wrongs of empire building, war and surrender but have begun to turn their attention towards the American occupation, social justice, and foreign conflicts. The young of 1947 were middle-aged in 1965, no one would begrudge them romanticising their youth, and so even if the world of Brutal Tales of Chivalry is a bleak one it still contains a kind of nostalgia for the kind of honourable gangster inhabited by Takakura who embodies traditional values some may feel are under represented in modern society.

Yet, for all that, there’s something subtly subversive in the film’s eventual suggestion that pacifism will only go so far and that one side or another must be banished from the battlefield through violence if peace is ever to prosper. Still, the struggle is a noble one in which honour is defined by strength of character and the selfless desire to ensure the well-being of others as much as it is to a blind observation of arcane rules and obsolete, meaningless ritual. The first in a long running series, Brutal Tales of Chivalry helped established Takakura’s iconic presence which eventually became synonymous with the “ninkyo eiga” as a personification of idealised Japanese masculinity, tough but caring even if passion is often repressed or redirected into violence. Remnants may be all that’s left of “chivalry” in the new Showa era, but there’s a degree of beauty in this brutality that refuses to die even as its era passes.


Now available on Region A blu-ray from Twilight Time (limited to 3000 copies only)

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. 4: Police Tactics (仁義なき戦い: 頂上作戦, Kinji Fukasaku, 1974)

b0176154_10205690It’s 1963 now and the chaos in the yakuza world is only increasing. However, with the Tokyo olympics only a year away and the economic conditions considerably improved the outlaw life is much less justifiable. The public are becoming increasingly intolerant of yakuza violence and the government is keen to clean up their image before the tourists arrive and so the police finally decide to do something about the organised crime problem. This is bad news for Hirono and his guys who are already still in the middle of their own yakuza style cold war.

Police Tactics (仁義なき戦い: 頂上作戦, Jingi Naki Tatakai: Chojo Sakusen), the fourth in the Yakuza Papers (or Battles Without Honour and Humanity) series, once again places Hirono at the centre of events for much of the film. The cold war from the end of the last film, Proxy War, is still going on with ambitious boss Takeda hosting additional foot soldiers from other areas of the country. However, all these extra guys are quite a drain on his resources and, simply put, it’s going to ruin him if this situation goes on much longer. Yamamori is currently holed up in a safe place and only steps outside to go to the bath house when he’s surrounded by a huge entourage of bodyguards. Added to the gang rivalry which is only growing now as factions split and new families are formed, not to mention all the guys from outside, is the now constant police pressure. Up to now, the police have been either a minor irritation or a soft ally but this time the guys might have finally met their match.

It’s almost twenty years since Hirono settled into the yakuza life. He’s not an old man, but he’s not a young one either. You can no longer explain or excuse any of his actions with the fire of youth – he’s one of the veterans now. However, young men are always young men and even while the older guys try to scheme and come up with a plan the youngsters are all for action. Hirono has always been the one noble gangster. Committed to yakuza ideals, he’s loyal to his bosses and dedicated to taking care of his guys. Hence, there’s no way he’s going to let one of his men take out Yamamori – firstly, after nursing a grudge for 18 years he wants to handle it himself but even if he didn’t he still wouldn’t be able go after Yamamori in anything other than an honourable way. However, now even Hirono says at one point “I don’t give a fucking shit about honour anymore”. At this point you know it’s all over, the one loyal retainer has finally given up.

With the police pressure mounting, the violence on the streets intensifies with even more feats of desperate backstreets warfare. Hirono himself is absent for a lot of the film while he gets picked up by the police on a flimsy pretext. More gangs are introduced, more guys die before you even begin to remember their names. There’s death everywhere yet still more yakuza keep turning up, offering to die for their bosses who will sell them out without a second thought if it buys them ten seconds more in power. The younger generation may not have the trauma of the war to burn through, but they’ve grown up in this world of street gangs and constant violence so it stands to reason that they come to idolise the tough guys and think joining a gang is their one way ticket out of the slums. As they will discover, there is always a heavy price to be paid for ambition and naivety.

The shooting style is pretty much the same as the first few films in the series. Documentary style voice over, hand held camera and freeze frame death shots are the order of the day. Once again we begin and end with the ruined dome reminding us of the price of violence. Police Tactics could almost be the end of the cycle. With the police finally deciding to act, by the end of the film all of the major players are off the streets in one way or another. In the end, all that death and violence amounted to to nothing. As the film reminds us, public order may have been restored (temporarily) but the systems and conditions which lead to violence are still very much in place.


Police Tactics 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.