Sword of the Beast (獣の剣, Hideo Gosha, 1965)

sword of the beast posterHideo Gosha’s later career increasingly focussed on men at odds with their times – ageing gangsters who couldn’t see their eras were ending. His second feature, Sword of the Beast (獣の剣 Kedamono no Ken), is much the same in this regard but its youthful hero knows perfectly that change is on the horizon. Gennosuke (Mikijiro Hira) tries to ride that change into a better, more equal future but the forces of order will not allow him. The cinematic samurai world of the post-war era is no longer that of honourable men, manfully living out the samurai code even when it pains them to do so. It is one of men broken by oppressive feudal rule, denied their futures, and forced to betray themselves in service to systemic hypocrisy. Yet even if men think of reforming the system, they rarely think to escape it unless it actively spits them out.

When we first meet Gennosuke, he’s crawling around in a muddy grass field, dishevelled and hungry. A lone woman spots him and plies her trade leading Gennosuke to embrace his baser instincts and give vent to his lust, but the pair are interrupted by the sound of approaching horses. Gennosuke is on the run from his clan for his part in the murder of a lord. His pursuers scream at him, “have you no pride?”, lamenting his lack of stoical resignation to one’s fate so central to the samurai ideal. “To hell with name and pride” Gensosuke throws back, “I’ll run and never stop.”

Gennosuke’s odyssey leads him into the path of petty bandits who’ve been swiping gold out of the local river. Unbeknownst to them, a couple from another clan have been living an isolated life in a small cottage where they too have been skimming the Emperor’s gold, only they’ve been doing it for their lord. The man, Jurota (Go Kato), is excited about this work because he thinks when it is completed he’ll finally be accepted as a true samurai and the future for himself and his wife, Taka (Shima Iwashita), will be much brighter. He is quite wrong in this assumption.

Gennosuke, it is later revealed, committed his fateful act of murder upon the assumption that he was part of a revolutionary vanguard, removing cruel and corrupt lords from their positions so fairer minded, decent men could rule in their stead. Instead he realises he’s been rendered a disposable pawn in a political game and that the new master he believed would usher in a brighter future only envisaged one for himself. Jurota has been duped in much the same way, asked to do something illicit, immoral, and against the samurai code under the assumption that he will finally be accepted as “one of us”. He has not considered the corruption of those he wants to join, and does not see that his crime likely means he cannot be allowed to live.

Gennosuke and Jurota are cynical men who nevertheless possess true faith in the way of the samurai. Exiled from his clan, Gennosuke is a wandering beast who pretends not to care about the people he meets, but ends up saving them anyway. Yet if Gennosuke has been “freed” from his illusions, Jurota’s devotion to them makes him a less heroic figure. When Taka is captured by bandits who threaten her life, Jurota has a difficult decision to make – surrender the gold or his wife. Jurota chooses poorly and abandons his wife to a fate worse than death at the hands of uncivilised ruffians. Taka finds this hard to forgive. No longer wishing to stay with a man who values her so lightly she turns to Gennosuke – her accidental saviour, and reveals to him that she longs to become “a beast” like him. Now “freed” of her own illusions as regards her husband’s love, their shared mission, and the fallacy of their future together as noble samurai, Taka is prepared to exile herself from the samurai world as Gennosuke has, but, as he tells her, the wife of a retainer cannot choose the life of a beast.

This world of samurai is facing its own eclipse. The Black Ships have arrived, the spell has been broken, and the modern world awaits. Gennosuke can see this future, he tried to grasp it in the murder of his lord, but it is not here yet. Gennosuke’s friend, Daizaburo (Kantaro Suga), is duty bound to take his revenge as the fiancé of the murdered lord’s daughter though he’d rather not do it, and does so only to give Gennosuke an “honourable” death. The daughter, Misa (Toshie Kimura), is understandably angry and filled with hate but she pays dearly for her vengeance. Following their ordeal, neither Daizaburo or Misa can return to their clan. They are also “freed”, their illusions broken, their debts forgiven. Breaking with the burden of their past, they would now follow Gennosuke into his new world, even if none of them know exactly where they’re going.

These private revolutions amount to a kind of deprogramming, reawakening a sense of individual agency but one which is unselfish and carries with it the best of samurai honour. Gennosuke may be a “beast” on the run, reduced to a creature of needs rather than thoughts, but there’s honesty in this uncivilised quest for satisfaction which leaves no room for artifice or hypocrisy. It may be a rough world and lonely with it, but it is not unkind. To hell with name and pride, Gennosuke will have his honour, even as a nameless beast, a self-exile from a world of cruelty, greed, and inhumanity.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

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. 3: Proxy War (仁義なき戦い: 代理戦争, Kinji Fukasaku, 1973)

3-Battles-Without-Honor-and-Humanity-3-Proxy-WarThree films into The Yakuza Papers or Battles Without Honour and Humanity series, Fukasaku slackens the place slightly and brings us a little more intrigue and behind the scenes machinations rather than the wholesale carnage of the first two films. In Proxy War we move on in terms of time period and region following Shozo Hirono into the ’60s where he’s still a petty yakuza, but his fortunes have improved slightly.

It’s now 1960 – almost 15 years since Hirono came home from the war. The young people who are just coming of age grew up in the turbulent post-war era but probably don’t remember much of the conflict itself. These days the problem is the ANPO treaty and the wider world’s pre-occupation with communism. Russia and America are engaged in various “proxy wars” across the world in what would come to be known as the cold war. This tactic of indirect warfare has also taken root in the yakuza world as gangs and gang members form covert alliances, hatch secret plots to take out rivals, or otherwise try to manipulate the situation to their advantage. When the head of the Muraoka crime syndicate is assassinated in broad daylight and his underling, Uchimoto, does nothing, it kickstarts a chain of petty vendettas as each of the ambitious crime bosses vie to fill the power vacuum with the snivelling Uchimoto not least among them.

Bunta Sugawara returns to centre stage again with Hirono at the forefront of the action. One of the few yakuza guys who’s pretty happy with his lot and not seeking a higher position he’s in the perfect spot to become a very important player when it comes to supporting other people’s bids for power. Having originally backed Uchimoto he’s at something of a disadvantage following Uchimoto’s cowardly flip-flopping. However, having found himself back under the aegis of former boss Yorimoto, it does afford Hirono the possibility of finally getting revenge against him. Gangs merge several times while fracturing on the inside as the lower bosses try to get their guys in line whlst picking sides as to whom they support in the leadership battles (some with more of an eye on their own futures) but this time the action is a little more cerebral than the audacious violence of the immediate post-war period.

Changing up his style slightly, Fukasaku keeps the overall documentary approach with the news reel voice over relating the salient political and historical details plus the initial captions explaining the names and allegiances of the major players but reduces the freeze frame death announcements. The action is still frenetic with ultra naturalistic handheld camera and occasional strange angles but this time he opts for a muted colour effect in the final shoot out which increases the shocking nature of the scene. Blow for blow there’s less overt violence here though there is a fairly graphic and unpleasant rape scene which feels a little out of place though it does add to Fukasaku’s argument about the nature of aggression.

Once again the ruined the dome looms large over everything, reminding us that this isn’t just a story of gang warfare but a critique of the senselessness of a violent life. As the film says, young men are the first to die when the battles begin but their deaths are never honoured. Like Hiroshima Death Match, Proxy War also leads to the death of a youngster in pointless gang violence – another young man who ended up in the criminal underworld through lack of other options. The futility of the cycle of violence is becoming wearing – as is perhaps the point. One gang boss falls, another rises – only the names have changed. There’s no rest for an honest yakuza like Hirono when the less scrupulous are willing switch allegiance without a second thought. The only victory is staying alive as long as you can.


Proxy War 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.

 

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.