Saturday, July 18, 2020

Kinji Fukasaku's Films

As opposed to starting at the beginning, I started at the end. The first Kinji Fukasaku film I saw was Battle Royale (2000), the last one he directed. He started work on the sequel Battle Royale II (2003) but passed away before it was completed so his son Kenta Fukasaku completed it. After that, I only saw a few of his films but not enough for a proper spotlight. So a correction was in order.

A mini-spotlight of 7 of his films, 5 of which constitute the Battles Without Honor and Humanity or the Yakuza Papers series.

Street Mobster (1972)
Battles Without Honor and Humanity (1973) / Yakuza Papers, vol. 1

Hiroshima Death Match (1973) / Yakuza Papers, vol. 2
Proxy War (1973) / Yakuza Papers, vol. 3
Police Tactics (1974) / Yakuza Papers, vol. 4
Final Episode (1974) / Yakuza Papers, vol. 5
Cops vs Thugs (1975)

All 7 films were released over a quick 3 year span. The prolific Fukasaku also did a New Battles Without Honor and Humanity trilogy (1974-76) but those films were not seen as part of this spotlight.

The 5 film Battles Without Honor and Humanity series is an absolutely incredible epic series unlike any other in cinema. The Godfather (1972) came out just a year before Battles Without Honor and Humanity and there are some overlapping aspects regarding the thirst for power and hierarchy of gangs but both films are cut from different cloth. Instead, I thought of Johnnie To’s Election (2005) and Election 2 (2006) and Anurag Kashyap’s Gangs of Wasseypur (2012) as distant cinematic offsprings of Fukasaku due to the usage of historical references and cyclic nature of events. However, those films still don’t have the scope of Kinji Fukasaku’s movies and methods. One differentiating method is that Fukasaku states historical events and dates up front, introducing characters by their real names and stating dates of their death. In addition, there is a documentary style narration to place the movie’s real life events and meetings. This includes starting all the films with historical reference to Hiroshima and the chaotic post-WWII world that allowed gangs to prosper via the black market. Even though the 5 films came out in a two-year span, they cover almost 25 years in scope. The films also highlight the changing political climate brought by the Korean War and the Cold War that further impacted the Yakuza gangs’ style in Hiroshima and Kure City, an aspect covered by the third film Proxy War.

The scope of the films increases in the series starting with individuals to gang battles to cross-city rivalries as the yakuza go from street-level activity to political and company businesses impacting regular citizens. Despite the changing scope of the films, all 5 are united by some common elements related to the gang’s methodologies, rituals and mannerism. The films show repeated cycles of men drinking, eating, planning and then killing, not always in that order. When the men are not looking behind them, there is always some young person lurking behind to kill them and take their place. The young men collect kills and move up the yakuza leader before they are in turn themselves killed. This killing doesn’t only take place at the lowest level of the hierarchy but also takes place at the top, between bosses of the rival yakuza gangs. Boss vs boss, company vs company. Each man wants to be the boss and set up his own company, which results in more violence. This violent cycle continues throughout the 5 film series.

The common rituals shown in the Battles Without Honor and Humanity/Yakuza Papers films follow strict ceremonies some of which are brotherhood vows, loyalty tests or peace offerings. The loyalty tests or peace offering are first shown in Street Mobster and brutally depict a member chopping off a finger to make things right. The subsequent bandaged hand, dripping with blood, is like a badge of honor which lets others know of the true character of the injured man.

Hirono (a remarkable Bunta Sugawara, present in all 7 films) is the beating heart of multiple Yakuza Papers films but he is not always the main focus. As Hirono serves his multiple jail sentences, other characters take centre stage and often Hirono drifts into the background due to the larger scope that Kinji Fukasaku is covering regarding the structure of the gangs. Women are an afterthought in the 5 films and mostly make an appearance when a gangster wants to have a good time with a prostitute. The wives and girlfriends are sometimes shown but even then, they have no say in events. Instead, some examples show that a woman is waiting to be taken over by another man when her male partner is killed or jailed. The one exception is Mrs. Yamamori (Toshie Kimura) who is an equal accomplice in the plans and schemes of Yamamori (Nobuo Kaneko), one of the prominent bosses in the series.

Majority of the characters in the films are caught in cycles they can’t break out of. The only escape for some bosses or senior gang members comes when they either retire or are forced to retire and give control to someone else. These retirements are either mandated or reactionary due to circumstances. They don’t result from soul-searching. However, Hirono is the one exception whose uses his 7 year prison sentence to change himself. He also wants to give advice to young men so that they don’t repeat his errors. During his 7 year prison sentence, Hirono is showing writing about his experiences and this phrase from him illustrates the situation of the gangs but also our current world:

“When foolish men stand at the top, the men under them suffer and shed blood needlessly.”

These words still ring true. Our present world is full of foolish men standing at the top and causing others to suffer needlessly. The closing words at the end of the 5th film are even more relevant today.

“Quarter of a century had passed since he’d [refers to Hirono] cast his lot with the yakuza amidst the post-war turbulence.

With the passage of time, one group begat another, and with each new group came new seeds of conflict.Thus, much young blood had been shed.

Will the bitter battles that arise from the strong preying upon the weak ever be banished from this earth?”

Those words were spoken in a 1974 film but almost 5 decades later, we are now living in a world where the battles are fiercely bitter with no honor and humanity. The strong are still preying on the weak.

Starting this spotlight with Street Mobster was a good decision as the film lays out the gritty realistic yakuza style and template of Fukasaku’s subsequent films. All these 7 films depict the endless violent cycle and lay out the hierarchy that the gangs follow and their rituals. The rituals also include peace making deals between gangs including the brotherhood vows that the members take. It is also clear that Fukasaku’s style and films influenced numerous other directors including Takashi Kitano and Takashi Miike.

Reading material:

From the Taschen book Japanese Cinema, Stuart Galbraith IV writes of Battles Without Honor and Humanity:

The picture is a slap in the face to the romanticized nostalgia of 1960s ninkyo eiga (“chivalry movies”) that had come before. Instead, Battles Without Honor and Humanity exposes the hypocrisy and emptiness of criminal codes of honor while creating new myths with its fatalistic, disillusioned, and ultimately existential antihero (Bunta Sugawara), a man only too aware of his dead-end lifestyle.

Often likened to Sam Peckinpah, Fukasaku exerts the same unflinching brutality and ambiguous use of violent expression, which has likewise polarized critics. Indeed, Fukasaku’s last completed film, Battle Royale (Batoru rowaiaru, 2000) has come the Straw Dog of its day. Unlike Peckinpah, however, Fukasaku had a markedly left-of-center cynicism born out of his terrifying teens, when he witnessed the deaths of countless friends and neighbors in Allied bombing raids. Immersed in postwar chaos and its thriving black market, Fukasaku was also strongly influenced by the Italian neorealist films he saw during the Allied Occupation. Fukasaku brought these experiences to his genre films, endowing them with an uncanny verisimilitude previously absent in such films. -- Japanese Cinema, page 112

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