Monday 9 March 2009

The Yakuza Papers

Kinji Fukasaku's sprawling epic "The Yakuza Papers" (sometimes also known by the title of the first of its five films, "Battles Without Honour And Humanity") is often compared to "The Godfather" saga. Other than the fact that both series cover gangsters over multiple films spanning several decades with multiple characters, the comparison just doesn't work very well and is unfair to Fukasaku's films. This is a terrific energetic set of movies with great character arcs, but the style and intent of them is very different and may not be what first time viewers may expect going in with a benchmark based on Coppola's classics.

The series is a prime example of "Jitsuroku" (films based on documented true life stories) and is adapted from a number of newspaper articles by the former yakuza Koichi Iiboshi. The story begins shortly after the end of WW II and its characters follow along with the societal changes taking place in Japan during the post-war years and the rise of the yakuza. The films are violent, confusing, occasionally goofy (the thugs sometimes fire their guns as if they were trying to throw bullets from them) and move at a quick pace steered by Fukasaku's inventive use of techniques like freeze frames and hand held cameras. Looking at the style of the films, you can't help but feel that there must have been a great deal of cross-pollination between the Japanese filmmakers from the 60-70s and the band of American ones during the same period.

I recently reviewed all 5 films separately for the Toronto J-Film Pow-Wow, but I'll try to pull them all together here. All 5 films are available in a lovely box set (including a sixth bonus features disc containing interviews with folks like William Friedkin) from HVE and should be available from standard online e-tailers.

Battles Without Honour And Humanity - Volume 1

The lead off film starts with a bang. A really big one. The film's opening titles are shown across pictures of an atomic explosion (likely Hiroshima since that is where the story begins) and its aftermath. The story begins in 1946 and the new society we see is filled with black markets, soldiers without many prospects and an "every man for himself" mentality which begins to breed a new style of violence.

These opening scenes introduce us to many of the characters through individual freeze frames with titles indicating their future positions within the yakuza (this all ties in nicely with the freeze frames on many of these characters when they are later killed - all violently of course). The frustration and anger of these ex-soldiers is evident in some of the reckless actions they take - against American GIs, Japanese cops ("don't make trouble with American GIs!") and the black marketers. The frenetic hand held camera work helps to set up this environment and lay the groundwork for the desperate times these men are being forced to face. One can understand how they might view the yakuza as being one of the only ways to save their skin.

The plot is insanely complicated - it's laying the foundation for the 4 films to follow (all made in 1973-74) which pull in new families, different characters, new locations and span across 20 odd years - so if you lose track of some of the characters or reasons for some of the events, that's understandable. It's also a very fast moving film, so if you're trying to fit things into a "who is who" matrix, you'll likely miss the individual connections between characters and incidents of double crossing. Characters switch yakuza families almost as quick as they get introduced and bloodshed occurs suddenly and swiftly.

That's part of the fun of the film though - it's building up a serious story arc touching on many wider issues, but it's still a yakuza film! The thugs get into fights, claim territory, yell like crazy people, attack each other and spill lots of blood all in very stylish ways. The plot will end up sucking you in too and you'll glean enough details to continue with the story, but suffice it to say that by the end of the film we've seen betrayal, greed, drugs, murder, personal ambition over brotherhood, cowardice, severed limbs, vengeance and lots of bright red blood. And, without giving away any spoilers, one great closing line by the main character of the film Shozo Hirono (played by Bunta Sugawara for the length of the series) - "I've still got some bullets left".

Not bad for only 20% of the story.

Deadly Fight In Hiroshima - Volume 2

In part two, Fukasaku follows a very similar structure and path as the initial film: loads of characters, sudden violence, a fast moving plot and energetic camera work. "Deadly Fight In Hiroshima" also emphasizes a specific theme - mindless sacrifice without worthy cause.

The story opens in 1950 in Hiroshima. It's 5 years after the end of WW II, the Korean War has just begun and many parts of the city still lie in ruins. We reconnect with Shozo Hirono (our "hero" from the first film who is doing time in prison for murder) while we also meet a new character named Shoji Yamanaka. Shoji has just arrived in prison after assaulting numerous people in a gambling hall with a knife. He's quick to anger, makes rash decisions without thought of consequences and has nothing to lose. In short, he's like just about every other male character we've met in the series so far. He gains our sympathies (and Hirono's too) with his wide-eyed lost expression and two years down the road he is released on parole. He immediately gets into more trouble after meeting the niece of yakuza family head Muraoka and getting beaten to a pulp by Katsutoshi Otomo (a crazed Sonny Chiba) and his goons. The niece Yasuko (played by Meiko Kaji - less intense than in her more famous roles as Female Prisoner Scorpion or Lady Snowblood, but no less beautiful and strong) is sympathetic to Shoji's plight, saves his life and manages to help get him into the Muraoka family.

The film is just over 10 minutes old at this point and there's no slowing down as the plot continues to unfold at the same rapid pace. Shoji and Yasuko fall for each other of course, but it's complicated by the fact that her husband was a Kamikaze pilot and it would dishonour his memory if she were to remarry. After being disciplined for failing to know his place, Shoji gets back into the good graces of Muraoka after he kills a construction boss who was a problem. This allows him to become a true member of the family. By the time we hit one of the main conflicts of the film, we've reached 1955 and the yakuza's power has grown along with a "new breed of violence". Revenge killings, power plays and sacrifices for family honour all contribute to the carnage that follows throughout the rest of the film. When the violence occurs, it's quick and typically not well thought out.

Most of the killings are said to be done in order to preserve family honour, but they really happen to preserve the men in charge. Fukasaku does a great job in tying the pointless yakuza violence to the memories of the Kamikazes from the war - soldiers sent out to do the bidding of their leaders at the expense of their own lives. Even Hirono (as head of his own new family) delegates one of his men to take the blame and jail time for one of his own killings. By the end of the film, after countless more deaths, it appears that Hirono may actually be wrestling with the point of it all.

Fukasaku isn't wrestling with it though - he has a pretty clear idea of the pointlessness of all the violence. And he leaves the viewer with a final reminder of the sacrifice that Hiroshima itself gave...

Proxy War - Volume 3

"When a battle begins, young men are always the first to lose their lives, yet their deaths have never once been honoured".

If at any point during "Proxy War" you think that the above quote is only directed towards the young yakuzas who get sucked into doing other people's dirty work, then you haven't been paying attention throughout the first two parts of "The Yakuza Papers". Fukasaku continues to make no bones about extending the stupidity of yakuza grudge matches and the waste of young lives to the larger playing field of our nations' militaries. Though these first three films in the series have all been fun and energetic, there's a palpable sense of anger coming from them too...

In the previous chapter, the uselessness of sacrifices for uncaring leaders and pointless causes is the central theme. "Proxy War" essentially picks up where we left off (the story opens in 1960 after parts 1 and 2 covered off the previous 15 years) and this time takes further aim at the scheming decisions of the leaders of the yakuza families. These weak-willed men take advantage of other weak-willed men to prop themselves up and play power games while always looking out only for themselves. There's little subtlety in the performances here - family leaders like Yamamori and Uchimoto blame others for all their faults and bad decisions, cry at the drop of a hat, become outraged if accused of anything, etc. Fukasaku makes his points clear that blind allegiance won't reward you or anyone else except the leaders themselves.

For the third film in a row, Fukasaku opens his story with newspaper clippings and still photos of war - explosions, soldiers, attack vehicles, planes, etc. A narrator tells us that these wars were all in the name of U.S. and Soviet interests and, since they were taking place in other regions, came to be known as Proxy Wars. With this as backdrop, as well as a new Japan slowly coming out of its post-war chaos, a key event happens that will lead to big struggles for power over the next few years - the head of the Muraoka family is killed in broad daylight and the next in line, the previously mentioned Uchimoto, does nothing to avenge the killing. This causes a domino effect of reprisals and hurt feelings. Yamamori gets appointed as the new leader of the family, Uchimoto feels insulted and numerous mini yakuza wars kick off - their own little proxy wars in the name of the two childish leaders.

At the center of all this is Hirono who was with the Muraoka head when he was killed. Over the years, he's built up a nice corner for himself and his own small yakuza team - he is one of the few men we meet who is actually satisfied with his position and who tries to live honourably. But when most of your fellow peers are frightened and desperate and they force you to take sides in personal power struggles ("I don't allow neutral around here" says one of the sub-bosses at one point), it can be a frustrating and dangerous existence. Through the same techniques used in the series so far (freeze frames, black and white photos, grainy shaky footage, etc.), "Proxy War" continues to deliver the entertainment value of the previous films. Its characters are sometimes broad and of little variety (particularly with female ones), but the twists, turns and sheer energy of the story keep the viewer coming back for more. And there's still two other films remaining in the series...

Police Tactics - Volume 4

"The world may be changing".

So says gang rival Akira Takeda to Shozo Hirono. Takeda's certainly right...In the years leading up to the Tokyo Olympics, when Japan has come so far after the war and is looking to make a name for itself on the world stage, the public has finally had enough of the gang violence that has plagued them for the last twenty odd years and previous three films. Anti-violence coalitions help put pressure on the police and the courts to finally do something about the gangsters who have run wild in the streets. The police have rarely been glimpsed in the previous chapters of the saga and have been at most a small annoyance. Now that the police and the courts are feeling public pressure and that their own jobs may be at stake, all those years of agreeable coexistence come to an end.

It's been one of many running themes through these films - people in power want to remain in power. As well, those who aren't in power are made to follow "rules" and "codes" that in turn allow the people in power to remain there. You can see this in the way that family heads Uchimoto and Yamamori behave in order to retain their comfy positions (these guys do not behave honourably - the code no longer applies to them) as well as when middle level bosses send out their own underlings to do their dirty work. Hirono is one of the few that insists on taking care of his own business, but his own men won't even let him - they strand him purposely at one point so that they can protect him and attempt to take care of a problem themselves. The rules are pretty ingrained for those in the trenches and that suits the powerful just fine. Fukasaku does tend to hammer this point home by making the yakuza leaders (in particular Uchimoto and Yamamori) the most pathetic and whiny characters you could imagine - constantly flinching, avoiding hard decisions, taking credit from others and being the worst kind of opportunists. It's highly entertaining though...In particular is one scene where Yamamori starts throwing a tantrum when he's being arrested and surrounded by press - I half expected him to start sucking his thumb. But in the end who gets off with the lightest sentences of all the yakuza rounded up? The leaders.

As with all previous chapters, the film moves briskly through a variety of situations, street fights, political maneuvering and characters. You need to keep up with Fukasaku - he introduces characters along the way that come back later with important roles. And while you are trying to connect all the characters and plot lines, the style and technique of the film will not only entertain you, but help drive the story forward while illuminating certain aspects of the greater themes. Freeze frames are once again used to highlight individual deaths, most of which are typically quite bloody and sloppy (there's still little planning put into the violence as it usually stems from a need to retaliate or gain respect and is therefore usually reactive in nature). This is probably the bloodiest of the films so far as there are point blank gun shots, knives stabbed into hands, a rifle used as a bayonet and a back alley removal of someone's nose. All complete with bright red blood and copious amounts of screaming and anguish.

The weak leadership of the gangs leads to more and more bloody street battles and betrayals. "It's brother killing brother now" Hirono is warned during one of his stretches in prison. With the world changing, the yakuza have lost much of their foothold and many have either left their home turf or have turned their businesses legit. It seems no worse in prison for Hirono then it does for Takeda on the outside. But even with this change, Fukasaku never lets you forget the past - a short visit to the "A-Bomb slums" is enough to remind us. Once again, the parallels between countries at war and the backstabbing, snitching and chest thumping of the yakuza battling in the streets are pretty clear: both are indeed Battles Without Honor Or Humanity.

Final Episode - Volume 5

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

About a third of the way through "Final Episode", Hirono comes to the above realization while in prison. It's probably the clearest statement of the major theme that has run through the entirety of the roughly 8 hour long epic. Though you can be forgiven if throughout the series you may have missed a few connections between the hundreds of characters (e.g. with 12 minutes left in this final film of the series, a brand new character is introduced complete with freeze frame and screen title), it's hard to miss the wider statement director Kinji Fukasaku has aimed at governments the world over.

When we left our battling yakuza families at the end of episode 4, the public had finally had enough of the violence that had poured into their streets. Along with the desire to look good to the rest of the world during the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, the police and justice system finally respond to that public pressure and start to clamp down. Those yakuza who managed to avoid jail, begin to re-invent themselves for a new society in the form of political entities. In this talkiest entry of the series, we focus on the Tensei Coalition - the new political group headed by Akira Takeda, former yakuza and rival of Hirono. But as we see the group marching respectably in an anniversary march in remembrance of the atomic bomb, the audience is told up front that despite their new status, the coalition will be responsible for more bloodshed. From a small tussle in a bar between Tensei men and young supporters of the still jailed Hirono, we see grudges and promises of vengeance build. These problems stem mostly from the old guard - Tensei's Otomo (played to over-the-top perfection by Jo Shishido) and Hirono's sworn brother Ichioka both have a tendency to bluster on about the yakuza code and demand vengeance. They have no thoughts about how a violent payback now might affect others down the road as well as continue the cycle of brutal killings.

Takeda rules Tensei with an even temper though and turns control over to the younger strategic Matsumura. Even when the financial advisor for Tensei is murdered (as part of Ichioka's retaliation), the young leader manages to calm the group and withstand Otomo's attempts to go back to the old ways. Matsumura actually plans his next moves and anticipates what the reactive Otomo and his people will do. He is smart, cautious and tries to do right for the coalition. So of course he gets slandered and rumours begin behind his back. The old guard are being replaced slowly, but will it really make a difference? Will change truly come or is it just a changing of the guard?

As always with Fukasaku's style, he brings great energy to the street fights and action scenes. It's chaotic and messy, but it gives you a great feel for the completely unplanned and pointless nature of most of the violence. Fukasaku also attempts to bring some fun to the proceedings - whether it's through the re-appearance of the incredibly slimy Yamamori (complete with his effeminate pursed lips and dirty old man persona), the low guttural responses of Shishido's Otomo or the continued ineptitude of the young assassins (says one of the survivors of an attack - "it's really hard to hit things with bullets").

After the 5 films from this series, there were 3 further films made under the title "New Battles Without Honour And Humanity" and a final wrap up called "Aftermath of Battles Without Honour And Humanity". Apparently Koichi Iiboshi had a LOT of anecdotes...

The entire "Yakuza Papers" series uses these stories of gang violence to not only lead us through 25 years of change within Japan, but also to highlight the insanity of war in general and the power plays of governments all over the world. As the film concludes with narration asking "Will the bitter battles that arise from the strong preying upon the weak ever be banished from this earth?", the camera pulls out to once again show the same image that 4 of the 5 films of the series ended on - the bombed out carcass of one of the buildings left standing in Hiroshima.

Fukasaku may not be overly hopeful regarding the answer to this question, but he sure doesn't mind asking it.


Lights in the Dusk said...

I just wanted to leave a quick comment to compliment such a great post.

I really enjoyed reading your thoughts and insights into these films. It's obvious that a lot of work went into it.

Bob Turnbull said...

Thanks very much for the kind words Linden!

I think I got a bit repetitive in this post since I was reusing the reviews I had written for the individual films, but I wanted to get something together for the entire main series (I've yet to see any of the follow-on films). It was fun though - you certainly can't say that Fukasaku is a static filmmaker...

Brad said...

That was really helpful, actually. I've only ever watched the first film and, as your write-up notes, I found it fairly hard to follow, and though I enjoyed it I lost interest in tracking down the rest of the series. Now (unfortunately?), I might have to track them all down!

Anonymous said...

Great post! Makes me want to go back and watch them all again.

Bob Turnbull said...

Ash, I had the same reaction first time I saw Volume 1. Had plans to see the rest, but didn't really do much about it. Then I came across the whole box on sale and took the plunge. I re-watched the first film and things started to fall into place...

adgy, go ahead - what's 8 hours? B-)

Vulnavia Morbius said...

The thing that amazes me about these movies--especially the second one--is the way Fukasaku's hand-held camera seems to be out of control during chaotic scenes, but never the less ALWAYS seems to be in the right place for the beats of the action. There's an art to this.

I don't know if you watched the interview material with Linda Hoaglund, but she asked Fukasaku point blank if he was smuggling Godardian cinema into these movies under the noses of the studio. His answer was "Of course!"

Vulnavia Morbius said...

Oh, and I also love that scene where you have the finger lopped off as the traditional sacrifice for screwing up, only to have the finger eaten by a chicken. THAT'S what Fukasaku thinks of yakuzas. Not very much at all.

I love these movies.

Bob Turnbull said...

Hi Dr....Yeah, I love that finger/chicken scene.

No, I haven't had a chance to plow through the extras yet (started watching the one interview with Friedkin and that's about it). It's high time I delved into it - especially if there's choice comments like that Godardian one.

Helen said...

I've watched the first two films so far and loved them. I'm anxious to see the others, yet in no hurry. I took some needed time to recover before I watched the second entry and plan to do the same going forward. It's appropriate to the content that the series is referred to by the title of the first film: yakuza conflicts are "Battles Without Honor and Humanity" indeed.

My only hesitation in recommending this series (to people I know who are open to foreign films, but not Japanophiles) has been that it's not what I would think of as a good first exposure to the subject. Fukasaku legitimately takes a good deal of cultural knowledge for granted. Yakuza Papers 1 can be overwhelming even with a decent grounding in yakuza culture.

Bob Turnbull said...

Hi Helen...Thanks for the comment. Yes, I absolutely agree that I wouldn't recommend the series of films easily. That's one of the reasons why I feel that the comparison to The Godfather films is unjust - it sets the wrong expectations. The series is very tied to Japan's history and culture.

Not to mention how much they throw at you in the first one. Man, you gotta pay attention! B-)

Jack L said...

Excellent post!
I only read your thoughts on the first three films as I want to watch the last two knowing as little as possible.
I fully agree with your thoughts.
Fukusaku really did a great job directing these. I personally love the massive story ark even though it seems to put many people off. Sometimes I thought the violence got a bit repetitive, but then I realised that it probably was in real life as well, so I can't fault the films there.

Great reviews, I like the screenshots you used!

Bob Turnbull said...

Jack, my sincere apologies - this comment was held in my "waiting moderation" queue for over a year...I just noticed it now as I've been following up on some very overdue comments. I really appreciate your kind words.

Fukasaku really does cover quite the sotry arc here, doesn't he? A full 20 years in these 5 films (not sure where those follow on films go). The fight scenes and violence do indeed get a bit repetitive - but tey end up being effective because of that in the larger story. There's so much else to be entertained by though...B-)

Did you end up seeing the last 2 films?

Jack L said...

Well, better late than never I suppose!

I saw the last 2 films quite a while ago, I remember thinking they were some of the best, especially the last.
Very entertaining stuff, with a really massive scope. I definitely enjoyed this series a lot. I have yet to check out the follow up though.