Monday, December 29, 2008


During the 1970s, Japan's Toei studio made a body of films that stands comparison with the Warner Bros. gangster cycle of the 1930s. I say this with some confidence, since I've only seen a few Toei films, ranging from Sonny Chiba's Street Fighter movies to the studio's magnum opus, Kinji Fukasaku's five-part "Battles Without Honor or Humanity" series of 1973-4 (available on DVD as Yakuza Papers). The Toei films I've seen are gritty, violent and vibrant. Sonny Chiba would be an equivalent to James Cagney in his charismatic ferocity, while Bunta Sugawara is more Bogart-like in Fukasaku's hardboiled, de-romanticized yakuza stories.

I don't know if Cops vs. Thugs is a very literal translation of "Kenkei tai soshiki boryoku." My Japanese only goes so far as to tell me that the original title means something vs. something. I'd like to think that the original title isn't as generic-sounding or misleading as the American label. "Cops vs. Thugs" might give a wrong first impression of a movie that's far from a conventional cops-vs.-criminals story, since it could as easily be called "Cops vs. Cops" or "Thugs vs. Thugs." Fukasaku, still going strong in the aftermath of "Battles," has given us another portrait of society in a state of moral chaos.

Like the "Battles" films and many other yakuza movies, this one is set in a specific place and time and purportedly based on real events. The setting is the city of Kageshima during the early 1960s. With the head yakuza boss in jail, two factions are jockeying for position. Hirotani is the heir apparent to the old boss, while Kawade has the support of a local politician and ties to Osaka drug dealers. The local police, most prominently Detective Kuno (Sugawara) have a cozy relationship with Hirotani. They dislike Kawade because his group is bringing more drugs into the city, but they save their real hatred for Communists. The cops also express a more personal affinity with the yakuza in general. As one cop says in a thematically crucial party scene, "Yakuza and cops are just the same ... We [are both] the dropouts of society." Like gangsters, the film suggests, cops are the kind of people who can't or don't want to hack it in the private sector.

Detective Kuno (Bunta Sugawara) and yakuza pals in COPS vs. THUGS
(screen captures from the French site

Kuno is a pretty complex character. He has no illusions about his own motives for being a cop. He tells his friends he does it so he can carry a gun, but he elaborates with memories of his childhood, when everyone in postwar Japan subsisted on black market rice, unless the cops confiscated it. He wants to be the one who takes instead of one who gets taken from. On one level, he doesn't think anyone is clean. As he tells the straight-arrow prefecture cop who pressures him later in the film, everyone was complicit in crime (smuggling, black market) after the war, so who's in a position to pass judgment on the yakuza? On the other hand, Kuno has an ambitious plan to be the arbiter of the Kageshima yakuza's future. Like his colleagues, he dislikes the Kawade gang, but he goes overboard in idealizing the rival leader, Ken Hirotani. In a flashback, we learn that this dates back to six years ago, when Ken had killed an important man and turned himself in at Kuno's house. Kuno gave him some dinner, then had a strange epiphany while preparing to call headquarters as he watched Ken wash his rice bowl. He became convinced that Ken was an honorable man, and that the city would be better off with him leading the yakuza.

Kuno makes the call to not make the call in COPS vs. THUGS.

"I'll never give up on you," he exhorts Ken in real time, "Succeed Ohara and become a boss." So he helps sabotage a land grab by Kawade so Hirotani can get the land that everyone expects to sell to an oil company and tries to protect Ken from the relentless prefecture cop Kaida, who accepts no fraternization with the yakuza. Meanwhile, it becomes apparent that Kuno's personal life is a wreck. He gets drunk and lives in manga-strewn squalor with a woman provided by Ken, and one fine day his wife shows up at HQ to serve divorce papers on him. Who knew he was married? But he doesn't want a divorce, so she denounces him in front of his buddies -- "He's practically a yakuza puppet! You should lock him up!" -- until he slaps her.

Basically, Kuno's life is crumbling as his long-range vision falls apart. Boss Ohara is released from prison but soon falls under the influence of Kawade and his politician pals. Kaida's crusade drives Yoshiura, one of Kuno's pals, from the force and into Kawade's influence. Finally, Ohara anoints Kawade as his heir in the middle of a vicious gang war marked by outbursts of patented Fukasaku violence. The director had a knack for filming brawls that look like spontaneous mayhem, yet are always framed for maximum dramatic impact or shock effect. He wasn't above going to extremes, either. The climax of one street fight is a decapitation and a severed head bouncing down the stairs of a subway station. Things are falling apart for Hirotani, too, but he's unwilling to take Kuno's advice to let him resolve things. "Who must we kill to settle this?" he demands. When Kuno urges restraint, Ken's men accuse him of disloyalty to his "master," and that seems to mark the end of the friendship. But when a new wave of killings and kidnappings leave Hirotani under an intense police siege, Kuno may be the only one who can resolve the situation peacefully....

I invite the obligatory suspense, but anyone familiar with the genre can guess the outcome. Fukasaku's yakuza films from the 1970s stand out for their grimness, and of his films that I've seen to date, this one stands out in turn. Cops vs. Thugs would be a good introductory film for people interested in Fukasaku who might be daunted by the immensity of the "Battles" series. It covers a fairly limited time period compared to the 20-year span of the five-film series, and has a dominant central character with a personal storyline you can focus on. It's an excellent introduction to Bunta Sugawara, who has become one of my favorite actors thanks to these movies. He has a world-weariness about him that reminds me as much of Robert Mitchum as of Bogart, but his wiry intensity invites comparisons with Cagney or with Kirk Douglas in his more self-destructive roles. Kuno is a kind of tragic hero, trying to construct a new idealism out of his cynical experiences with disastrously predictable results at the end.

Overall, Fukasaku's pessimistic viewpoint fits well with the 1970s sensibility I usually associate with American cinema. For people with the patience to read the subtitles and keep up with the different factions in any given story, I readily recommend any of his yakuza films that I've seen, and there's plenty more available on DVD beside those. Fukasaku's career is a landmark in the wild world of cinema all the way to the scandalous triumph of Battle Royale in 2000, and any international movie fan ought to try him at least once.

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