Monday, May 23, 2011


The typical yakuza story deals with someone just out of prison. He went up the river for his boss and his clan but usually finds things changed for the worse once he's free again. Disillusionment is the order of the day, and the protagonist's dilemma is whether to continue living up to the old code or to change with the times and survive. He usually ends up changing because the old code is meaningless without someone worthy of your loyalty -- or else he upholds the code through a redemptive slaughter of his gang's or his own enemies.

Bunta Sugawara seems like the ideal actor for this sort of role, just as Kinji Fukasaku is the ideal director. I often equate the 1970s yakuza films of Japan's Toei studio with the work of Warner Bros. in the 1930s and 1940s, and in that context Sugawara is Toei's Humphrey Bogart (their Cagney being Sonny Chiba) for the brooding, world-weary quality he brings to so many films while remaining capable of fearsome violence. Sugawara was the star of Fukasaku's five-film Battles Without Honor and Humanity series (1973-4), packaged in the U.S. for the DVD market as The Yakuza Papers. Fukasaku plowed straight ahead with more yakuza films, including the classics released here as Cops vs. Thugs and Yakuza Graveyard. But Toei wanted literal sequels to the Battles epic, and Fukasaku obliged with a "New" series of three films in which many of the original cast took on new roles in the same general time period. For some reason, despite the obvious exploitation angle, the "New" trilogy is less widely known in the U.S. A small company called Kurotokagi Gumi has released the first two films, along with many other Toei items, with decent English subtitles, while the larger companies who've released other Fukasakus steered clear. I presume that's because the "New" films are considered inferior work, but the first New Battles film finds Fukasaku and Sugawara near their top form.

You can always depend on Fukasaku for a unique angle on yakuza action

Sugawara plays Makio Miyoshi, who we first see carrying out a bungled hit while disguised as a crippled war veteran. Right away, we're immersed in the familiar maelstrom of Fukasaku's yakuza films as the director films violent action with a handheld camera that seems to be buffeted by the mayhem like a leaf in a storm. He consistently creates the illusion of cinema verite, and the key to that is that he stages chaotic action. His street battles may be elaborately planned, but they lack any glamorizing choreography. Things never seem to happen quite as planned, leaving attackers, victims and bystanders alike confused and panicked. Fukasaku quite deliberately takes the opposite approach from the lethal elegance of the samurai film, but the effect is just as much the product of master craftsmanship as the most stylized sword duels.

Makio belongs to the Yamamori crime family, and his boss is a coward and a crybaby. It occurred to me while watching this how often that seems to be the case in crime films around the world. From the original Scarface forward rising young thugs are up against weak, cowardly or complacent kingpins who leave you wondering how men like that ever rose to the top. From the beginning here, Makio is shown being loyal to unworthy people, and Sugawara plays him just dumb enough not to know better. Needless to say, a hungry challenger arises within the clan while Makio sits in stir. This is Aoki (Tomasaburo Wakiyama), against whom Boss Yamamori hopes to use Makio as a weapon when our hapless hero gets free. Even before he's out, the boss and his wife are offering him money and other favors if he'll take care of Aoki for them. In turn, Aoki will seek his support in his own bid for power. But the story of the film is Makio's reluctance to take sides, his forlorn hope that the clan won't fall apart and impose a choice on him. Why can't everyone just get along the way they used to? Inexorably, a choice is forced upon him; as long as each side sees him as a pawn in play, there are only more reasons to try and take him off the board. Ultimately, Makio has to choose to save himself, whether that means taking a side or playing the sides against each other while he gets out of the way.

Sugawara and Wakiyama give strong performances here, but what impressed me most about New Battles 1 is the attention Fukasaku pays to the sociability of yakuza life, the lifestyle Makio enjoys and the feud within the clan endangers. Our hero drifts from dinner with the boss to nights on the town with Aoki, skating on the thin ice of camaraderie with violence just below the surface. Festivity can turn into frightening conflict at any moment, and subside just as suddenly. To make that point, Fukasaku focuses on the fringe details, letting an actress steal a scene from the stars. A suddenly enraged Aoki has just flung a drink at Makio, and for the rest of the scene, while the two men affect reconciliation, Aoki's shaken girlfriend tries to wipe up the mess he's made, barely restraining sobs in the process. She expresses openly the anxiety the men also feel. You see their fear in a tense scene after Makio escapes from a hit Aoki had set up on him. Vowing to kill Aoki himself, he pays a call and finds his antagonist on a futon sweating under a blanket, a humidifier and several bodyguards nearby. They subtly maneuver props around their boss as an abruptly less bold Makio proposes that Aoki pay him to leave town. Aoki orders a man to give Makio a wad of cash, then agrees to add to it. When Makio leaves, Aoki pulls a gun out from under the blanket with a sigh of relief.

Fukasaku doesn't stint on the gunplay and bloodshed this time -- Aoki's last stand is a broad-daylight deathmarch capped by a thunderous reprise of Toshiaki Tsushima's famous Battles fanfare -- but New Battles 1 is in a lower key than its five predecessors overall, more memorable for its subtler details that for its obligatory battles. Fukasaku is quoted on the box cover saying that he meant to take a "deeper look" at his gangsters in the new series. While this opener isn't necessarily superior to the original Battles, I think that he succeeded in his purpose nevertheless.


Jack L said...

Excellent review,

I recently saw all five films of the original series, I enjoyed them a lot but assumed the New Battles were just an attempt to cash in on their success, but now after reading this review, I might watch them...

Samuel Wilson said...

Jack, with the talent involved it might have been impossible for Fukasaku to merely cash in. Even when he's directing Chiba in a manga adaptation like Doberman Cop he still manages to infuse the proceedings with real character and feeling. During the 70s, at least, Fukasaku rarely went wrong from what I've seen.

Jack L said...

Yeah, your right, definitely a very talented director that really livens up anything he works on...
I really need to see more of his work though.
I've been recommended Day Of Resurrection aka Virus, is that one worth checking out?

Samuel Wilson said...

Haven't seen Virus yet, but I read a Video Watchdog write-up that mentions three different versions of the movie floating around. Public-domain editions are probably to be avoided.

Murderous Ink said...

Even Japanese have preconception that the "New" series is lesser in quality compared to the original series. But, as you vividly describe here, Fukasaku-Sugawara works are great to watch, sometimes fascinatingly experimental, and at least enjoyable.
I will dig into your archive hopefully to find more treasures!


venoms5 said...

I've watched the first BATTLES and thought it was definitely a well made movie, although I was thoroughly overwhelmed by the sheer number of characters on hand. Not seen or heard of this set of sequels, though.

Samuel Wilson said...

Murderous: That was my understanding about the "New" series as well, but comparing them to the original five is setting a very high standard. It's been a while since I saw them but my favorite of the first series is probably the second episode for pitting Bunta vs. Chiba. New Battles 1 isn't quite on that level or the level of Cops vs. Thugs or Sympathy for the Underdog, but I still liked it a lot.

venom5: The chart that came with the Yakuza Papers box set was helpful for keeping track of the characters, but only to a point. At least in each film there's usually one character whose arc keeps the story comprhensible and memorable. There are three films (I think) in the New Battles series; I have the second, and the third is available from the same distributor.