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Passport Cinema: Battles Without Honor & Humanity

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It's interesting how depicting the gangster lifestyle has evolved since the early days of cinema. Once upon a time, such figures came with a dash of glamorization, leading the sort of whirlwind lives anyone would give their right arms to have. But around the 1970s, filmmakers began to explore the tragic side of crime, with Japanese director Kinji Fukasaku helping lead the charge with his Yakuza drama Battles Without Honor & Humanity. There's nothing romantic about the way Fukasaku treats his subjects, telling a very frantic story in which characters scramble for some semblance of dignity in a world where there's none to be found.

Battles begins on the mean streets of Hiroshima, a year after Japan surrendered to Allied forces in World War II. Chaos reigns supreme, as ordinary individuals struggle to live in a land without rules. It's out of this environment that Shozo Hirono (Bunta Sugawara) emerges, a man driven just to make it to the next day alive. After a brawl lands him in prison, Shozo makes friends with a jailed gangster (Tatsuo Umemiya) who promises to help him out in exchange for orchestrating an early release. Shozo does just that, and so begins his rise through the Yakuza ranks, reaping the carnal and monetary rewards of working in the service of a prosperous boss (Nobuo Kaneko). But Shozo comes to learn firsthand that the life of a gangster is far from safe, finding his life threatened thanks to some stiff competition, uneasy alliances, and a whole slew of people determined to maintain an illusion of honor, no matter what the cost.

Watching Battles, the first thing you'll notice is its extremely frenetic style. This isn't a Scorsese sort of affair, in which viewers are treated to a patiently-plotted feast of elaborate visuals. Instead, Fukasaku tosses us right into the madness as soon as the opening credits roll, the first ten minutes comprising an attempted rape, brutal beatings, and no less than two sliced-off arms. Our host never allows you to get too comfy with the surroundings, which would normally irritate the bejeesus out of me but feels right at home here. Battles takes place in a volatile landscape in which pretty much anything goes. A guy who's your sworn brother can suddenly turn and blast you away on the spot. Vicious fights can break out at the drop of a hat. A clan that rules the roost one day can easily be replaced the next. Through dizzying cinematography, multiple characters, and jarring outbursts of violence, Fukasaku teaches viewers an effective lesson on how the life of a Yakuza is not something to become attached to.

Sure, there are moments when Battles shows this brand of storytelling to be a little imperfect. Aside from Shozo, there are maybe one or two more characters you'll slightly get to know. The majority of the cast meets the business end of either a gun or a katana, providing a scant few compelling figures. This especially hurts during the scenes when Shozo is in the big house, as we're stuck watching someone we hardly know ordered to kill some other guy for God knows what reason. But while this becomes a little irksome, it never harms Battles too much as a whole, since Fukasaku manages to drive his checklist of points home regardless. In any case, Sugawara's solid performance keeps you anchored to the main overarching story. Not only is the action and drama enough to absorb you for this particular feature, it does a great job of whetting your appetite for those films to follow (a series known stateside as The Yakuza Papers).

Just as Akira Kurosawa revolutionized the samurai film, so Fukasaku beefed up the Yakuza genre with Battles Without Honor & Humanity. It may not have the slick style of a Scarface or a Goodfellas, but its ferocity and realism are of a special breed, one very few features have even come close to matching.

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About A.J. Hakari