For many, the mention of Eastern crime cinema usually conjures up one of two images: the iconic Takeshi Kitano, hobbling around, shooting folk and looking sad, or the kinetic Chow Yun Fat, flying through the air with guns akimbo and a toothpick in his jaw, for it’s the films starring these men that are often the go-to standard for Asian crime drama, and both of them have earned well deserved places in cinema history.
For anyone digging a little deeper, however, the 60’s/70’s also contained a myriad of stylistic, violent and surprisingly new-wave movies that depicted the deadly-but-honourable custom of Japan’s organised crime scene, often featuring emotionally-torn hitmen, wild, chair swinging brawls, and bloody deaths in ugly alleyways.
Kinji Fukusaku, probably best known as the director of cult classic Battle Royale, cut his teeth in the industry with a whole slew of Japanese gangster movies, many of which were fictional accounts of the infamously brutal power struggles in post-war Japan. This run of films would lead to one of his defining moments as a film-maker: five movies, made within a two year period, that comprise the Battles Without Honor and Humanity series (aka The Yakuza Papers) which are now compiled into a feature packed Blu-Ray/DVD boxset from the guys n’ gals at Arrow Video.
The pentalogy of movies that make up the series tell the story of multiple crime families within Japan, rising from the devastation of the Hiroshima bombings and becoming embroiled in bitter and brutal blood feuds, whilst the country’s economy attempts to recover from the humanitarian crisis. The link is rising mobster Shozo Hirono (Bunta Sugawara) who is the audience point-man for the main body of the series’ narrative.
Shot documentary-style, the film tears down previous portrayals of Japanese criminals with a nihilistic approach to its (huge) casts motivations. Never before had the line between “good” and “bad” been so blurred, with redemption rarely coming for the series antagonists and the idea that the “good guys win” being rubbed firmly into the dirt.
The Battles Without.. movies are gritty and intensely dramatic films about men and their sense of loyalty, or lack thereof, punctuated with scenes of shocking violence, presented unashamedly and without catharsis.
The series did away with the concept of the noble, samurai-style mobster, and replaced him with a cut-throat scumbag. It was this “torn-from-the-headlines” portrayal of Japanese crime, shot with unflinching cruelty, that made the series stand out from the gangster films that had come before, very similar to how Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch completely throttled the concept of the American Western.
Arrow Video have released this epic collection of films in a dual-format boxset containing a whopping 13 discs, with each film in the series present and correct. The visual quality is admittedly a little murky, but I can only imagine that this is the best possible transfer you could expect, and is more than acceptable. Housed in the set is a wealth of interviews, trailers, galleries and commentaries. Also included is a hardback book on the series history, and an interesting alternate cut which attempts to condense all five films into one 224 minute movie. Arrow take great pride in finding both new and vintage extras for their releases, and once again have come up with a very generous package that is deserving of space on the shelf of any fan of Japanese cinema.
With the Battles Without Honor and Humanity series, we have a window into a particular time, both in Japanese cultural history and its legendary cinema history. Unashamedly honest and bravely made, it is a series about a world so far removed from our own, full of death, betrayal and a strange sense of loyalty that, like The Godfather series debuting at the same time, is immensely sinister, terrifyingly violent and, somehow, oddly addictive.
Films: 4 / 5 Boxset: 4 / 5
Battles Without Honor and Humanity (1973)
Deadly Fight in Hiroshima (1973)
Proxy War (1973)
Police Tactics (1974)
Final Episode (1974)
Complete Saga cut (1980)
Dir: Kinji Fukusaku
Prd: Goro Kusakabe
Starring: Bunta Sugawara, Nobuo Kaneko, Meiko Kaji, Sonny Chiba, Kinya Kitaoji
Music: Toshiaki Tsushima
DOP: Sadaji Yoshida
Runtime: 100 minutes (each)
Battles Without Honor and Humanity BluRay/DVD boxset is available now from Arrow Video