Fukasaku’s 1973 yakuza movie is imbued with a sense of the absurd stupidity of violence and anger at the mythology of the criminal clans.
Kinji Fukasaku’s influential 1973 yakuza movie Battles without Honour or Humanity opens with a freeze frame of the mushroom cloud. We are in a post-war Japan one step on from Ground Zero. Life is a confused and violent shambles, a shanty town existence – anticipating the opening of Brian De Palma’s Scarface – where a feral criminality lurks, with roaming GIs boozing and raping and yakuza families fighting and jockeying for territory. Shozo Hirono (Bunta Sugawara) is a demobbed soldier who agrees to confront a drunk yakuza as a favour for the local gang. The confrontation turns to murder. It is a hesitant, unglamorous and amateurish killing, but the symbolism is obvious. The traditionally dressed yakuza with the samurai sword represents the floundering figure of the failed old ways, his weapon an outmoded throwback. It is clear that these old ways are not necessarily more honourable – the man is a drunken psychopath and we’ve already seen the samurai sword used to lop off limbs as part of an extortion racket – but Hirono and his friends represent a new reality of instability and opportunism, created by the mushroom cloud that opens the film. In jail, Hirono will make friends, a blood brother indeed, and his loyalty will be rewarded with an entrance into a yakuza family.
The rest of the film follows outsider Hirono – although becoming a blood brother with one family, his loyalty remains with that of his old pals and their boss for whom he went to jail – as he negotiates his way into a gangster’s life. This picaresque hero is an amiable thug, an obstinately thick-headed lump, who barely understands the shifting feuds, the complicated double-crossing and the intricate interweave of loyalty and disloyalty that run throughout the film. His simplicity contrasts with the avarice and power plays around him as the families battle for territory and drug money. There is no dignified old guard here. The boss of Hirono’s family is a transparently venal and petty man provoking a war with his parsimony.
Fukasaku imbues the film with a sense of the absurd stupidity of violence. Each murder is met with a journalistic freeze frame with date and time title (the film is based on a series of newspaper articles written by Kôichi Iiboshi that were themselves adapted from the memoirs of real-life yakuza Kôzô Minô) as well as being punctuated by a blaring scream of American jazz trumpet. When a yakuza decides to cut off his finger in the most iconic of yakuza moments, the scene is played out as a ludicrous comedy with the severed finger flying off into the garden and the assembled gangsters crawling around on their hands and knees to find the missing digit.
It is precisely the mythology of the yakuza at which Fukasaku’s fury is aimed; the rituals and the lore of the criminal clans are literally shot to pieces by the film. The immediacy of his anger can be felt in the documentary style he adopts. His freeze frames are particularly well chosen, they suggest a dynamism most motion pictures lack. Even the yakuza themselves occasionally tire of their activities, one of them complaining that every night he has doubts, but in the morning, when he’s surrounded by his men, he gets back to it. The film was immensely popular and would spawn four sequels known collectively as The Yakuza Papers. Another cycle of films, New Battles without Honour or Humanity and Aftermath of Battles without Honour and Humanity, would also be launched. However, the law of diminishing returns applies and Fukasaku’s thesis had already been forcefully expressed in the first film.