A World of Violence: the Yakuza films of Kinji Fukasaku

By Clarence Boyce

Director Kinji Fukasaku, well-known for Battle Royale, did for the Yakuza genre what Francis Ford Coppola did for the gangster genre. From 1972 to 1976, Fukasaku directed several Yakuza films that showed a postwar Japan in a state of non-stop violence and brutality. Long gone were the days of honor, these new times called for unrepentant killing and unabashed displays of cruelty. For some reason, the Fukasaku Yakuza films have taken a long time to reach the US and the UK. As of December 2015, Arrow Video has been releasing these classics on Blu-Ray and DVD. I caught on to them around last summer and hope that they’ll show up on Netflix or Hulu eventually. I believe these films more than deserve to be held up with the films of other great Japanese directors such as Akira Kurosawa, Masaki Kobayashi, and Yasujiro Ozu. The magnum opus of Fukasaku’s Yakuza period is undoubtedly The Battles Without Honor and Humanity series. The five-part series follows Shozo Hirono, played by Bunta Sugawara in a masterful role, as he tries to navigate the blood-soaked world of the Yakuza. The world that the characters of this epic inhabit is one of extreme and ever-present violence. Yet, this world doesn’t seem so alien from our own: sometimes violence is such a part of our reality that it barely can grab our attention. In that series, we see how a world this violent is birthed from resentment, anger, and fear. Each film presents our main characters as unabashedly bad people, but stuck in a world of malicious people they can seem almost good. Through the Honor and Humanity series, Fukasaku never preaches a message of nonviolence, but rather he shows that the reality these characters inhabit makes violence unavoidable. Either you kill or you are killed, and no matter which one you choose, violence will eventually fully consume you as it has done to everyone else.

These films were shot over a two-year period, yet the plot spans decades. The most astonishing aspect of these films is just how easily Fukasaku juggles a large rotating cast of characters, multiple POVs, jumps in the timeline, and brutal cringeworthy scenes of violence. Even though violence is almost a central character of its own in the films, it never comes off as excessive. Yes, a dude is cut up in a way that is reminiscent of a certain scene from Ichi The Killer (not a film for the faint of heart, by the way), but it seems perfectly normal in this insane world. The violence really reaches its peak by the third film, Proxy War; at this point in the series, Fukasaku shows violence infecting every institution in this world. His endgame was to show several examples of how violence is not inherently good or bad but rather a part of the human condition that no one can escape. This is exemplified through the character of Shozo Hirono (Bunta Sugawara), an ex-soldier that gets drawn into the Yakuza’s violent world due to a scuffle with a gang member.

The original series uses Sugawara’s character to show how desperation and difficult times lead people to commit atrocities. The beginning of the first film in the original series shows the delicate and tumultuous state of post-World War II Japan. Living in this period caused Sugawara to give into anger and land in prison. This aspect of the film is more than applicable to the real world: during many tough times violence and crime increases due to the thick sense of ennui that seems to permeate the air. Another character that exemplifies this is Shoji Yamanaka (Kinya Kitaoji), a short-tempered man with a penchant for cheating at card games and messing with women he shouldn’t. In the second film of the series, Hiroshima Death Match, Shoji gets so angered over a card game that he ends up stabbing several men. To him this response is more than appropriate: he can’t afford to be perceived as an easy target during this period. Acts of violence such as this are so common that he only serves two years in jail. One jailer even remarks that Shoji shouldn’t even be there. Fukasaku shows us that some eras are completely defined by violence and as such it becomes practically invisible. But, just as each character in the series adapts to survive this world, Fukasaku shows that violence itself rapidly evolves as well.

The fourth film, Police Tactics, is where Fukasaku shows how violence begins to evolve. The film shows the Yakuza at their most brutal: running a legitimate corporation and abusing all the power that it entails. The companies that these men run provide services ranging from entertainment like Pachinko parlors to the realm of politics with the formation of a political party. The best part about this addition to the plot of the series is how natural it feels: smart dudes run these crime families, and the best way to commit crime is to do it in a white collar setting where you’re essentially above the law. This bloodstained white-collar crime world moves the spotlight to more subtle elements of violence. Originally, it may seem that the Yakuza are going corporate to avoid killing—even they believe so at first. Yet, they simply use their new positions of power to commit a new form of violence. This form is not just physical, but it is financial and societal annihilation. In the final film of the series, Battles Without Honor and Humanity: Final Episode, we see the realm of politics infested with so many Yakuza that an average fundraising meeting can end in bloodshed. The brutality becomes almost comical, practically every politician in Japan was either Yakuza or was owned by them. Society can no longer call them thugs and brutes: they’re productive members that just happen to kill people to get things done. The violence they always carried with them had fully integrated into society. However, the end of the first series of Battles Without Honor and Humanity leaves one question: how would this full integration of violence shift the reality of this world?

Toei Studio had Fukasaku craft a sequel series called New Battles Without Honor and Humanity. This series is composed of three standalone parts that reuse several actors and expand on the themes of violence, love, hate, and revenge that the first series showcased. The first film shows how the addition of dope addicted gangsters led to botched hits, and complicated relationships with prostitutes led the Yakuza to make deeply comic errors. The second film, The Boss’s Head, gets a bit more serious as a bunch of upstarts plot to kill a Yakuza boss and replace him with one of their own. Last Days of The Boss, the final film, blends the tones of both previous entries quite well by showcasing a gang war filled with brutality and failures so bad you’ll wonder how these men got into the Yakuza in the first place. This film takes a standard tale of vengeance and morphs it into a journey of violence that leads to the destruction of almost every character (think Oldboy but set in the 70s). I found this series to be great, but it lacked the gut-punch of the original series. However, after a few re-watches I believe that this was the point Fukasaku was trying to push: violence in the second series is so present that it doesn’t fully capture your attention. Just like the people that inherit that world, the audience is no longer taken aback by the good old Yakuza brutality. The reality of this new series is one of rampant violence, so no matter how many times a character may get murdered, it’s just another day for the others. When Owada (Ko Nishimura), a long-standing Yakuza boss is killed in the second film, immediately the other characters begin to choose a successor. At his funeral there is no mourning, just planning and plotting. An interesting addition to the series was the use of dope, as drugs gives the violence a more beastly yet comical edge. The Yakuza are bored of violence, so they now seek their thrills in the realm of drugs. Fukasaku manages to inject a fairly decent amount of irony in this new paradigm as well. For instance, an older woman is more afraid of a kid using drugs than a bloody Yakuza member running down the street with a gun. The second series is short but sweet, using three separate tales to show the natural evolution of a world made of violence leading to a world where violence is just like breathing.

One of the most interesting aspects of the second series is how it’s firmly placed in the 70s, and how Fukasaku uses this era to give the prevalent violence a comedic edge. Fukasaku manages to use the 70s setting to maximum potency, showing how even the toughest of Yakuza still love to disco. Hell, to them going to the disco is more important than completing a hit. Through normalized violence, drug use, and disco, each film paints the 70s as a time of stagnation for the Yakuza. They employ new tricks and tactics to insure their survival, but they’re handled with the same brutish touch. The opening of the first film has a character botch an assassination so badly that you can’t help but laugh. People aren’t even surprised by the attempted assassination; one elderly lady just slowly moves out of the way when a gun is drawn, like she sees one all the time. Fukasaku starts the film this way to show how decades of violence has integrated into the fabric of everyday life. All the old shock tactics that the Yakuza formerly used are passé; they are literally seen every day.

In the second series, Fukasaku shows the struggle of a group of violent people that can no longer use violence as their main tool. Unlike in the first series where the Yakuza knew this and began to operate in boardrooms instead of Pachinko joints, the Yakuza groups of the second series refuse to change in the slightest. The shadow of the first series covers the second and though its attempts to inject parody and new elements such as dope are good, they fall short of reaching the heights of its predecessor. Yet, Fukasaku still gets his message across and manages to do so without telling a continuous story. Together, both series are Fukasaku’s treatise on violence as an everyday reality in a world not too different from our own. While Battles Without Honor and Humanity was a stark portrayal of violence infecting every aspect of reality, New Battles Without Honor and Humanity takes a different approach that shows it as just another aspect of life that goes unnoticed thus making it even more potent and terrifying. Fukasaku’s Yakuza world is one where violence flows through the veins of reality and can be found in every part of existence.

With both series, Fukasaku’s contributions to the Yakuza genre are groundbreaking. The final film, ends not with a triumphant anti-hero brooding over what he has done but rather with his bloody hands cuffed and a look of confusion on his face as if he’s wondering how, even with all his mistakes, he ended up losing everything. The series itself leaves the viewer with a sense of confusion as well, especially compared to the first’s decisive ending. The original series begins and ends in Hiroshima, a place that has seen the most brutal, violent act in the history of humanity. I believe Fukasaku chose this location for one specific reason: violence and cruelty are highly infectious diseases; once they enter an organism they’re next to impossible to cure.

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