Kinji Fukasaku’s 1973 Battles Without Honor and Humanity (original title:仁義なき戦, anglicized as Jingi naki tatakai) popularized the yakuza film genre in Japan. Yakuza, a Japanese criminal organization or a member of such an organization (and typically equated -- at least in the U.S. -- with the mafia), were an alternative to the samurai who dominated Japanese cinema screens. However, some of the early yakuza films displayed similar characteristics as the samurai. These films, known as ninkyo eiga (“chivalry films”), told stories of men who were yakuza but were also men of honor. The films took place before the war, with the men still brandishing swords.
Though Fukasaku had previously tackled the yakuza genre with 1971’s Sympathy for the Underdog (Bakuto gaijin butai/aka Gamblers in Okinawa) and Street Mobster (Gendai yakuza: hitokiri yota) the following year, Battles Without Honor and Humanity was the biggest commercial and critical success and would change the face of the genre. The title alone is letting the audience know that the jingi (“honor”) upheld by the previous cinematic yakuza is a thing of the past. The world has changed, epitomized by its Hiroshima setting, in the aftermath of World War II (Fukasaku begins the movie with footage of an atomic bomb’s mushroom cloud). One of Fukasaku’s most notable points in restructuring the yakuza genre is the reason that Hirono is sent to prison: for shooting and killing a man armed with a sword, a man who seems to belong in a ninkyo film.
Battles Without Honor and Humanity, like many of Fukasaku’s yakuza films, is shot in the style of a documentary. There’s a steady impression of a camera trailing behind and around the characters, like a cameraman literally chasing the action. The movie is teeming with characters, and although the significant characters are presented with an inter-title and a freeze frame, there remains a feeling of a rushed introduction before continuing with the story. In Fukasaku’s world, violent outbursts are sudden and sharp, and they are only intensified within the context of an already rapidly paced movie. Like in real life, violence seems to come out of nowhere before quickly disappearing, everything changing in a single unexpected moment. There are even instances of humor among the violence, such as the dark but amusing sequence when Hirono is preparing for yubitsume (amputating a little finger by way of an apology for an offense), and, in a room full of tough yakuza, it is the seemingly meek and modest wife of a yakuza who explains how best to slice through the finger. Fukasaku’s filmmaking is aggressive and kinetic, and it is sometimes exhausting to watch.
Battles Without Honor and Humanity was immensely popular and initiated a series of films, beginning with the first sequel, Hiroshima Deathmatch, in 1973, and followed by Proxy War that same year and Police Tactics and Final Episode in 1974 (each was a subtitle to Battles Without Honor and Humanity). Fukasaku directed and Sugawara starred in all five films. Fukasaku also helmed a three-movie series titled New Battles Without Honor and Humanity (1974-76), with Sugawara appearing in each film. (The Battles Without Honor and Humanity five-part series was released on U.S. DVD in 2004 as The Yakuza Papers.)
Actor Bunta Sugawara, although unfortunately typecast in yakuza roles, displays unprecedented charisma. He’s an engaging actor, turning the simple act of lighting a cigarette into a stylized maneuver. In addition to Fukasaku’s jingi movies, Sugawara also starred in the director’s Street Mobster and 1975’s Cops vs. Thugs (Kenkai tai soshiki boryoku) -- actually playing a cop in the latter film, though he was no more ethical than the yakuza. More recently, he provided the voice for Kamajii (the spider-esque old man) in Hayao Miyazaki’s outstanding and hugely successful 2001 anime, Spirited Away (but not, of course, for the English dub) and made an appearance in Takashi Miike’s winsome, family-friendly The Great Yokai War (2005).
Kinji Fukasaku stayed mostly in the yakuza film genre, but as the genre became less popular, he did direct samurai films and movies of other genres. Though most fans consider Battles Without Honor and Humanity his masterpiece, the director nearly eclipsed himself with Battle Royale in 2000. The story of young students forced to play a game in which they must kill one another (the last surviving player sent home a “winner”), the film was a rousing triumph, both in its native land and overseas. Production for a sequel was barely underway when Kinji Fukasaku succumbed to cancer in January 2003. The movie, Battle Royale II: Requiem, was completed and released that year, directed by Fukasaku’s son, Kenta Fukasaku, who has since become a filmmaker in his own right.
Battles Without Honor and Humanity is frenetic filmmaking at its best. But there is order to Fukasaku’s chaos. Underneath the layers of fists, blood and gunfire are magnetic characters, enveloped in a world presented to viewers at breakneck speed. Such is the cinema of Kinji Fukasaku. Sit down, take a breath, and enjoy the ride.