Battles without Honor and Humanity

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Never mind Battles without Honor and Humanity, how about battles that make some sense? There’s lots to love in Kinji Fukasaku’s 1973 gangster movie – the first of a five-part series of “Battles” movies he’d make in two years (amazingly) – but coherence isn’t high on the list.

It’s often called the Japanese Godfather, and there’s plenty of that in there. But there’s also Goodfellas, since it’s the story of a guy, Hirono, an ex-soldier who (actually) never always wanted to be a gangster. But once this smalltime criminal has landed in trouble with the law he finds himself sharing a prison cell with a yakuza guy. Once invited to join, he is soon doing pretty nicely on the outside as he works his way up the greasy poll of the Yamamori outfit. Impassive, subordinate and brutal, Hirono is a natural.

The real comparison is with Mean Streets. This isn’t glorious, glamorous old school film-making, with the cranes, tracks and gliding shots of a movie with money and time to burn. It’s a raw, ragged, low-budget affair, a film about mooks on the make, and Fukasaku shoots nearly every bit of it handheld and in medium close-up – establishing shots are rare – throwing us right into the action as gangster fights gangster for supremacy and crime bosses are undermined by their own side as allegiances switch back and forth.

Revenge is served hot and cold, and there’s lots of gushing blood, with a regular use of the freeze frame and the distinctive musical stab to – spaghetti western style – add a dramatic flourish.

Hirono is questioned by other gangsters
Hirono talks his way out of trouble

Fukasaku is best known for Battle Royale – more blood and mayhem – a film that came at the end of his career. But he made his name with a string of old-school period gangster movies in the 1960s before taking a sharp left turn with this film. Into chaos. He tellingly opens the film in Hiroshima, where civilisation has all but collapsed in the wake of nuclear devastation, shifts quickly to a rape scene (more chaos), then one of a man having both arms cut off at the shoulder. Order, of sorts, only gradually starts to assert itself once various self-interested individuals start to agglomerate into the yakuza gangs who’ll dominate the landscape for decades.

Into all this scene-setting drops the very cool Hirono – a stonefaced and perfectly cast Bunta Sugawara – the Ray Liotta of this particular story, through whose eyes we move through time and up through the yakuza hierarchy as gang fights gang for supremacy.

It’s less glamorous even than Scorsese’s Mean Streets and paints a bleak view of the world. Nor are there those Scorsese moments featuring girlfriends, wives and mothers. There are communal meals but these are not taken in cosy restaurant booths. For the most part this film consists of men in rooms scowling and shouting at each other, or men out on the streets attempting to kill each other. At one point a gang boss warms himself in front of a two-bar electric fire. How’s that for glamour?

Soak up the ambience, because that’s what Fukasaku is offering with his frantic camera, his bewildering number of gang bosses with almost interchangeable henchmen, and various gangster meeting points all decorated in so many varations on brown and beige. The Hiroshima setting means there’s a thematic message to take home about civilisations – difficult to build, easy to destroy – but Fukasaku doesn’t hammer away at it. His camera does that for him.

So, yes, the first of five and though I’ve not seen the others, this does feel like the opening chapters of a proper saga. Holding all five films together is Sugawara, a flinty presence of the sort Clint Eastwood would understand. Around his still centre time (20 years) and characters (more than 100 over the five films) ebb and flow, as if in time-lapse. For all the reckless pace of this first movie of the sequence there is also a weight and pace of something that knows it’s in it for the long haul.

Battles without Honour and Humanity – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

Battles without Honour and Humanity: The Complete Collection – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2023

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