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Battles Without Honor and Humanity: Meet the new boss

Kinji Fukasaku used the immediacy of newsreels and the memory of World War II to change the tenor of gangster cinema in Japan

Bunta Sugawara in 'Battles Without Honor and Humanity'
Bunta Sugawara in 'Battles Without Honor and Humanity'

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Shozo Hirono (Bunta Sugawara) is being reprimanded by his boss (Nobuo Kaneko), head of the Yamamori crime family in Hiroshima, for picking a fight with a distant cousin of a yakuza elder. The tough-as-nails Hirono offers to perform yubitsume—to cut off his little finger as penitence. When the boss leaves the room, the scene turns comic. As one of the gangsters asks, “Are you really going to do it?”, another glances, with perfect timing, at his own hand, as if contemplating whether he would be able to. No one knows how the ceremony is done until the boss’ wife offers instruction. The cutting is grisly but then there’s another layer of farce as the finger goes missing, eventually being retrieved from a hen coop.

Even the elder in whose name the sacrifice is made is surprised when Yamamori takes him the severed finger. “You didn’t have to go this far,” he says. “It was just a quarrel between hot-blooded youth.” This passage from Battles Without Honor And Humanity (1973) flies in the face of a decade or more of Japanese gangster films that emphasised the importance of rituals like yubitsume. By treating a genre mainstay like a joke and a meaningless gesture, director Kinji Fukasaku is bluntly saying that the old rules no longer apply. Tradition is only useful as far as it helps the powerful retain power. Cutting off one’s finger has as much meaning as the pledges of honour and chivalry that once meant so much to yakuza.

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In the 1960s, the Japanese studio Toei churned out ninkyo eiga, or “chivalry films”. The yakuza in these films were updates on samurai, bound by codes of honour. Nikkatsu, meanwhile, dealt in a highly entertaining style called “borderless action”, which borrowed from America and Europe to make stylistically arresting gangster films. Fukasaku had been making features since 1961, including several for Toei. “The first film of mine that I felt really successfully blended the documentary feel with the fictitious drama was Street Mobster,” he said in an interview of a 1972 film starring Sugawara. This new style would explode in Battles and its four sequels, the ‘Yakuza Papers’ series that he made in a creative burst over 1973-74.

Battles Without Honor And Humanity was a challenge to both the Nikkatsu and Toei gangster styles. That this was no ninkyo eiga should have been clear from the title. Fukasaku’s gangsters are cowardly, self-serving, unreliable, scheming. Hirono still carries certains ideas of yakuza honour, but he's also a man out of time, repeatedly sacrificing himself for a craven boss who doesn’t care about him. Fukasaku also changed the way gangster films looked in Japan. Unlike the stylish Nikkatsu films, the action in Battles is brutal and chaotic, shot with hand-held camera, lending it the feel of documentary (the director was inspired by the newsreels of student protests at the time). The first image in the film is the mushroom cloud of an atomic bomb: both a newsreel still, and the destruction of an old world. The hard, desperate world that emerged after World War II is the one in which Fukasaku’s film is set (screenwriter Kazuo Kasahara adapted a series of articles by journalist Kōichi Iiboshi, which in turn were based on the memoirs of a real-life yakuza in Hiroshima).

The opening 10 minutes have some of the most kinetic, brutal film-making you can imagine. There’s an attempted rape, two dismemberments, a police raid, a chase, a shooting. Barely have you caught your breath than there’s a massive prison brawl, followed soon after by a gangster cutting open his stomach as a means of getting out of prison (the doctors aren’t equipped to patch him up). Occasionally, the action will pause on a freeze-frame of a character with his name and the position, present or future, he will occupy in the crime business (Quentin Tarantino, a big Fukasaku fan, used this device in Inglourious Basterds). When the camera isn’t whirling around, Fukasaku films his suited and hatted gangsters in crowded tableau. Someone’s always doing something in these scenes—I was reminded of the packed frames in Pa. Ranjith’s Sarpatta Parambarai (2021)—a clue to personality or plot or just a throwaway gesture.

Fifty years on, Battles has become part of the DNA of gangster film. It started the trend of jitsuroku eiga (actual record film) in Japan; such was its popularity that Fukasaku started a separate series, ‘New Battles Without Honor And Humanity’, with an unrelated storyline, in 1974. Fukasaku continued to influence Japanese directors—Takashi Miike made his own version of Fukasaku’s Graveyard Of Honor (1975). In 2009, the magazine Kinema Junpo placed Battles fifth on a list of top 10 Japanese films of all time. Fukasaku’s influence extended beyond his own shores: His swan song, Battle Royale, was a precursor to the Hunger Games films and his jitsuroku eiga have inspired others as The Battle Of Algiers (1966) once inspired him.

An Indian film that might owe something directly to the Yakuza Papers is Anurag Kashyap’s Gangs Of Wasseypur. Like Fukasaku’s series, this 2012 film tracks the development of independent India over several decades through the prism of gang wars. There’s a similarity to the way both films use a clipped, unemotional voice-over, as well as documentary footage that grounds the action in a specific time and place (though Kashyap’s film is a lot more stylistically extravagant than Fukasaku’s).

Towards the end of the film, Hirono is sent to kill a former colleague, Sakai, but is captured. Sakai tells him to go, though, saying: “I can’t kill you today. Some other day.” Soon after, Sakai is shot in a market. Hirono turns up at his funeral, to everyone’s surprise, and shoots the “tributes” laid out in his honour. It’s a parting bullet in the body of orthodoxy. And not to forget, there are four films to go, so much more tradition to be violently severed.

Battles Without Honor And Humanity can be viewed on Tubi.

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