by Victor Pryor
The New York Asian Film Festival is running in Manhattan from June 26 to July 11. For showtimes and more information, click here.
BATTLES WITHOUT HONOR AND HUMANITY (1973)
Battles Without Honor And Humanity is playing July 3 at the Walter Reade Theater. For showtimes and tickets click here.
After seeing his glorious mad dog performance in The Man Who Stole The Sun, I have become an instant fan of the legendary actor Bunta Sugawara. Happily, the people at Subway Cinema anticipated this sort of thing and programmed a double feature of two of Sugawara’s most iconic roles.
First is a title that will be very familiar indeed to Quentin Tarantino fans… though, to be fair, Quentin Tarantino fans probably know the source already. Be that as it may, Battles Without Honor And Humanity is THE iconic Yakuza film and a must-see for diehard fans of gangster cinema.
Taking place over the course of a decade-plus in Hiroshima, the film starts in 1946 and details the rise and fall of various gangs in the Japanese underworld, and the violence and cyclical insanity that consumes them all.
There are nearly a dozen characters representing multiple factions introduced in the first ten minutes, and it’s a struggle to keep up. But in a way, this is canny, as it eventually becomes that who is fighting with or against who couldn’t be less relevant in a world where all the battles lack those titular traits.
The order of the day is chaos. The Yakuzas are introduced protecting one of their women from a pair of rape-happy American soldiers, and seem almost set up as a force of order in chaotic post-war Japan.
But it isn’t more than another couple of minutes before they’ve turned on one another in a bid for supremacy, even as “supremacy” seems such a fleeting concept as to render the whole thing absurd.
Into this mess enters the one man who comes closest to being something like a hero, Shozo Hirono (Sugawara), the only person who whom loyalty and service mean anything besides a way to manipulate suckers.
The steadfast badass (how badass? In one scene he wears an ascot… AND HE PULLS IT OFF!!!) is a force for order, and it’s notable that the moment he gets sent to jail for a few years is the moment when everything REALLY goes out of control.
The movie, the first in a cycle of films, was based on a series of newspaper articles that were in turn rewritten from an incarcerated gangster’s manuscript. And this source lends a certain amount of verisimilitude to the events we see unfold. The movie is epic in scope, but human-sized in its affairs. This is not the mythology of modern gangster cinema, but a blistering report from the trenches.
You’ve probably seen a thousand rip-offs; now come and see how it’s supposed to be done…
COPS VS. THUGS
Cops Vs. Thugs is playing July 3 at the Walter Reade Theater in Manhattan. For showtimes and tickets click here.
Two years after Battles, Sugawara re-teamed with director Kinji Fukasaku (who himself deserves to be the subject of a fawning retrospective) to further explore the criminal underworld of postwar Japan. But this time, the cops (who were barely a presence in Battles), have been incorporated into the storytelling, which again is inspired by true events.
Of course, because this is postwar Japan, the cops are pretty much gangsters themselves.
Cops Vs. Thugs is about as basic and accurate a title as one can get, but really, what more needs to be said? There are cops, and there are thugs. Sometimes you can even tell the difference.
Making the distinction very unclear is Detective Kudo (Sugawara, naturally), a wildly corrupt member of the Kurashima District Violence Squad (Swoon, gentle reader. Swoon). He has a bit of a past with Hirotani, the gangster serving as temporary leader of the Ohara Gang while Ohara himself is in stir.
Hirotani, as wonderfully played by Hiroki Matsukata, is a slick, ambitious operator. Muscling in on a land deal involving an oil company, Hirotani is all set to make his crew very, very rich. But the appearance on the scene of Kaida, a new, incorruptible commanding officer, threatens the delicate nature of mob relations and gives rival Kawade the edge he may need to put everyone out of their miseries.
With a more streamlined story than the sprawling anarchy of Battles Without Honor And Humanity, it’s easier to concentrate on the excellent cast of characters. Kudo, shaking down a carful of baby-faced wannabe thugs, cuts an imposing figure with few scruples. He’s compromised, but he’s also able to wade through the muck in a way that, if it doesn’t exactly make for justice, certainly keeps things from being any worse.
And there’s a certain poignancy in his relationship with Hirotani, especially after things begin to spin out of control. They’re two people convinced that what they’ve got is a deep friendship, but which they will realize far too late is actually a marriage of convenience.
Granted, it’s not a perfect film. It’s very much of its time when it comes to the treatment of women, who are objects when they’re not victims, though generally they get to be both. And there is some wince-worthy homophobia when his lieutenants speculate on Ohara’s new, post-prison attitude.
But if one gets past the flaws of an unenlightened era, there is much fun to be had here. The characters are iconic and endlessly entertaining, the story is trenchant and relentless, and HOLY SHIT DID THAT DUDE’S HEAD JUST COME OFF?!?
When you get right down to it, this is exactly the sort of thing at which festivals excel. Without the prompt of a rare theatrical screening, I probably never would have gotten around to watching Battles Without Honor And Humanity, and I hadn’t even heard of Cops Vs. Thugs before I got here. And my life is just a little bit richer for having seen them. And I get to recommend them to you, and then you recommend them to your friends, and before long, they’re no longer cult items, or forgotten gems; they’re the stone cold classics they were always meant to be.
Also, in case it bears repeating: Bunta Sugawara is your new hero…