Battles Without Honor & Humanity: The Yakuza Papers, Vol. 1
D V D   R E V I E W   B Y   D E R E K   H I L L

Hiroshima equals annihilation. In the aftermath of the bomb, everything is in turmoil. Mass disease, starvation, rape, murder, and death everywhere; chaos reigns supreme. Out of the fallout, the yakuza gangs fight for supremacy of the gambling and drug trades, turning the streets into a battleground of broken bones and sliced off limbs.

Kenji Fukasaku's Battles Without Honor & Humanity, the first in a series of five films chronicling the furious and bloody yakuza wars that lasted close to thirty years in Hiroshima and Kure, is the crowning achievement of the jitsuroku rosen (line of realism) style that transformed and boosted the genre to new creative heights until its demise in the mid-1970s. By that time, audiences had had enough of warring criminal thugs and preferred other silver screen distractions. Likewise, Fukasaku would abandon the yakuza by the late-'70s for more fantastical realms, directing such films as The Message from Space (1978), Virus (1980), Samurai Reincarnation (1981), and most recently the cult hit Battle Royal (2000).

But nothing would top his masterpiece. Battles Without . . . brought a hard-edged realism mixed with over-the-top stylization to the screen that was unparalleled. With its frenetic handheld camera work, telescopic zooms, and dramatic freeze-frames, Fukasaku's world of amorality and vengeance twisted to life in such a way that its influence could be detected years later in the works of William Friedkin, Martin Scorsese, and eventually trickling down into the cinematic recycling-bin that works as Quentin Tarantino's mind. And although the Japanese had never been averse to depicting graphic violence on screen, Fukasaku upped the mayhem to such a ferocious level that it is still overwhelming today.

DVD cover artwork for Battles Without Honor & Humanity.
[click photo for larger version]

Based on the criminal exploits of yakuza crime boss Kozo Mino, Fukasaku's formidable beast of a film immediately propels the viewer into a maelstrom of beatings, rape, dismemberment, and murder, all within the first ten minutes. It's a world of bad men doing bad things, all the while trying to keep their heads above water as they sink lower into the stupor of post-war futility. Shozo Hirono (Bunta Sugawara) is a young ex-soldier trying to stay alive among the ruins of Hiroshima, but he is quickly pulled down into the underworld after he kills a local gangster who had maimed a few of Hirono's friends. In jail, Hirono is befriended by a member of a local yakuza clan and accepts an invitation into the yakuza lifestyle when he helps his new "blood brother" get out via a botched seppuku attempt. Hirono is eventually released on bail through the help of the yakuza member, and quickly joins the ranks of a rival--though for the moment friendly--clan. But tensions arise between the two clans when Hirono's gang undermines the other clan's wishes, and soon an all-out war breaks out, weakening once strong alliances and friendships, and destroying all hope for everyone.

Hirono, who was so idealistic at the beginning--even after surviving the war--eventually succumbs to post-war disillusionment and nihilism. Where previously he killed, maimed, and butchered for honor and . . . well, not humanity exactly . . . but for a reason that he could believe in, now he kills because only the momentum of violence keeps him alive. To not move, to not act, would be giving into the void that will undoubtedly swallow him up in the end. But until that time, until that moment when inactivity equals certain death, Hirono keeps moving.

The epic sweep and drama of the film is almost too much, too over-powering for its 99-minute running time, and easily whets the appetite for the next installments. Home Vision Entertainment's disc is superbly remastered, and includes a vital "Yakuza Wars of Hiroshima" pull-out viewer's guide-much needed to make sense of all the various yakuza thugs who drop in and out of the series--and trailers for the other Yakuza Papers entries. Vital, emotional, even frequently funny, Battles Without Honor & Humanity is Kenji Fukasaku's blistering ode to the dark clouds awaiting the criminal heart. It's what action cinema always promises but rarely has the balls to deliver.

Battles Without Honor & Humanity is now available on DVD from Home Vision Entertainment. This new digital transfer has been enhanced for widescreen television. Special features: original theatrical trailer, director filmography, and "The Yakuza Wars of Hiroshima": a pull-out viewer's guide highlighting all the major players, wars, killings, arrests, and consolidations that occur throughout all five volumes in The Yakuza Papers series. Suggested retail price: $19.95. This title is also available as part of the six-disc Yakuza Papers boxed set from Home Vision Entertainment. For more information on these titles, check out the Home Vision Entertainment Web site.