This article is part of a year-long feature - watching and blogging about twenty acclaimed, cult, challenging and rare films over the course of 2013. The full list of films (and links to other completed posts) can be found here. Fifteen: the opening chapter of gangster epic Battles Without Honour and Humanity (aka Yakuza Papers Volume 1).
Aside from its immediate effects - such as the temporary closure of major studios such as Nikkatsu - the Second World War sent shockwaves through Japanese cinema. Of course, it goes without saying that the Second World War also irreversibly and radically changed Japanese society generally, and cinema was only reflecting that. Nevertheless, for decades filmmakers were provoked to explore the war and its aftermath. The great auteurs did it: whether that was Kurosawa's explicitly post-nuclear-bomb I Live in Fear, Ozu's acknowledgment of a changed society throughout his post-war work (often with trademark subtlety, as in Late Spring), or the astonishingly rich films of Mikio Naruse that explored the places and people of occupied Japan.
In the late 50s and 60s, the Sun Tribe films emerged, portraying a new generation of youths that had definitively abandoned the national pride, traditions and rituals of their parents. This shift towards a more provocative cinema took its logical next step with New Wave directors such as Nagisa Oshima and Shôhei Imamura - as student riots waged throughout Japanese universities, these and other directors were producing vital, experimental works that often devastatingly deconstructed a society still struggling to regain its footing. Through it all, the spectre of the war echoed (how could it not?); the nation-changing reverberations of WW2 providing countless great films with their thematic foundation and context. Hell, even the late 1980s saw many great anime directors breakthrough internationally with the likes of Akira and Grave of the Fireflies - films that found remarkable new ways to articulate the impact of Japan's paradigm-shifting defeat.
Battles Without Honour and Humanity, directed by future Battle Royale helmer Kinji Fukasaku, announces its post-war identity more explicitly than most. The film opens with shots of the Hiroshima nuclear blast and burning cities, indicating the destruction and subsequent rebuild are going to be at the heart of this tale. The story proper opens in an American occupied black market - a world of sleaziness, violence and general iniquity. Much of the film takes place in Hiroshima in the late 1940s and early 50s, as several yakuza families new and old vie for control and superiority. It was made in 1973, but Battles... is as fascinated with the repurcussions of the war as ever.
It's just a little unwieldy, but the title itself is one of the most effective and descriptive in the history of cinema. This film does indeed reflect a situation where honour and basic human decency are minor, often non-existent concerns. The mobsters portrayed are a miserable bunch - apathetic, aggressive and untrustworthy. They'll put on a tough guy show or feign inferiority depending on the circumstances. In one scene, Tetsuya Sakai (Hiroki Matsukata) cowers in 'fear' when he's threatened, but regains his composure in an instant - it's all an act, a pitiful con that proves the man is rarely, if ever, genuine in his emotions or loyalties. In another, a character purposefully messes up his seppuku to get out of his jail cell - what was once (horrifically and disturbingly, it goes without saying) considered an act of the highest selflessness, is here an extreme distortion of the same. Pride and humanity are almost entirely absent from the film, despite the yakuza's pretenses of old-fashioned honour. It's not like filmmakers were ever afraid to explore and criticise the countless quirks of traditional Japanese social constructs, but the world in which this film takes place is almost unrecognisable compared to pre-1930s Japan.
Our guide through this miserable world Bunta Sugawara, playing Shozo Hirono: a veteran drawn into the gangland at the start of the film following a prison term for shooting a crazed, sword wielding shop-owner. Shozo, despite the high body count he's responsible for, is the closest thing we have to a moral compass, frequently and brazenly expressing his displeasure at the goings-on around him. This is most memorably illustrated during the final scene, when he interrupts his one-time companion Tetsuya's funeral by shooting up the memorial in disgust at the insincere funereal pageantry and all the events that preceded it. The final shot sees him storm out, leaving his supposed 'family' behind. It's a powerful closing image.
Alas, the stuff leading up to that moment can veer towards the incomprehensible. The first forty minutes or so are electrifying, rapidly but effectively speeding through years worth of events and a series of viscerally raw setpieces. It's then the film settles into a pattern of increasingly head-spinning yakuza politics. I was relieved checking Mubi and professional reviews to see I wasn't the only one left behind by the details - a bewildering amount of names and faces makes it a genuine challenge to keep track of who is who, who they're angry with, and whether that guy has been killed or not. Double crossing is insufficient to describe the wealth of backstabbings and betrayals that occur, constantly stacking on each other over a very dense hour and a half. Freezeframe descriptions and narration barely help. I confess late night fatigue made all this even harder to keep track of, but it's a heavy plot even for the fully alert. The series spawned four immediate sequels and several follow-up series - I can only imagine how convoluted later chapters are.
Luckily, all this confusion is directed with verve by Fukasaku (and I must give a brief but enthusiastic mention to Toshiaki Tsushima's spine-tinglingly epic soundtrack). It's rarely less than visually striking, but it's the setpieces that see the film really explode with energy. There's a bloody brawl that concludes in an unexpectedly crimson dismemberment, a horrific self-inflicted finger removal (plus the aforementioned faux hara-kiri), a rainy and incredibly messy assassination, and even a late film visit to a colourful toyshop. Fukasaku also had an eye for unusual angles, many shots askew or radically off centre. And, despite the complexity of the plot, Fukasaku (and his 'avatar' Shozo) never resists commenting on the sheer futility of it all - when Shozo cuts off his finger in humble apology for a fight with some other criminal underlings, it's shrugged off with 'you didn't need to go that far. Here's some yen'. I'm paraphrasing only slightly.
When Shozo attends that final funeral, with memorials for all the deceased family members, it serves as a surprisingly sobering but angry thematic punctuation mark: Shozo's great frustration is that all the death and chaos was for absolutely nothing, friends lying dead for what exactly? And forgive me if I'm overstressing a point, but couldn't we say exactly the same for a certain World War?