The Yakuza Papers: Battles Without Honor & Humanity (1973-4) - DVD Review
By Widge - posted 02.22.05 @ 2:54 pm
Written by: Kazuo Kasahara, based on a story by Koichi Iiboshi
Released by: Home Vision.
My Advice: Fans of the genre must own.
It's Japan in 1946. Shozo Hirono (Sugawara), an ex-soldier, winds up in jail. There he becomes the sworn brother of Hiroshi Wakasugi (Tatsuo Umemiya), a yakuza member of the Doi family. The occasion is Wakasugi wanting out of jail so bad, he's willing to do a botched suicide attempt in order to get outside the walls of the prison. In return for calling for the guards at the right time, Hirono winds up in a brand-new yakuza family, led by Yosho Yamamori (Kaneko), upon his release. However, the families Doi and Yamamori are going to have issues. And when there are issues between yakuza families, that generally means a lot of yelling, swearing, blades being drawn, and eventually gunfire--not necessarily in that order. This conflict kicks off a war among the Hiroshima yakuza that will run for a quarter of a century...and five films.
It becomes very clear from the get-go what you're in for: limbs being severed, too-red blood spraying in abundance, lots of grown men scuffling in the streets trying to kill each other with whatever's handy. Yes, it's a yakuza extravaganza going on with this epic that involves thirteen different crime families, and at least two dozen characters given major screen time, with a score of lesser characters backing them up. These were shot quick, down and dirty and all five were released within a span of two years. So while a lot of people can show up and enjoy the social underpinnings and commentary on society as a whole or dissect camera angles, your best bet is to prepare yourself for nihilistic carnage and dig in.
That's not to say this is all drek. In fact, far from it. Fukasaku brings in a lot of characters and then manages to develop them so that it eventually becomes easy to recognize the major players. And when I say major players, that brings me to one of the series' strengths and also weaknesses. As is discussed in the special features, Fukasaku is more interested in the underbosses and the henchmen of the families than in the family bosses themselves. Yoshio Yamamori, boss of his family, is a whiny bitch, frankly. Noboru Uchimoto (Kato), a later heavy, is a cowardly weasel. Much more interesting are Hirono, Akira Takeda (Kobayashi), and Shoji Yamanaka (Kinya Kitaoji)--the latter of which gets the majority of the focus in the second film, for example. Certainly, some of them--the ones who don't get killed--advance in the ranks, but we meet them when they're low on the totem pole and get to watch them scrabble their way up.
The bosses are such whiners and weasels that one wonders how in the hell they got into a position of power and stayed there. People rumble about taking them down all the time, but is it just honor that stays their hand? Is it? Not sure, it's never really addressed. Also, you'd think that after getting jumped while walking down the street and having to do a Python-esque "Run away! Run away!", folks would start carrying something they could defend themselves with, even if it's just a big stick. Is this just a genre thing? Not sure...never really addressed.
While the films are manic fun, it's easy to get lost in them. Thanks go out to Home Vision for probably the most important bonus feature of this set: a roadmap. It takes you through all five films, showing who lives and dies, who belongs to what family, what their ranking is--everything you need for a yakuza cheat sheet. It's much appreciated.
The majority of the features are more about director Fukasaku than they are the films. And let's face it, the guy was prolific, but this is his magnum opus of violence, so the stuff probably belongs here more than anywhere else. So Friedkin talking about Fukasaku's influence is nice, as is the discussion with Hoaglund, the subtitler. It's very interesting how pleased she was to be able to break out some solid profane English to match the Japanese. Also very useful is David Kaplan's discussion of the yakuza, but I would have really liked somebody to just flat out tell me: how accurate was this? What needed to be changed for the screen? That sort of thing. But it's never addressed to the extent it probably should be.
The rest features folks who worked with Fukasaku...but none, from what I can tell, that worked directly on the series with him. So while it's nice to talk about the films in a roundabout way, I wish we could have gotten some of Bunta Sugawara in on this. Or any of the actors, really. It's nice that these are all tributes to the man, but we just needed some more meat on the films.
A rare treat, however--it must be said--are the trailers. You've never seen hyperbolic excalamation points quite like this before. My favorite is one that said something to the effect of "Raw violence painted in violent strokes!" As opposed to all of that raw violence painted in soft, peaceful strokes, I guess. They're quite amusing.
If you're a fan of the series or of yakuza in general, then it might be worth your while to own this set. If you're uncertain, or you just like to sample the ultraviolence, I suggest a rental.