MOVIE SERIES REVIEW: Battles Without Honor and Humanity (1973–1974)
Directed by Japanese treasure Kinji Fukasaku (Battle Royale, the Green Slime), the Battles Without Honor and Humanity series chronicled the Hiroshima yakuza conflicts that took place between 1950 and 1972. These were written by an actual yakuza called Kozo Mino while in prison, then adapted for weekly reading in the newspaper Weekly Sankei by journalist Koichi Iiboshi, then adapted for film. The names in the story were changed to avoid any issues with the named parties.
While the title is the same for the first film, each film has a subtitle to determine it from the rest. Director Fukasaku worked on a hectic filming schedule, so the first group of films were made super-fast: the first three films (Battles Without Honor or Humanity, Hiroshima Death Battles, Proxy War) were filmed in 1973, and two others in the first series (Police Tactics, Final Episode) were filmed in 1974. The camera work is shaky-cam to give it a more realistic “man on the street” feel, as so many scenes in this movie are street scenes filled with violence, neon, and buckets of blood.
Almost all the movies center around Shozo Hirono (played by Bunta Sugawara, the Great Yokai War, the Gate of Youth), a former soldier in the wake of the Japanese Empire’s loss during the Second World War in 1946. Life was hard in Hiroshima City (the same as the bombing target) and he and other enterprising individuals moved into smuggling to make ends meet. One was the patriarch of the Yamamori family, Yoshio (played by Nobuo Kaneko, Shogun [TV miniseries]). He leans heavily on the other men in his yakuza family to do his work while he grows fat and rich, and Hirono is usually in the thick of it.
Over nearly 20 years as yakuza, the realities of his world weigh on Hirono. He has no family other than the yakuza, and his friends and brothers and leaders die with such regularity that sometimes he never gets to learn their names. As I watched, it was a sure thing to find Hirono at a funeral at the end of these films lamenting on the madness of yakuza life. Only once was he not at a funeral when the movie ended: at the end of Police Tactics, when he went to prison for 7 years and started to write what would become the “Yakuza Papers”.
One of the movies in the series, Hiroshima Death Battles, centers instead on Shoji Yamanaka (played by Kinya Kitaoji, Shinsengumi ). His was a sad tale where Shijo tried to do the right thing with good intention, but he never seems to get it right because he often makes horribly stupid decisions. You’d think he’d be smart and keep clean, but that’s how he got mixed up with Yasuko (actress Meiko Kaji, Lady Snowblood) — the daughter of a yakuza boss. Long story short I began to care for Shoji because he really wanted to live a life as a family man AND as a yakuza — and that humanization is why I like these films.
The world of Battles Without Honor and Humanity (post-war Japan) is gritty and grimy, where nothing is pure — not even the shadows are completely black. Watching that same world change over the roughly 20 years of story was a pleasure. From the average Japanese barely having a pot to piss in, to suddenly having one or more TVs, and the fashions changing was a great attention to detail — a simple one, but it was notable. Standout elements of the film were the women in these films and the rainy street scenes at night. The streetlights weren’t the usual amber but a shade of green, contrasting with the police sirens in red when they showed up at the scene of a crime. Those distinctions were soon overtaken by the neon of the 1960s, which was fine…but it wasn’t that amazing jade color.
Women were barely in the movies, but you’d only see them if you were watching the movies. Their presence can be felt as the yakuza smash up bars. Some yakuza have daughters, wives, girlfriends, or mistresses, and each has their own stories to tell. Watching these women dutifully clean, pour booze, and move at a moment’s notice in such short bursts with full knowledge their actions may go either unnoticed or taken for granted is truly sad. I am aware this was a different time and culture, but it still bears mention.
Compared to the romanticism of American mobsters and Latin American narcos, the salacious normalization of human trafficking through organized crime and violence, and the ignorance surrounding organized White supremacy, this film was an educational slog. I mean that in the best way: I wanted to learn this instead of having it rammed down my throat through misunderstanding of what’s being done on screen. Though people are shot multiple times in graphic fashion, men get their arms chopped off, and the sticky blood is Hammer Horror red, the movies normally treat the yakuza profession as worthless or un-glamorous. Though a wily and self-righteous gangster, Hirono is often tied to Yamamori in the craziest of ways and is often manipulated into doing the latter’s bidding through crocodile tears. Imagine wanting to become yakuza and getting saddled with an oyabun (yakuza boss) like that — or like the indecisive Uchimoto (played by Kurosawa stable actor Takeshi Kato, Seven Samurai, Ran, Hidden Fortress). The idea of serving someone like them should be enough to put anyone off the yakuza lifestyle.
- Legendary actor Sonny Chiba shows up in Hiroshima Death Battles and Proxy War. That is all.
- These movies make yakuza look like they have Imperial Stormtrooper marksmanship skills. Yes, I know the majority of the guns the yakuza made during the post-war period were hand-crafted and inaccurate, which would contribute to the poor marksmanship.
- To all you yakuza ladies out there: we see you, and we appreciate you for what you do and put up with.
- It’s not enough to shoot at a man once, you gotta shoot at him many times to make sure he’s dead. Even then, you might not hit anything.
- You cannot look for the lavish funeral to tell you when the movie is over; sometimes the funeral happens at the beginning or in the middle.
- So many scenes take place on the street for the action, while the indoor scenes for yakuza meetings are banal to a degree where I am glad I don’t understand Japanese — reading the subtitles kept me awake.
- Though lively street scenes were present, there were no signs of Japanese festivals or celebration — just the long march of death and violence that takes place between the films.
- I am aware there’s another film directed by Kinji Fukasaku in the series (New Battles Without Honor or Humanity), and several sequels not directed by Fukasaku afterward stretching between 1974 and 2003. I did not watch them for this review.