“[Battles proves to be] one of the most gripping and enthralling yakuza narratives ever made [and lets the spectator] enjoy the struggles [beyond any kind of heriosm] of the warring yakuza families of post-war Hiroshima”
If one hears or reads the name of Kinji Fukasaku (深作欣二, 1930–2003), one irresistibly associates it with yakuza eiga – even though he tried his hand at other genres like the jidai-geki genre and ended his career with grossly entertaining Battle Royal (2000). The association with yakuza-eiga is, of course, no surprise at all. When, in the seventies, the popularity of the Toei’s formulaic ninkyô eiga [chivalry eiga] started to decline, it was the realistic approach, an approach he already used in the sixties, of Battles without honour and humanity that pioneered the Jitsuroku eiga sub-genre [actual record films].
Yes, Battles without honor was adapted – and supplemented by meticulous research by screenwriter Kasahara Kazuo (笠原和夫, 1927-2002) – from a series of articles in the Weekly Sankei (週刊サンケイ Shūkan Sankei) magazine by Koichi Iiboshi, a journalist and former yakuza, which recounted the story of several prominent, post-WW2 Hiroshima yakuza families. These articles were based on a manuscript originally written by Kōzō Minō, who led his own yakuza family before being arrested in 1963 – it is not unimportant to mention that when Fukasaku was shooting on location, many yakuza, also some who are portrayed in the narrative, gave advice to Fukasaku as well as to the actors.
So without further ado, let’s jump deep into the underbelly of Japanese society, the world of the gokudousha or yakuza that Fukasaku paints in the first part of the Yakuza papers saga (narrative note 1).
The opening minutes of the narrative might leave many spectators a bit disoriented (in a positive way) as one is dropped in an already ongoing narrative ‘reality’ – the speed by which characters and families are introduced does not really help either. But this aggressive introducing of the spectator into the narrative context puts him immediately on the edge of his/her seat, capturing their wish to find some orientation in this exciting post-war chaos. One finds orientation through Shozo Hirono (Bunta Sugawara [菅原 文太, 1933-2014), an ex-soldier that, much like the viewer, is thrown into this grim and bleak underworld of conflict, power, and survival.
Even though Battles is an ensemble piece, it is by way of the story of Shozo Hirono and of the newly formed Yamamori family that the spectator is enabled to introduce himself in the complex – yes, it is a bit complex – organizational world of the yakuza as such. The importance of drinking sake to form family bonds (sakazukigoto), the ritual of Yubitsume, the cutting off of one’s finger as a form of apology and some traditional tattooing (Irezumi) are shown for instance (narrative note 2).
The realistic documentary-like cinematography of Battles, by its blend of different techniques (e.g. zoom lenses, zoom-ins, zoom-outs, moving shots, depth of field, Fukasaku’s trademark shaky camera technique, … etc.) proves to be very dynamic and fluid, and, by this virtue, also powerful (Cine-note 1). Besides the more static framing (of conversations for example), when things are really moving action-wise, Battles slips into a more frenetic camera style, only pausing to present an element of gore, a quick exchange of sentences, or to enforce some speech (cine-note 2). It is, first and foremost, because of this rougher style, that the gritty impact of the acts of violence have a sensible impact on the spectator (psy-note 1). The portrayals (i.e. speech and comportment) of the yakuza members are believable and feel realistic, further underlining the roughness of the underworld.
The abundance of characters, families and might be overwhelming – the narrative often difficult to grasp completely, but once the viewer and the narrative have found some orientation, one is already deeply drawn into a bleak and gritty world – a world beyond heriosm – of struggle, shifting powers, double crossing, and violence. After seeing Battles, so masterly brought to life, no one will desire to follow the path of the yakuza, but at least we are able (as a distant observer) to engage in one of the most gripping and enthralling yakuza narratives and enjoy the struggles, how futile they may be, of the warring yakuza families of post-war Hiroshima – to be continued in Deadly fight in Hiroshima (1973).
Cine-note 1: What further underlines the documentary-like approach, a form of representational cinema, is the use of an occasional narrative voice-over and even the use of titles.
Cine-note 2: When the cinematography gains some roughness, it literally expresses the fact that things are moving on a narrative plane. The cinematography of Battles without honour and humanity does feature more fixed and static camera viewpoints – even for some scenes of violence – but the tendency to move (by panning for example) is never far away, creating a very fluid cinematography overall. In this respect, the use of some more extravagant camera viewpoints – tilted ones for instance – are not uncommon.
Narrative note 1: Even though the narrative concerns yakuza, the term as such is not used. In the narrative as such the signifiers gokudousha and gokudou are used for example. Gokudou meaning literally “the ultimate path”.
Narrative note 2: If we use the signifier family, it denotes the oyabun [family boss]- kobun [“foster child(ren)”] relationship that structures yakuza-families. For example, to refer to one’s boss, the signifiers “oya”, “oyaji” or “oyasan” [parent] are often used and “aniki” [big brother] is often used to designate one’s elder.
Psy-note 1: A certain jouissance, as a beyond the pleasure principle, is revealed in the framing the excess of violence. The cinematography enables the spectator sense in which way violence can impact the imaginary-symbolic order, as particularized by the subject.