Here in the United States, Francis Ford Coppola's epic Godfather series is considered to be the quintessential gangster epic. In Japan, that distinction belongs to director Kinji Fukasaku's epic five-part Yakuza Papers series (a.k.a. the Battles Without Honor and Humanity series). Inspired by the real Hiroshima gang war that lasted nearly thirty years, the film series is adapted from a serialized two-volume novel by Koichi Iiboshi.
Considered one of Japan's greatest directors, Fukasaku had broken new ground with his brilliant 1972 film Street Mobster, which starred Bunta Sugawara. That film helped to establish both director and actor as major players in the yakuza genre – a genre that was beginning to wane in popularity. With Sugawara as an unconventional anti-hero, Street Mobsterhelped to breathe new life into a tired genre. But it was Fukasaku and Sugawara's next collaboration, 1973'sBattles Without Honor and Humanity (a.k.a.Jingi naki tatakai) — a film considered by many to be the director's best – that would change everything. Just as Sam Peckinpah and Sergio Leone helped redefine the western, Fukasaku's film—which spawned four more films in the series, and an additional four, unrelated sequels—helped to redefine the yakuza genre. Where yakuza films once portrayed gangsters as honorable anti-heroes, Fukasaku painted portraits of ruthless killers, sniveling cowards and doublecrossing scumbags who obeyed no real code of honor.
The first volume in Fukasaku's epic starts shortly after Japan's defeat in World War II, after Hiroshima has been leveled by an atomic bomb. The country and the city are in turmoil, economic distress and rationing grip the nation giving rise to a black market economy, and roaming gangs rule. Bunta Sugawara leads an all-star cast as Shozo Hirono, a ex-soldier living in Hiroshima. When Shozo finds himself in prison after killing a man, he becomes blood brothers with Wagasugi (Tatsuo Umemiya), and becomes indoctrinated into the violent world of organized crime. Shozo is caught up in the deadly battle waging between his gang and its rivals, who are all vying for power on the streets. Betrayal, murder and duplicity are all the order of the day, as Shozo fights to stay alive in a ruthless world without honor or humanity.
The bloody battle for control of the streets continues in the second film in the series, Deadly Fight in Hiroshima. Shozo Hirono, Bunta Sugawara's central character in the first film, takes a back seat to two new players in Fukasaku's epic. Kin'ya Kitaoji stars as Shoji Yamanaka, a low-ranking yakuza soldier who climbs his way up the gang hierarchy by building a reputation as a hitman. Shin'ichi "Sonny" Chiba stars as Otomo, the kill-crazy son of a yakuza family boss. Otomo is part of younger generation of yakuza with no regard for tradition or honor (hence the title of the series). Yamanaka represents the yakuza killers who still retain remnants of their humanity. His forbidden love affair with a war widow is one of the film's main subplots, and ultimately Yamanaka's ability to feel love is treated as a crime, for which his punishment is extreme. In Fukasaku's world of cutthroat killers, compassion and humanity are a sign of weakness, and will ultimately lead to ruin.
Where the first film set up the history of the post-war gangs in Japan, the second film established the ideological and generational differences that would help fuel the decades-long gang wars. Deadly Fight in Hiroshima is a weaker film than Battles Without Honor and Humanity, but it is still compelling. Though he can never compare to Sugawara, Kitaoji delivers a solid performance as one of the film's central characters. Chiba steals the film, as he is apt to do in everything he appears in. Unfortunately, Chiba does not reprise his role as Otomo in the later films, and is replaced by the competent, but much less charismatic Jo Shisido.
Bunta Sugawara thankfully returns to the forefront as Shozo Hirono in Proxy War, the third volume in the Yakuza Papers series. The second best film in the series, it is also the most complex and confusing – which is saying a lot, because all the films are confusing as hell. It is more of the same double-dealings and back-handed deals that defined the first two films, as several high ranking yakuza under bosses seek a coveted position that will eventually lead to becoming the ruling boss of Hiroshima's biggest gang. With the stakes incredibly high, alliances are formed and broken, while the body count continues to rise. In the middle of it all is Hirono, who, having survived this long in the deadly Hiroshima gang wars, has learned to keep his back to the wall, and keep his eyes on both his enemies and his allies. Hirono takes Kuramoto (Tsunehiko Watase) under his wing, promising to guide the young man through the twisted yakuza world. It comes as no surprise when Kuramoto meets an untimely end near the film's conclusion, serving as a metaphor for the doomed generation of young people born into the corrupt world of post WW II Japan.
Once again, Hirono becomes a background player in the Police Tactics, the fourth film in Fukasaku's series, which chronicles the growing public disapproval of yakuza activity. With the war to control Hiroshima now in its twentieth year, and Japan well on the way to economic recovery, the reckless yakuza battles that have claimed many lives are no longer being tolerated. But despite public outcries and police crackdowns, it is still a never-ending cycle of violence on the streets. Meanwhile, Hirono finds himself in the precarious position of having alienated both factions of the gang war. Ultimately, he is betrayed by a former boss, and is sent back to prison for violating parole. But rather than fight to stay on the streets, the once eager-to-do-battle Hirono realizes he is safer behind bars.
Although he doesn't have as big a role as he did in the first and third film, Sugawara manages to steal the show in Proxy War. Sugawara's scenes as the battle-weary Hirono serves as reminder that this film series really is his story, no matter how much he may appear on screen. At its heart and soul, the Yakuza Papers series is about the generation of gangsters that crawled up from the gutter in the chaotic years following the Second World War. Shozo Hirono has always been the central representative of that generation, a classic anti-hero who serves as the moral compass in a cinematic world devoid of morality.
The fifth and final chapter in the Yakuza Papers, aptly called Final Episode, finds the warring yakuza gangs disbanding and attempting to go legit. At least that's what they appear to do in order to keep the police of their backs. But even under the guise of a legitimate corporation, the same deadly shoot-outs and killings still occur. Fukasaku proves that you can take the gangster off the streets and put him in a corporate setting, but you can't take the streets out of the gangster. Released from prison, Hirono must decide which faction he will side with in the continuing battle for control, or if he will simply retire. As Hirono hopes for peaceful resolution to the conflict he has fought in for nearly thirty years, he realizes that the soldiers may come and go, but the war continues. He sees in the newest generation of yakuza killers the young man he once was – an arrogant killer ready shed blood for no reason at all. With maturity and wisdom now on his side, Hirono understands that battles without honor and humanity will never end.
Fans of Fukasaku's work will not be disappointed with the Yakuza Papers series, as it features all the stylish flourishes that define his work. The nearly non-stop action, brutal violence, brilliant camera, and editing that made Street Mobstera chaotic masterpiece is more fine tuned here, as if Fukasaku had already proven what he was capable of visually, and now he was just determined to reinvent the wheel – which he does brilliantly.
As individual films and as a series, Yakuza Papers can be very difficult to follow. Dozens of characters come and go, alliances are made and broken, and murders are avenged – and that's in the first film alone. Fukasaku manages to cram two films worth of information, characters and action into a single movie, which means that by the time you've watched all five films, it feels like you've watched ten. Fortunately, all the films in the series hold up to repeated viewing – in fact, Fukasaku's masterful filmmaking demands multiple viewings – and it gets easier to follow what's going on the more times you watch each installment.
If you're interested in purchasing the entire series of Yakuza Papers films, it makes more sense to buy this box set, and get the sixth bonus disc. At the same time, I would personally be more inclined to simply buy Street Mobster, Graveyard of Honor, and the first volume, Battles Without Honor and Humanity (the series only real stand-alone installment), than the entire box set.