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Battles Without Honor and Humanity
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by Jay Seaver

"An essential crime film, in a nifty new restoration."
5 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2015 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: There's a pretty good mob movie in the middle of "Battles Without Honor or Humanity", but it is with the ends that make it brilliant: It starts with images of the mushroom cloud and Hiroshima in the immediate aftermath of the war, but then jumps into images so frantic that it's almost impossible to absorb them fully - even when they're freeze-framed, it's on a blur. Director Kinji Fukasaku is making introductions, but most characters will need a second appearance to be recognized. It finishes with a funeral, as it must with all the violence being handed out, but one where the disgust at all the violence can't overcome how it is the only thing some of these guys, including the one making the statement, know.

In between, Fukasaku and the writers tell a story that plays like a rapid fire recitation of events - dates appear on-screen, narration fills in gaps, as the yakuza wars in Kure City, Hiroshima, play out over decades, with this film seeming to only have time for the highlights. It's mostly seen from the perspective of Shozo Hirono (Bunta Sugawara), a former soldier who was jailed after killing a gangster who raped a local girl. There he shares a cell with Hiroshi Wakasagi (Tatsuo Umemiya), a captain in the Doi organization, and a favor for him gets Hirono a place in that family. He becomes an ally of Yoshio Yamamori (Nobuo Kaneko), and goes with him when Yamamori starts a new organization. Hirono is a loyal man, but loyalty is only so prized in groups like this.

Though Hirono is the film's main character - it starts with him, it ends with him, and the filmmakers generally tend to reflect his mindset, whether directly or ironically. In some ways, this is even true when he disappears from the film for an extended stretch in the middle; for all that screenwriter Kazuo Kasahara and director Kinji Fukasaku are making sure that the audience recognizes the events that shape the Kure City yakuza while Hirono is in prison, the full effect in terms of actual change don't crystallize until Bunta Sugawara is on-screen again. He may have heard the news while behind bars, but that's different from experiencing it.

Though he is part of a large ensemble, there is never any question that this film rests on Sugawara's shoulders, and he's quite capable of handling the load. Not to take anything away from the rest of the cast - Nobuo Kaneko is especially memorable as Yamamori, and there is not a weak link to be found elsewhere - but Sugawara is terrific; he starts out as the cool young gangster - almost the template that everyone else is trying to follow with his easy acceptance of the violence around him and romantic heart. He never pours the cynicism on too thick or looks like a too-trusting dupe. He ages well, maintaining the contradiction at the heart of the character but showing Hirono growing wiser.

Even early on, the film starts making that a statement about how, despite whatever romantic notions Hirono may have had about the yakuza before, the modern version is about little more than self-perpetuation and protection. Take an early scene that features a yakuza staple, the severing of fingers to atone for some dishonor: Hirono is almost excited for it, having internalized the legend of the yakuza, even as the higher-ups are amused by the impracticality of the gesture, because they care far more for money and control than honor. Any of the historical tendencies of the yakuza to be part of the community, and any forays into legitimate business, are in the background, fading fast.

Fukasaku - already midway through a career that would stay on the cutting edge right up through Battle Royale - keeps things exciting, sure, but also makes sure that the hollowness of the action is never far behind. Fukasaku and the rest establish an astonishingly perfect sort of forward momentum, telling not just Hirono's story but everything needed to move that from one point to another, much heavier on action and violence than obvious introspection, but soon shaking off the sense of confusion and chaos. Despite that, the filmmakers are able to do an exceptional job of recognizing the romanticism that lies behind organized crime (and the movies about it) without falling prey to it.

It's almost having your cake and eating it too, and the ability to pull that off makes "Battles" perhaps one of the greatest crime films ever made. I can't speak to the half-dozen sequels it spawned within just a few years - the Japanese film industry can be frighteningly efficient - but this is a stone classic, an essential for fans of the past forty years of crime cinema, especially that from Japan, and the new digital restoration not only looks fantastic, but will hopefully spur those who have only heard the name to finally see it.

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originally posted: 09/11/15 13:42:27
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2004 Chicago Film Festival. For more in the 2004 Chicago Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2015 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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4/29/12 martin fennell brilliant movie 5 stars
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