Considered one of Japan's greatest directors, Kinji Fukasaku had broken new ground with his brilliant 1972 film Street Mobster, starring 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. But it was Fukasaku and Sugawara's next collaboration, 1973's Battles 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 Japanese gangster film. Where yakuza films once portrayed gangsters as honorable antiheroes, Fukasaku painted portraits of ruthless killers, sniveling cowards and double-crossing scumbags who obeyed no real code of honor.
Inspired by the real Hiroshima gang war that lasted nearly 30 years, Fukasaku's epic five-part series was adapted from a serialized two-volume novel by Koichi Iiboshi. Released for the first time in the United States as a special five-volume, six-disc box set, The Yakuza Papers: Battles Without Honor and Humanity will finally establish Fukasaku as one of the greatest directors of all time, and his series as one of the best gangster epics ever filmed, surpassing even The Godfather.
Spanning nearly three decades, the series 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 have given rise to a black-market economy, and roaming gangs rule the streets. Sugawara leads an all-star cast as Shozo Hirono, a ex-soldier living in Hiroshima. Shozo is caught up in the deadly battle between his gang and its rivals, who are 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. As the series progresses over the course of five films, Shozo evolves from a hotheaded young man, willing to kill at the drop of a hat, to a battle-weary veteran who finally recognizes the futility of the violent yakuza lifestyle.
Those unfamiliar with Fukasaku will be in for a treat when they are introduced to his highly stylized filmmaking. Fans of Fukasaku's work, on the other hand, will also be pleased with the Yakuza Papers series, as it features all the stylish flourishes that define his work. The brilliant cinematography of Sadaji Yoshida, joined with the nearly nonstop action, brutal violence and kinetic energy that made Street Mobster a chaotic masterpiece, is more fine-tuned here. It's 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.