“The Japanese Godfather” if you’re unimaginative, this 1973-4 five-film series altered forever the Yakuza genre, stripping it of all its notions of honour and, yes, humanity, replacing the noble struggles of old with a more realistic depiction of constant violent struggle.
Director Kinji Fukasaku, who would go on to shoot Battle Royale, really impresses here with an aesthetic that is simultaneously documentary realism and hyperstylised Shakespearean violence. The first film, Battle Without Honor and Humanity, introduces us to Bunta Sugawara’s character Shozo, who will be the central figure throughout the entire conflict. The second film, Hiroshima Death Match, is the odd one out in not focusing on Shozo, though he still appears as a significant minor character. The third, Proxy War, is for my money the weakest, too much like a retread of the themes of the first and second movies, with the fourth, Police Tactics, my favourite, as the police finally do something about the epidemic of gang violence, the organised crime versus police action giving it something of an Infernal Affairs/Departed feel. The final episode, entitled Final Episode, is a little different, slowing down the pace, as the Yakuza have all gone legit, posing as political syndicates, but nonetheless provides a suitably violent conclusion to the whole saga.
Audio and Visuals
The sound is crisp and clean, allowing viewers to properly appreciate the series’ iconic horn explosions, and the picture is clear and unmuddy without sacrificing the essential grit of these films.
It’s Arrow, what do you expect? This set, priced at £74.99, features thirteen discs, in alternating red and black colours, housed in a matching red-and-black boxset that’s just pure cool, not to mention the 152-page book on the series that’s included.
If we don’t include the book as an extra, the set presented is surprisingly limited. There is the re-edit Battles Without Honor and Humanity: The Complete Saga, a 224-minute compilation of the first four films (so not actually complete, then), with an optional introduction; there is an informative commentary by film historian Stuart Galbraith, but only for the first film; “Yakuza Graveyard”, a brief bit with Takashi Miike discussing Fukasaku’s influence; “Man of Action”, an interview with choreographer Ryuzo Ueno; “Secrets of the Piranha Army”, a rather nice documentary on the supporting stars of the series; “Tales of a Bit Player”, a slightly superfluous interview with supporting actor/stuntman Seizo Fukumoto; “Remembering Kinji”, with Fuksaku’s son Kenta and biographer Sadao Yamane; “Fukasaku Family”, an interview with assistant director Toru Dobashi; “Last Days of the Boss”, an interview with Final Episode screenwriter Koji Takada; plus the expected set of posters and trailers. Some effort has clearly gone into these extras, but without any proper documentary on the films, or commentaries save on the first one, the extras feel…well, extra.
It’s a good-looking, great-sounding, attractively-packaged set of one of the essentials of Japanese cinema, and a series that’s hard to get hold of otherwise.