Battles without Honor and Humanity

I recently saw the film, Battles without Honor and Humanity (1973). It is a Japanese yakuza film directed by Kinji Fukasaku. It tells the story of Shozo Hirono (Bunta Sugawara), an ex-soldier in post-World War II Hiroshima, who joins a yakuza family. The film, which is reportedly based on real events, details the struggles between and within yakuza families. It was both a critical and a popular success when it was released in Japan, and it has been called the “Japanese Godfather.”

Throughout the film, the yakuza talk about their “honor”, though it’s clear that they have none; they are continually betraying one another. An implicit connection is made between the savagery of these gangsters and the destruction of Japan during World War II. At the beginning of the film, the title is shown over the mushroom cloud of the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima, thereby drawing an explicit connection between that event and the events in the film. In the opening scene, some US GI’s try to rape a Japanese woman in the middle of a crowded marketplace. They are attacked by a couple of men who will go on to become yakuza. The implicit message here is that the violence of the yakuza is rooted in the brutality of the US occupation. (Also, many of the yakuza are former soldiers.) Later, we’re told that the yakuza have gotten rich off the black market during the Korean War. War is shown as a corrupting influence.

The is film is shot in a lurid, semi-documentary style. Every time a gangster is killed, his name and date of death are splashed across the screen. This has two effects. First, it reminds us that the story is based on real events. Second, it tells us that ultimately the most important thing about these people is the fact that they are killed. It is a comment on the emptiness and futility of their lives.

On one level, this is a fast-paced action film, but on a deeper level, it is a thought-provoking and somewhat disturbing social commentary.

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