The Yakuza Papers Review

Jingi Naki Tatakai (Battle Without Honor or Humanity, US title also known as The Yakuza Papers) (1973), directed by Kiniji Fukasaku

The Yakuza Papers is a five-part saga based very loosely on a two-volume novel by Koichi Liboshi that recounts the story of the Hiroshima gang war which lasted almost two and a half decades from 1945. The whole series revolves around Shozo Hirono (Bunta Sugawara), an ex-solider living in post-war Japan, in Hiroshima. Shozo meets Wagasugi (Tatsuo Umenmiya) while he is in prison for killing a Yakuza gang member for attacking his friends. There, the two become blood brothers and Shozo is introduced to the dangerous world of the Yakuza. During his prison time, Shozo meets another Yakuza gang member and joins his gang after being released. The Yakuza family is only newly formed with Yamamori being the oyabun of the family. In the rushed ceremony we see Shozo share sake with his newly created family. Despite being in rival gangs, Shozo and Wagasugi’s friendship and loyalty towards each other continue to be strong. Nonetheless, Shozo’s loyalty begins to be increasingly taken advantage of by his oyabun Yamamori after his release from prison. After a fight with a rival gang while gambling, Shozo is forced to make an apology. Trouble begins when Yamamori foolishly crosses Dio, another rival oyabun by stopping an assembly man from going to an important vote. After getting into a war with a rival gang due to his foolish oyabun, Shozo offers to kill the rival gang leader Dio for the good of the family.

Battles-Without-Honor-and-Humanity

After the murder of boss Dio, the audience is shown Shozo hiding out. Yamamori sends someone to move him to a safer location. Shozo is sold out by his oyabun as he is ambushed in the tunnel. This betrayal leaves Shozo being hunted by two families, leaving no other option but to turn himself into the authorities as prison becomes his only refuge. While in prison, his blood brother Wagasugi is betrayed by Yamamori, who reports him to the authorities. Despite taking care of the Yamamori family, Yamamori considers Wagasugi as a threat to his organisation. Once he gets out of prison for the second time, Shozo realises that it is pointless to uphold principles of duty and honour in a world which has clearly turned its back on such values. Shozo now turns his back on his oyabun and the traditions of the Yakuza. This is highlighted with his destruction of a funeral shine of his friend who is murdered by Yamamori at the end of the film. The film shows the dark world of the Yakuza, were tradition is used as a tool by the oyabun throughout the movie to get their men to do despicable deeds.

The film opens with a freeze-framed image of the Hiroshima mushroom cloud, with the camera panning up the image,44 making immediate reference to the past. The music comes in suddenly as the title is revealed. The next image the viewer can see is burning buildings as the credits begin to roll. The series of images is of impoverished Japanese people, protests, over-populated streets and general social unrest. The last image is a still of Kure City, Hiroshima 1946.

The introduction, which is similar to Tokyo Drifter as mentioned in the earlier chapter, highlights a quickly changing Japan. These images suggest a shift from tradition: In fact, the images could be taken from any impoverished country if it was not for the Japanese writing seen.

Battles Without Honor and Humanity Kinji Fukasaku

The opening scene in Battle Without Honor or Humanity shows American soldiers in 1946 chasing a young Japanese girl with the clear intention of sexually abusing her.45 The audience is briefly introduced to two characters, as the frame freezes, who are endeavouring to save the girl from the Americans. The American troops stand out as we see the whiteness of their bodies and their blonde hair which contrast with the natural colours of the Japanese natives.46 This is a critical point in the interpretation of the film. The rape in the scene represents the attempt to preserve anything Japanese in the face of overwhelming US commercial power.

In an effort to rescue the powerless woman from the American troops, the Japanese authorities arrive. Yet, rather than immediately helping the victim, they start telling the soldiers not to cause trouble with the American GIs. The viewer clearly sees Shozo forced to dash away with the arrival of the American MPs, suggesting a world critically lacking in justice, where their skin colour, even in their own country, makes the Japanese culprits and the American occupants the victims. Eventually, the Japanese authorities run away, also implying that all should fear the American occupying force.

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The next scene is a meeting between two rival gangs which ends with two of the gangsters having limbs amputated for trespassing on each other’s territories. This is a lawless society where crime becomes order, and double-crossing and vendettas become acceptable in the race for power. Themes such as lawlessness and despair have been powerfully established in the Jitsuroku films of the 1970s. Often a source of the lawlessness is suggested to be the rise of US power in Japan.

Prior to 1973, the tragic hero of the Yakuza epic believed in an unwavering duty to his oyabun. Tradition and family were viewed as positive elements and those who didn’t respect them would be cut down by those who did. Where there was no duty, there could be no chance of honour. The story and representations of Battle Without Honor or Humanity, however, represented a move away from the “‘nostalgia’ of the Ninkyo47 toJitsuroku films of ‘realism.’”48 In an interview, Fukasaku discusses the new Yakuza films of the 1970s:

 

One film I made the, Jingi Naki Tatakai (Battle Without Honor or Humanity, 1973) reflects the reality of that time, the 1970s. When it came out, the student movement had already reached a dead end and the future looked unclear. There were [also] groups like the Japanese Red Army, attacking and killing each other. It all looked pretty hopeless. Jingi Naki Tatakai, which was pessimistic in a similar way, struck a chord—it came along at the right moment.49

 

Many of the early Jitsuroku films were based very loosely on true stories50 and filmed in a very realist documentary style. This Yakuza sub-genre presented the post-war Yakuza as ruthless thugs rather than honourable upholders of honour and tradition.

The failure of the Yakuza of the 1970s to uphold tradition and honour reflects the failure of Japan, on the whole, to retain its unique identity. This approach offered the audience a more real and honest reflection of the contemporary world around them. The directors of the 1970s, in depicting the loss of tradition, were meditating on the failure of Japanese society on a whole. The hopelessness of the 1970s is reflected in Battle without Honor or Humanity.51

The underlying failure of tradition is apparent from the outset of the film, particularly in the restaurant scene when the main character is sitting down and listening to music. The song seems like a traditional Japanese tune that is playing on the radio. The viewer watches the female owner say: “Cut that old fashioned crap.” Our hero is taken aback and answers: “How dare you? It’s my favourite song.” In the quickly changing post-war Japan, the past is seen as a negative thing, a failure. Thereupon, the owner’s tone changes swiftly as the Americans enter the restaurant: “Step right in.” The main character makes eye contact with one of the women with the troops. The Japanese woman is dressed in Western clothing. The look is one of disgust; she sees it and says in English to the troops that they should go somewhere else. The politeness of the owner of the restaurant towards the Americans is clearly due to their financial wealth. This willingness to discard tradition and welcome Western influences to make a living is a recurring theme throughout the film and the entire series.

Another example of tradition being derided in the film is when the man with the sword is told: “You have to conceal that” as the men, along with Shozo go in search of the Yakuza who injured their friend. The abovementioned character puts the long sword down his trousers in order to conceal it. This hinders his ability to run and he falls over in a comical fashion. This long Japanese sword is called the katana.52 The weapon requires great skill and is infamous for its speedy attack. Storing the weapon down one’s trousers defeats the purpose of the weapon. The scene shows how useless the sword is in modern society and how the masters of it are a dying breed. Fukasaku talks in an interview with Mark Schilling about how he trained with a sword throughout his youth. As he got older and the world around him changed, the sword became completely useless.53

When the viewer is confronted with the Yakuza warrior who attacked Shozo’s friends, the latter is not quite as powerful as he was made out to be by the beaten men. Clearly, the Yakuza warrior is inebriated, the audience perceives the man as if he was born in the wrong period of time. His clothing and choice of weapon also corroborate this feeling. Using a sword to fight, as opposed to a gun, the Yakuza warrior challenges all those around him to fight, giving the impression of being someone who no longer wants to live in a tradition-free world. This warrior also reminds us of an older Yakuza code, where the gun is without honour; and yet, in a world destitute of honour, the sword is of no use.54 The gun, on the other hand, jams on Shozo as he attempts to shoot the man, who storms out of the tent, ready for his end. On the third attempt, the gun finally goes off, as the traditional Yakuza gang member charges toward danger for the last time. After his death, all present pause at what Shozo has done until one suggests they run away. The dishonourable scurry away is appropriate after the dishonourable killing. A heroic final charge which is normally left at the end of a Yakuza epic, the viewer is presented with this at the beginning of Fukasaku’s film. The murder is devoid of any honour as Fukasaku is telling his audience that they are watching a Yakuza film unlike any other. Fukasaku goes so far as to ridicule the foolishness of those who stick to tradition and honour in a world devoid of it. The weapons of the past are useless against the modern Western tools of warfare.

One area where tradition and family are upheld is when Shozo and Wagasugi decide to be blood brothers. Despite being in prison and not having access to sake, the two create a traditional Yakuza ceremony. After the ceremony, the two become family and their bond proves unbreakable. This is also proven by their decision to follow each other rather than their leaders at different points in the film:

 

“Let’s be sworn brothers.”

“We can’t toast with sake, so we slit our arms and suck blood instead.”

 

The two drink each other’s blood in what can be described as being as civilised a ceremony as was possible given what was at their disposal at the time. It is important to note that Shozo is now bonded to a man who is roughly his own age rather than his oyabun. Isolde Standish describes how the structure of loyalty “depicted in Jitsuroku55 Yakuza films of the 1970s moved entirely from the vertical to the horizontal or lateral, as all successful oyabun came to be depicted as scheming entrepreneurs.”56

After the two become brothers, Wagasugi commits fake seppuku in order to get out on bail, due to the prison system being over populated. “I’m going to commit Hara-kiri, I need your help.” Interestingly, Shozo replies, “What’s the point of cutting your stomach open?” This is another example of Fukasaku questioning the pointlessness of the tradition of seppuku. The act of seppuku is one of the most honourable methods to die for a samurai. It is seen as the duty of a Samurai for disobeying their leader, bringing great dishonour to oneself or avoiding capture from the enemy. Battle Without Honor or Humanity makes a mockery of the ceremony, as it is used as a way to escape prison. Traditionally, the ceremony is done in the presence of a witness; in the film, there is also a witness, although his job is to inform the guards of his friend’s fake suicide attempts or to kill him if the pain seems too much for him to handle. This ridicule of Seppuku is unheard of in the Ninkyo films of the previous decade.

In the initiation scene, the narrator states, “The young men pledged their loyalty with sake.” Time and again, Fukasaku is suggesting the absurdity of another Yakuza tradition. The viewer can see, unlike in any Yakuza film before 1973, that the ceremony of the creation of the Yamamori family is simplified. “We’ve simplified the ceremony to suit the times.”

This simplification of the ancient ceremony mentioned in the previous chapter highlights the tradition-free world in which Battle Without Honor or Humanity is set. As in the normal ceremony, the boss drinks first and gives the rest to the new member. Notwithstanding this, since there is a line of new members, the remainder is evenly poured into each of the other men’s glasses. This hasty ceremony seems meaningless as there is no sense of honour or family associated with it, as is the case in previous Yakuza films.57 Fukasaku highlights in an interview the lack of effort put into the ceremony to show the disorganisation in the modern Yakuza. Fukasaku talks about how the Yakuza in the films he made after 1970 were more like delinquent gangs than a real organisation. In an interview Fukasaku explains that an organisation needs rules.58The oyabun in his Jitsuroku films use Yakuza ceremonies and traditions to get what they want from their men, often showing no leadership qualities besides underhandedness. In the Jitsuroku films this becomes a powerful tool of the oyabun and leads to success, seen by the fact that Yamamori become head of a few families by the end of the series of The Yakuza Papers.

The audience witnesses this even in the gambling scene, when trouble brews up. The fight is over the behaviour of an intoxicated Yakuza gang member who questions the dealer, as he constantly loses. Shozo gets involved only in an attempt to stand up for the dealer who we presume is not cheating. The fight that erupts turns into a brawl as the men wrestle on the floor. Paul Schrader mentions in a Film Comment article that almost all Yakuza films have a gambling scene. Nevertheless, these scenes in films prior to the 1970s were used to emphasise the close relationship of the oyabun and his men. The fact that Shozo is the one who must apologise for standing up for the dealer shows the inequality of the organisations portrayed in the film.

 

“I’ll cut off my little finger, will that settle the matter?”

“Cut your finger off, huh?”

“At least that won’t cost us anything. Fine”

 

The boss’s reply shows no understanding of what the gesture is or how difficult the task itself is. Kinji Fukasaku highlights the absurdity of yubitsume.59 The matter is over a small gambling fight for which Shozo was not responsible. Shozo offers this sacrifice for bringing shame to the Yamamori family name, as this man is related to a rival boss called Okubo. Interestingly, gambling was traditionally a unifying force among the Yakuza gangs.60 Fukasaku portrays gambling as a negative occupation which leads to fights among intoxicated people. The ritual yubitsume is normally done with a short blade called the tantō;61 instead Shozo uses a kitchen knife. During the process, the finger flies off, leaving the whole gang searching for it in the hall and garden.62

The loss of the finger shows the utter absurdity of the ceremony. The act seems completely unnecessary, and the finger gets lost in the garden with the chickens. The fact that the boss’s wife is the one to tell the men how to cut the finger off further reinforces the lack of tradition of the whole scene. In 1970s Jitsuroku films, the role of women in the Yakuza genre was minimal, as discussed in the previous chapter.63 This ridiculing of tradition would be unheard of in the previous decade, as Ian Buruma explains: “This would have been inconceivable in the solemn Yakuza films of the previous decade.”64 The other gang’s boss, Okubo, also considers the finger-cutting as unnecessary, once again highlighting the absurdity of the ceremony. However, the rival boss Okubo offers to pay for the burial ceremony of the finger. Shozo sits, head bowed on his knees in a very respectful manner along with the man he fought with. The rival boss uses the respectful meeting as an opportunity to introduce Yamamori to a municipal assemblyman. The assemblyman asks for a favour that causes trouble with Dio, another rival boss. This is to stress even more that, even in the most traditional scenes; there is always an aura of deception lingering on. This constant deception from the oyabun towards their men pushes them away from tradition and loyalty towards their families.

Despite Shozo’s boss’s foolishness in irritating Dio—even after warnings from Shozo, among others—Shozo is left to fix the problem by agreeing to assassinate him on behalf of his oyabun. The cowardliness of the other men who come up with excuses to avert war between the two factions is also clearly on display. Murdering Dio is not an easy decision, but one that Shozo makes for the sake of what he believes to be his new family. The viewer witnesses boss Yamamori’s despicable behaviour in promising Shozo all of his property in return for killing the rival Dio. Of course, this promise is never kept. In the Jitsuroku films the oyabun could no longer be trusted, and the characters began to trust their peers instead. This is in stark contrast to Tetsu in Tokyo Drifter from the Ninkyo-Eiga’s who is willing to stake his life on his oyabun’s words.

After Shozo has made this gesture to kill Dio, we see the Yamamori family burst into tears over the sacrifice Shozo is willing to make for the sake of the family. The scene is uncharacteristic of Yakuza films: Fukasaku highlights the fact that these men cry not over the death of each other, but rather the sacrifice made by another to kill for the sake of their family. Previous to 1970 a yakuza would almost never cry and an oyabun crying with a group of his men would have been unheard of. Fukasaku shows us later how Yamamori uses his tears to get his men to make sacrifices for the gang. Any and all tactics are implored by the oyabun in the Jitsuroku films of the 1970s to achieve their goals.

The viewers can also see the revealing of tattoos in the sex scene with Shozo after he agrees to kill Dio. Fascinatingly, the revealing of the tattoo65 is introduced during a sex scene between Shozo and a female character who we have not seen before.66 The tattoo is of a fish, which even in itself departs from the traditionally ferocious tattoos seen in previous Yakuza-Eiga films. This tradition of the Yakuza member revealing his tattoo is ridiculed by Fukasaku.

In the scene after they argue about sharing profits, we see two of the Yamamori family members sit down with a new boss of a rival family. They pass round sake, the boss drinking first then passing it on, telling the audience the person has changed families. This quick change of bosses over a meal and a discussion shows the futility of the earlier ceremony and what it stands for. It also highlights the needlessness of family in a society where brother kills brother for material gain. Fukasaku is constantly highlighting the absurdity of many of the Yakuza rituals that went unquestioned to a large extent during the Ninkyo films of the 1960s. This constant backstabbing and in-family feuding among the Yakuza, would have the effect of turning Shozo into a nihilist.

When Shozo goes to his Yamagata’s wife’s house to pray for his dead soul, the viewer once again sees an example of tradition. Nonetheless, as Shozo begins to pray, Testsuya arrives, who—the public will find out later—was having an affair with Yamagata’s wife. Clearly nothing is sacred to Testsuya, as giri, duty, and ninjo, human emotion, are nonexistent among the characters in Fukasaku’s film.

Shozo, the main character, struggles to hold on to values like duty and honour in a society short of them. In the final scene, he marches toward the funeral ceremony. The scene is extremely traditional, with everyone dressed in funeral attire, and religious chants being heard in the background. Shozo talks to himself, staring at a picture of his dead friend and asks: “Are you happy with this show they’re putting on? Of course you’re not, neither am I.” He then proceeds to take out his gun and starts shooting the shrine made in honour of his dead friend. Shozo realises how ridiculous it is that the men who are organising this ceremony are the ones who murdered him. They use the ceremony merely as a chance to display the long-established Yakuza traditions. This scene shows that tradition and honour will no longer be upheld by Shozo, as he finally understands the kill-or-be-killed attitude of his fellow Yakuza members. He, like many of the characters at the start, has learnt the price of unconditional loyalty to your oyabun. Interestingly, as characters like Shozo rise through the ranks of the Yakuza as the series goes on, they begin to abuse the oyabun-kobun relationship just as they were abused.

This development becomes evident in the second of the series, Deadly Fight in Hiroshima (1973) by Kinjii Fukasaku, in which Shozo completely gives up on upholding the above-cited principles. Even the attire of all the characters throughout Battle Without Honor or Humanity is in no way traditional. Black gloves, leather jackets and sunglasses are worn by many of the characters. Interestingly, the only characters that seem to occasionally dress traditionally are the oyabun. Fukasaku dresses the oyabun in traditional attire almost to be ironic as they have no sense of giri and ninjo and only uphold tradition when it suits their needs. The highlighting of the corrupt oyabun-kobun relationship, as seen in the earlier chapter, is not new to the Yakuza film. However the constant mocking of old traditions and the new attire worn by the hero’s in Jitsuroku films is. It’s important to note that both Fukasaku and Suzuki’s presentation of the corrupt oyabun-kobun relationship can be related to the war-time Japanese and their treatment by the emperor. 67

Shinichi ‘Sonny’ Chiba, who himself starred in a few Jitsuroku films, puts the creation of the Jitsuroku Eiga down to the fact that people began to question the distinction between good and evil in the world of the Yakuza in the 1970s. He argues that earlier Yakuza films of the 1960s were heavily influenced by American cinema where the lines between good and evil are extremely clear. He puts it simply that: “Some directors wanted to start taking a more realistic approach to the Yakuza.”68

Fukasaku, in the quote below, agrees that this was a factor.

 

We decided it was all right to have heroes who weren’t so noble. Those heroes [heroes from coming out of Hollywood in the late 1960s] were lies. Instead, we wanted heroes to show us who they really were.69

 

However Fukasaku claims the Jitsuroku Eiga reflects the reality of the 1970s not just in the world of the Yakuza.70 Battle Without Honor or Humanity is one of the first films to question the pointlessness of many of the Yakuza ceremonies and traditions. Nothing is sacred in Jitsuroku films and this will have a major affect to the future Yakuza films as I will discuss in the next chapter. Fukasaku’s Yakuza look nothing like the modern Samurai of the previous decade.

 

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