Kinji Fukasaku's lead off film for his epic story arc of the growth of the yakuza in post-war Japan starts with a bang. A really big one. The film's opening titles are shown across pictures of an atomic explosion (likely Hiroshima since that is where the story begins) and its aftermath. The new society we see (in 1946) is filled with black markets, soldiers without many prospects and an "every man for himself" mentality which begins to breed a new style of violence.
These opening scenes introduce us to many of the characters through individual freeze frames with titles indicating their future positions within the yakuza (which ties in nicely with the freeze frames on many of these characters when they are later killed - all violently of course). The frustration and anger of these ex-soldiers is evident in some of the reckless actions they take - against American GIs, Japanese cops ("don't make trouble with American GIs!") and the black marketers. The frenetic hand held camera work helps to set up this environment and lay the groundwork for the desperate times these men are being forced to face. One can understand how they might view the yakuza as being one of the only ways to save their skin.
I won't really try to delve into the plot much, for several reasons:
1) This is a fast moving film...So many things happen: new characters get introduced, yakuza switch families almost on the fly in order to help themselves, bloodshed occurs suddenly and swiftly. It's best not to have any general plot outline since you'll be trying to fit things in and possibly miss the individual connections between characters and incidents of double crossing.
2) The plot points are entertaining and have good narrative development of course, but providing details won't help someone decide to see the film - it's a yakuza film! People get into fights, claim territory, yell like crazy people, attack each other and spill lots of blood all in very stylish ways. Shouldn't that be enough of a reason to give it a spin? Don't worry, the plot will end up sucking you in too.
3) It's insanely complicated. It's not impossible to follow, but it is laying the foundation for 4 more films to follow (all made in 1973-74) which pull in new families, different characters, new locations and span across 20 odd years. So if you lose track of some of the characters or reasons for some of the events, that's understandable. After the 5 films from this series, there were even 3 further films made under the title "New Battles Without Honor And Humanity" and a final wrap up called "Aftermath of Battles Without Honor And Humanity". Apparently former yakuza Koichi Iiboshi, who penned the newspaper articles upon which these films were based, had a LOT of anecdotes...
Suffice it to say that by the end of the film we've seen betrayal, greed, drugs, murder, personal ambition over brotherhood, cowardice, severed limbs, vengeance and lots of bright red blood. And, without giving away any spoilers, one great closing line - "I've still got some bullets left".
Not bad for only 20% of the story. I can't wait to see the rest.