Friday, December 19, 2008

REVIEW: Battles Without Honor and Humanity: Proxy War

仁義なき戦い 代理戦争
(Jinginaki tatakai: Dairi senso)

Released: 1973

Kinji Fukasaku

Bunta Sugawara
Akira Kobayashi
Tsunehiko Watase
Shingo Yamashiro
Reiko Ike

Running time: 119 min.

Reviewed by Bob Turnbull

"When a battle begins, young men are always the first to lose their lives, yet their deaths have never once been honoured".

As you watch "Proxy War", if you think that particular statement is only directed towards the young yakuzas who get sucked into doing other people's dirty work, then you haven't been paying attention throughout the first 3 parts of "Battle Without Honor Or Humanity". Director Kinji Fukasaku makes no bones about extending the stupidity of yakuza grudge matches and the waste of young lives to the larger playing field of our nations' militaries. Though the first three films in the series have all been fun and energetic, there's a palpable sense of anger coming from them too...

In the previous chapter of this epic tale of the rise of post-war yakuza families ("Deadly Fight in Hiroshima"), the uselessness of sacrifices for uncaring leaders and pointless causes is the central theme. "Proxy War" essentially picks up where we left off (the story opens in 1960 after parts 1 and 2 covered off the previous 15 years) and this time takes further aim at the scheming decisions of the leaders of the yakuza families. These weak-willed men take advantage of other weak-willed men to prop themselves up and play power games while always looking out only for themselves. There's little subtlety in the performances here - family leaders like Yamamori and Uchimoto blame others for all their faults and bad decisions, cry at the drop of a hat, become outraged if accused of anything, etc. Fukasaku makes his points clear - blind allegiance won't reward you or anyone else except the leaders themselves.

For the third film in a row, Fukasaku opens his story with newspaper clippings and still photos of war - explosions, soldiers, attack vehicles, planes, etc. A narrator tells us that these world wars were all in the name of U.S. and Soviet interests and since they were taking place in other regions came to be known as Proxy Wars. With this as backdrop, as well as a new Japan slowly coming out of its post-war chaos, a key event happens that will lead to big struggles for power over the next few years - the head of the Muraoka family is killed in broad daylight and the next in line, the previously mentioned Uchimoto, does nothing to avenge the killing. This causes a domino effect of reprisals and hurt feelings. Yamamori gets appointed as the new leader of the family, Uchimoto feels insulted and numerous mini yakuza wars kick off - their own little proxy wars in the name of the two childish leaders.

At the center of all this is Shozo Hirono (played in all the films so far by Bunta Sugawara) who was with the Muraoka head when he was killed. Over the years, Hirono has built up a nice corner for himself and his own small yakuza team - he is one of the few men we meet who is actually satisfied with his position and who tries to live honorably. But when most of your fellow peers are frightened and desperate and they force you to take sides in personal power struggles ("I don't allow neutral around here" says one of the sub-bosses at one point), it can be a frustrating and dangerous existence. Through the same techniques used in the series so far (freeze frames, black and white photos, grainy shaky footage, etc.), "Proxy War" continues one of the most entertaining of all yakuza tales. Its characters are sometimes broad and of little variety (particularly with the female ones), but the twists, turns and sheer energy of the story keep me coming back for more. And with two more films remaining in the series, that's just what I have...

Read more from Bob Turnbull at his blog.

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