Friday, January 9, 2009
REVIEW: Battles Without Honor and Humanity: Police Tactics
(Jingi naki tatakai: Chojo sakusen)
Running time: 118 min.
Reviewed by Bob Turnbull
"The world may be changing".
So says gang rival Takeda Akira to Shozo Hirono - the main protagonist so far in Kinji Fukasaku's epic tale of the rise of yakuza gang violence after World War II ("Police Tactics" is the fourth of five films in the story). Takeda's certainly right...In the years leading up to the Tokyo Olympics, when Japan has come so far after the war and is looking to make a name for itself on the world stage, the public has finally had enough of the gang violence that has plagued them for the last twenty odd years and previous three films. Anti-violence coalitions help put pressure on the police and the courts to finally do something about the gangsters who have run wild in the streets. The police have rarely been glimpsed in the previous chapters of the saga and have been at most a small annoyance. But now that the police and the courts are feeling public pressure and their own jobs may be at stake, all those years of agreeable coexistence come to an end.
It's been one of many running themes through these films - people in power want to remain in power. As well, those who aren't in power are made to follow "rules" and "codes" that in turn allow the people in power to remain there. You can see this in the way that family heads Uchimoto and Yamamori behave in order to retain their comfy positions (these guys do not behave honourably - the code no longer applies to them) as well as when middle level bosses send out their underlings to do their dirty work. Hirono is one of the few that insists on taking care of his own business, but even then his own men won't let him - they strand him purposely so that they can protect him and attempt to take care of the problem themselves. The rules are pretty ingrained for those in the trenches and that suits the powerful just fine. Fukasaku does tend to hammer this point home by making the yakuza leaders (in particular Uchimoto and Yamamori) the most pathetic and whiny characters you could imagine - constantly flinching, avoiding hard decisions, taking credit from others and being the worst kind of opportunists. It's highly entertaining though...In particular is one scene where Yamamori starts throwing a tantrum when he's being arrested and surrounded by press - I half expected him to start sucking his thumb. But in the end who gets off with the lightest sentences of all the yakuza rounded up? The leaders.
As with all previous chapters, the film moves briskly through a variety of situations, street fights, political maneuvering and characters. You need to keep up with Fukasaku - he introduces characters along the way that come back later with important roles. And while you are trying to connect all the characters and plot lines, the style and technique of the film will not only entertain you, but help drive the story forward while illuminating certain aspects of the greater themes. Freeze frames are once again used to highlight individual deaths, most of which are typically quite bloody and sloppy (there's little planning put into the violence as it usually stems from a need to retaliate or gain respect and is therefore usually reactive in nature). This is probably the bloodiest of the films so far as there are point blank gun shots, knives stabbed into hands, a rifle used as a bayonet and a back alley removal of someone's nose. All complete with bright red blood and copious amounts of screaming and anguish.
The weak leadership of the gangs eventually leads to more and more bloody street battles and betrayals. "It's brother killing brother now" Hirono is warned during one of his stretches in prison. With the world changing, the yakuza have lost much of their foothold and many have either left their home tuf or have turned their businesses legit. It seems no worse in prison for Hirono then it does for Takeda on the outside. But even with this change, Fukasaku never lets you forget the past - a short visit to the "A-Bomb slums" is enough to remind us. And once again, the parallels between countries at war and the backstabbing, snitching and chest thumping of the yakuza battling in the streets are pretty clear: both are indeed Battles Without Honor Or Humanity.
Read more from Bob Turnbull at his blog.