With Dada Chen at NYAFF 2013

With Dada Chen at NYAFF 2013
With Dada Chen at NYAFF 2013

Monday, April 14, 2008

ACF 101: Battles Without Honor

Cover art for Battles Without Honor and Humanity
as Volume 1 of The Yakuza Papers box set
available from Home Vision Entertainment

The Asia Society's film series Gamblers, Gangsters, and Other Anti-Heroes: The Japanese Yakuza Movie concludes with a screening of Battles Without Honor and Humanity on Thursday, April 17th at 7:00 pm. Directed by the late Kinji Fukasaku (Black Rose Mansion, Battle Royale, and many other great films), this seminal 1973 film was the first in a series concerned with the conflicts between and within rival crime families in the Hiroshima area in the years after the end of World War II.

The film starts with an emotionally powerful shot of the Gembaku Domo, the "A-Bomb Dome," Hiroshima's only structural ruin left erect as a reminder of the bomb's devastation. With the city essentially destroyed and the economy in ruins, there were construction contracts to be had and black markets to be run, both prime turf for gang activity.

Bunta Sugawara (above, center) stars as Shozo Hirono, a former soldier who comes to the aid of a Japanese citizen being assaulted by American G.I.s. In prison he is befriended by a member of gang. After their release, Hirono becomes a yakuza himself. He is the central character around whom this film, and the overall series, revolves

The film is of major significance for at least a couple of reasons. Previously films about yakuza were known as ninkyo eiga, or chivalry films. These tended to pivot on the protagonist's conflict between his duties to his crime family and his feelings for an outsider, often a member of another gang with whom he has a special relationship, such as a sworn brother. Here, as the title suggests, there's little chivalry, honor, or humanity. Betrayals run rampant not only between both also within families. Bosses will sell out their underlings and vice versa.

Director Kinji Fukasaku in his younger days

Battles Without Honor and Humanity also constitutes an alternative to the official version of Japanese history. This resulted from Fukasaku being roughly fifteen years old when the war ended. Suddenly, the emperor, who adults had insisted was a god, was declared to be as human as anyone else. This instantaneous change in belief left Fukasaku and others with a great distrust of the official count of things. The movies in the Battles Without ... series tell the story of those who were not talked about or acknowledged to have existed in official chronicles.

Battles Without Honor and Humanity will be shown at Asia Society's New York City Headquarters at 725 Park Avenue (at 70th Street) in Manhattan. Film series curator Ian Buruma and Japanese film scholar Kyoko Hirano will lead a discussion after the screening. For more information or to order tickets, click here or call Asia Society at 212.517.ASIA.

For anyone interested in owning Battles Without Honor and Humanity, as I've indicated just below the top image, this film is available on DVD from Home Vision Entertainment. It can be purchased separately or as Volume 1 of a box set entitled The Yakuza Papers, which also includes the following four films in the series and a valuable bonus disc.

[The above review appeared in somewhat different form in ACF 084 (March, 10, 2008) in conjunction with a screening of Battles ... the following day at Columbia universtiy.]

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