Where have I been for the last two weeks? Heavily entrenched in a five-part, twenty-year mob war on the mean streets of Japan. I thought keeping up with all the players in Fukasaku's Sympathy for the Underdog and Street Mobster was tough. Keeping track of all the warring gangs, their respective cities, the hundreds of dead or imprisoned yakuza, their various severed thumbs (and sometimes whole arms) in Fukasaku's multi-installment Battles Without Honor and Humanity is a sheer impossibility. By the second film of the five, I gave up trying to remember the names. By the fifth film, I stopped reading the onscreen character obits all together. The key, for me, was to indulge the mayhem and not the minutiae. Seriously, you could sprout an aneurysm trying to keep tabs on who is dishonoring who at any given time.
The five-film series, based on a series of magazine articles and the life of one Kure yakuza boss, is loosely built around the crime career trajectory of Shozo Hirono. Bunta Sugawara from Street Mobster plays hims, more cool-headed here. He starts out an ex-soldier wandering the black market in 1947 in Battles Without Honor and Humanity. Opportunities are scarce, and the Japanese are jaded from losing in WWII. He quickly falls in with a gang in Kure and soon after his first stretch in the slammer (one of several during the course of the series).
From there, Hirono gets involved in some lucrative election rigging. He is amoral, but of all the well-inked scumbags abounding in these films he seems to hold some small shred of loyalty and decency. During the times when the series departs from Hirono's story to follow other threads, you can feel the absence. The killings and machinations, though energetic and relentless, become anchorless. For better or worse, this Japanese Goodfellas needs its Henry Hill.
Part three, Proxy War, is the hardest to follow and therefore probably the weakest of the bunch. Lots of players vying for supremacy, lots of meetings to discuss strategy, scenes in conference rooms with rotating fans blowing on the sweaty participants. Hirono/Sugawara gets more screen time in this one and gets to play the Tom Reagan/Miller's Crossing/Red Harvest role. He's the guy who quietly plots on the side amid the chaos of other factions murdering each other. But this entry is so DENSE with plot and players it's somewhat difficult to enjoy Hirono's steady rise.
Part four, Police Tactics, deals heavily with the public and police's dissatisfaction over the rise in gang warfare and their attempts to crack down in the lead-up to the '64 Olympics. It's a welcome bit of retrenchment, as if Fukasaku is saying "OK, all this nameless killing has really gotten out of hand. Let's beef up the police presence, make these murderers retreat to closed doors for a change. Let's make them consider their image, do a yakuza makeover." Before you know it, the bosses are operating more as a brokerage firm than a headbusting syndicate. This welcome change of pace manifests in the last film, Final Episode, along with the even more welcome the appearance of Seijun Suzuki stalwart Jo Shishido (he of the puffy cheeks and boiling rice addiction). He plays a frequently drunk mob boss (see below).
But things in Yakuza Land can only stay cordial and corporate for so long. The street killings begin to escalate again with even more brazenness than before. Everyone's fretting which side Hirono is going to take when returns to the streets from prison. Will he be forced to retire? Will all the yakuza factions kill each other off before he gets the chance? And, most importantly, did Martin Scorsese watch The Yakuza Papers at some point before 1989? The man sees EVERYTHING. He had to have seen it...right?