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The Yakuza Papers DVD Review

The Yakuza Papers

July 2, 2005

Director: Kinji Fukasaku,
Starring: Bunta Sugawara, Hiroki Matsukata, Goro Ibuki, Sonny Chiba, Kinya Kita Oji, Meiko Kaji, Akira Kobayashi, Tatsuo Umemiya, Shingo Yamashiro, Kunie Tanaka, Toshio Kurosawa, Yumiko Nogawa, Jo Shishido, ,

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DVD Review

Kinji Fukasaku’s series of films known as The Yakuza Papers is largely seen as the veteran filmmaker’s answer to The Godfather (1972). Grouped together, these five films are a towering achievement of visceral B-moviemaking at its finest. The very first image over the opening credits of Battles Without Honor and Humanity (1973) is that of a mushroom cloud. The dropping of two atomic bombs would forever change and shape Japan’s history. It is an event that shaped and changed Fukasaku’s life. It also informed many of his movies.

Battles introduces a three decade-long feud between two rival Yakuza clans: the Doi family, led by Kiyoshi Doi, and the Yamamori family, headed by Yoshio Yamamori. It is one year after the end of World War II and Shozo Hirono (Sugawara) sees several of his army buddies hurt by thugs from the Doi family, so he hooks up with Yamamori clan to get revenge.

It is a time of chaos. Shozo is surrounded by violence. Even in prison the feuds spill over as his cellmate turns out to be a member of the Doi family who attempts suicide to get out. These guys can’t even gamble together without fights erupting all over the place. Sometimes the violence takes on a surreal, comic mood. When Shozo cuts off his pinky finger in a Yakuza ritual, it flies into the garden. He and his buddies search for it only to find hens pecking at it!

Fukasaku’s film is chock full of double crosses and assassinations as it eschews the grandiose nature of The Godfather for the kitchen-sink realism of Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets (1973).

Set in 1950 in the shadow of the Korean War, Deadly Fight in Hiroshima (1973) shows how violence is the way young hoods deal with the shame of losing World War II. With the Doi family defeated, the Yamamori family turns in on itself. Shozo leaves, forming his own clan. In Hiroshima, the Muraoka family, led by Isuneo Muraoka, gains power.

Cutting a charismatic swath through the action is Sonny Chiba as Katsutoshi Otomo, boss of the gambling branch of the Otomo clan. He is a grinning psycho decked out in a hat, aviator sunglasses and a leather jacket over a loud Hawaiian shirt. He is the very antithesis of the laconic role in the Street Fighter films that made him so famous.

By 1960, Japan emerged from postwar chaos but the Yakuza continues to be troubled by all kinds of internal struggles. Proxy Wars (1973) sees Fumio Sugihara, an important member of the Muraoka family, killed in a ballsy broad daylight assassination. Shozo is now running his own family and maintaining his own territory. He decides to rejoin the Yamamori family. Shozo has evolved over the series to become a smart power player, knowing who to form allegiances with in order to further his own goals.

Police Tactics (1974) throws several new elements into the mix: civilians tired of getting caught in the crossfire, the media who report the battles and the police who crack down hard on the Yakuza. On the eve of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics and the country enjoying economic prosperity, the public’s tolerance for the Yakuza battles are at an all-time low. The police institute a nationwide plan to wipe out all of the Yakuza clans.

The Yamamori family is finally absorbed into the Muraoka clan along with the control of Hiroshima. This doesn’t sit well with the Akashi family who control much of Western Japan. So, Yamamori allies itself with Akashi’s enemy, the Shinwa group. With the lines drawn, the next chapter in this bloody epic is set.

Final Episode (1974) is the bloody conclusion to series as the Yakuza tries to go legit – at least cosmetically by restructuring themselves as the Tensei coalition. However, old habits die hard and internal strife raises its ugly head, causing a new wave of violence and bloodshed. It is 1965 and the series has come full circle with the anniversary of the atomic bomb. No matter how respectable a front the Yakuza try to maintain they can’t change what they are.

Special Features:

In a nice touch, a booklet is included that maps out the various clans, their significant members and their relation to each other over the course of all five films. This is extremely helpful to neophytes who have trouble remembering who’s who and what happened when.

The bonus disc starts off with “Friedkin on Fukasaku,” an interview with the legendary director who talks about meeting Fukasaku. He recounts his impressions of the man and how his style of filmmaking differed from the masters of classic Japanese cinema (Ozu, Kurosawa, et al). Friedkin points out how Fukasaku’s films, like U.S. films in the ‘70s, featured gritty action sequences that made you feel like you were inside the frame.

“Jitsuroku: Reinventing a Genre” examines this sub-genre of Yakuza films in which the events are based on true stories or historical record. Fukasaku biographer Sadao Yamane talks about the kind of society the director came out of and how it informed his work. His son and contemporary filmmakers talk about his movies and the personal philosophy they espouse.

“Boryoku: Fukasaku and the Art of Violence” is an examination of how violence is depicted in his movies. There is interview footage with the man himself as he talks about expressing the violent and restless tendencies that came out of the postwar period.

“Kantoku: Remembering the Director” features Fukasaku’s son and two of his collaborators talking about what it was like to work with him. He was not just exclusively a Yakuza genre filmmaker—he did period films, science fiction and war movies.

David Kaplan, co-author of Yakuza: Japan’s Criminal Underworld, talks about the history and evolution of the Yakuza on the “Kaplan on the Yakuza” featurette. Its roots lay in the samurai culture of ancient Japan. A thriving black market rose out of the ashes of post-World War II chaos and naturally the Yakuza become prominent.

Rounding out the extras is “Translating Fukasaku” with Linda Hoaglund talking about working on the subtitling into English of his movies. She loves his outrageous and colourful characters and how she tried to convey to an English-speaking audience, the visceral, emotional impact that they had on Japanese ones.

For quite some time Home Vision has released some of the finest examples of Yakuza cinema. They’ve hit the mother load with this fantastic box set that features some of Fukasaku’s best work. For people only familiar with his controversial swan song, Battle Royale (2000), The Yakuza Papers is an exciting, crime epic influenced by the dropping of two atomic bombs that helped defeat Japan, bring about an end to World War II and shape the prevailing attitude of its people for years to come.

J.D. is a freelance writer who is currently doing research for a book on the films of Michael Mann. He likes reading anything written by Jack Kerouac, James Ellroy, J.D. Salinger, Harlan Ellison or Thomas Pynchon. J.D. is currently addicted to the T.V. series 24 and enjoys drinking a lot of Sprite. This is not a blatant plug for the beverage but if they ever decided to give him a lifetime supply he certainly wouldn’t turn them down.
view all DVD reviews by JD Lafrance

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Rating: 95%

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