Legendary Japanese director Kinji Fukasaku may be most familiar to modern audiences for his iconic Battle Royale, but he’s a man who first made his mark back in the 1970s with his refreshing and revolutionary Yakuza movies. Churning out five movies over a mere two-year span, Fukasaku gave audiences the groundbreaking Battles Without Honour and Humanity series. And now, as with so many classics of yesteryear, Arrow Films has re-released all five movies in a gloriously-crammed HD boxset.
In terms of plot, the first film largely focuses on former soldier Shozo Hirono (Bunta Sugawara) as he becomes embroiled with the murky world of the Yakuza. Hirono is present throughout the rest of the series as plot points unravel, deception is high, and violence is plentiful, although the second film in the series, Deadly Fight in Hiroshima, sees Shoji Yamanaka (Kinya Kitaoji) take centre-stage as he too ends up embroiled in the deadly realm of the Yakuza. Fear not, for the rest of the movies - Proxy War, Police Tactics and Final Episode - see the attention mainly back on Hirono. Throughout the series, though, there are the constant themes of family, of loyalty, of carnage, and of fantastic, gripping storytelling from Fukasaku as he delivers a group of films that are largely flawless.
With the Battles Without Honour and Humanity movies on show here, what we see is a progressive narrative that never shirks the stark reality of what the Yakuza lifestyle is really life. As the overall story of the series progresses from 1946 all the way up to 1970, we see changes in the way that the gangland warfare of the Japan of that time is put together. By the time we get to Final Episode, we find the notion of the Yakuza becoming an almost political power play game and factions that work almost on a corporate level rather than just some of the petty violent thugs that we saw in the earlier films. It’s a fantastic transition that Fukasaku guides us through, and it makes the journey all that more intriguing as large parts of the movies become like chess games. Dirty, nasty, body-piling chess games.
What made this series of films so special was Fukasaku’s approach to his subject matter, with the often dark, gloomy and vicious content based on actual real-life accounts of Yakuza happenings, leaving the on-screen tales with a lasting sense of authenticity. Not once does he make excuses and try to glamourise the world of the Yakuza, and similarly he doesn’t flinch from exploring the true darkness and cutthroat nature of what we see being played out on screen. Adding to the atmosphere is the approach that the director brings to Battles Without Honour and Humanity; the films almost play out like documentaries, complete with infographics and voiceovers that guide the viewer through the action.
For fans of Japanese cinema, this boxset is a must-have. Similarly, if you’ve yet to see this groundbreaking series of films, it truly is an educational experience and one that you could do far worse than to treat yourself to. Sure, it’s a thirteen-disc behemoth of a release and may seem a tad daunting, but this is certainly a release that just keeps on giving.
Special Features: Audio commentary / Interviews / Secrets of the Piranha Army documentary / Remembering Kinji featurette / Trailers / Gallery / 152-page book
BATTLES WITHOUT HONOUR AND HUMANITY / CERT: 18 / DIRECTOR: KINJI FUKASAKU / SCREENPLAY: VARIOUS / STARRING: BUNTA SUGAWARA, AKIRA KOBAYASHI, HIROKI MATSUKATA, KINYA KITAOJI, SONNY CHIBA / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW