After the Battles Without Honour and Humanity series, director Kinji Fukasaku remained with the Yakuza film and along with screenwriter Kazuo Kasahara and that series’ star Bunta Sugawara made the preposterously macho, fantastically bleak Cops vs Thugs. It tells of a war between different gangs that brought chaos to the streets of the city of Kurashima in the years following WW2. When things eventually settled into an uneasy cessation of rampant violence (as opposed to a truce) it took men like Detective Kuno (Sugawara) to understand the ever-shifting politics and honour of these criminals to keep things from exploding again. He has become friends with the lieutenant of the Ohara group, Hirotani (Hiroki Matsukata), an unrepentant scumbag. Hirotani manages the Ohara as they prepare for the release of their boss, who has been incarcerated.
In the lead up to this, the power struggle between the Ohara and Kawade gangs begins to escalate. The spoils of a land deal that could reap a fortune to the one who owns it leads to mayhem escalating on the streets of the city. When lieutenant Kaida (Tatsuo Umemiya) comes in from headquarters to lead the police action in stopping the war these two police officers clash over how to handle things. This is just the opening stretch of a film that mixes equal parts brutal action and backroom political machinations. It’s the type of movie where everyone either shouts or threatens.
In the world he lives and works in Kuno must negotiate the way in which personal honour and duty affects the decisions of everyone. It’s a hard job and Kuno is a hard man. As played by Sugawara it’s a tough, complex turn. Ostensibly corrupt, to Kuno it’s not about money but rather friends helping friends and allies standing by each other towards a common goal. He might enjoy the trappings of his friend’s lifestyle but he considers himself a cop above all. It’s a great performance in a movie full of them. Matsukata is great too as the unpleasant Hirotani, a man who lives by his own twisted sense of Yakuza honour.
Occasional flashes of humour here and there are the only respite from what is a grim, cynical tale. No one gets out unscathed and the violence littered throughout is frequently harsh. Also harsh is the treatment of women in this film, routinely abused as they are. Nevertheless, it remains a compelling and fascinating window into a different time and place. For the extras there’s a commentary, some interviews and as is traditional now, a booklet for early pressings. A difficult film to like, Cops vs Thugs is certainly gripping and interesting. Fans of the Yakuza genre should definitely pick it up.
COPS VS. THUGS (1975) / CERT: 18 / DIRECTOR: KINJI FUKASAKU / SCREENPLAY: KAZUO KASAHARA / STARRING: BUNTA SUGAWARA, TATSUO UMEMIYA, HIROKI MATSUKATA, MIKIO NARITA / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW