film, Reviews

Movie Review – The Yakuza Papers, Vol. 1: Battles Without Honor and Humanity

Due to the copyright strike on my Youtube channel, I’m going to hold off on doing film video reviews for the immediate future, aside from works from companies with a proven track record as being forgiving when it comes to film criticism (such as the Criterion Collection). However, I still want to keep talking about film so, for now, I’m going to do those review as prose reviews. If there is an interest from my Patreon Backers (which you can be one of), once the copyright strike is up, I’ll go back to re-do some or all these reviews as video reviews (depending on what films they’d like to see reviewed).

These reviews are also being posted on my Letterboxd page. I’m cross posting them here because I remember what happened to Screened, and I’d like to make sure I don’t lose any of my reviews.

With that out of the way, I’m taking a look at a Japanese Yakuza film from the 1970s – and the first part of the Yakuza Papers/Battles Without Honor Or Humanity series of films.

Let’s get one thing out in the open early. This is an exploitation film. It’s all about showing the lurid and exciting world of the Yakuza, one that’s seductive and dangerous, with intrigue and violence, lurking around every turn. No one is safe, and the only future you can look forward to is a bloody death – so the question is how successful or well off will you be when you die? The film follows the formation of the Yamamori yakuza family in post-war Hiroshima – and with the emphasis on the “post-war”, as the film starts in 1946.

As the film goes on, the family starts to fall apart, as greed, paranoia, and ambition turns each of the founding members against each other, and they pick each other off one at at time, with the film’s protagonist, Shozo Hirono (played by Bunta Sugawara), trying to maintain his honor and his loyalty to his friends throughout.

Director Kinji Fukasaku uses a very dynamic camera through the film, with tight zooms and a shaky camera giving a sense of claustrophobia and confusion as the film goes on, and the leads – particularly Hirono and his brothers-in-arms Tetsuya Sakai (Hiroki Matsukata) and Shinichi Yamagata (Kenji Takamiya), start wondering who they can trust, if they can trust anyone at all.

However, this leads to the film’s main problem – the acting. The cast in this film is full of actors who play great tough guys. They’re hard as nails and tougher than a one dollar steak. That’s also the only emotion they’re good at expressing. Whenever they’re expressing any “weak” emotion like sorrow or fear, they play it to an extreme, and they play that extreme poorly. In the scenes where they’re playing “distraught”, and they’re sobbing – were they acting in English you’d probably hear them literally saying “boo hoo”.

Now, with some actors, this can be appealing – hell, this is part of the reason behind the popularity of some of Nicolas Cage’s more… intensely acting roles. However, part of what makes that work for Cage is that when he’s acting that intensely, his characters are feeling the full emotional rage that intensely. When they’re distraught, they’re utterly heartbroken. When they’re angry, they’re in a white-hot rage.

The actors in this film though, when they’re in tough-guy mode (which they are for about 3/4ths of the film), are calm, cool and collected. When they do lose their cool, it’s usually into a rage, which fits with the characters – it’s macho to be angry, and these characters are meant to be incredibly macho. Which means that when the actors need to show a less macho emotion, like fear, or sorrow, there’s a strong sense of whiplash. Fortunately, these scenes do not come up often, which actually makes these occurrences more jarring.

It’s still a good gangster film, just one with some weaknesses in the acting. Well, there are four more films in the series. Hopefully the acting range will broaden in the later films.