It’s odd how much polish a film series can undergo over the course of two years. The first installment in the Yakuza Papers series of films came out in 1973. This film, the final installment in the tetralogy came out in 1974. Kinji Fukasaku was already an accomplished director when he made the first film, but over the course of two years he quickly came up with a very definitive style to this series.
Final Episode is probably the most polished film in the series. The action scenes are still shot in handheld, as a sort of proto-shaky-cam, but unlike in earlier installments, the shake has been toned down enough where the action can be easily tracked. There is also a lot more composition in this film. The film’s shots are framed incredibly well – and the film also does some great work with reflections, particularly in the sunglasses of Tamotsu Matsumura, played by Kinya Kitaoji.
The film picks up a little after the conclusion of Police Tactics. Bunta Sugawara returns as Shozo Hirono, but he actually spends very little time on screen in the series’ final installment. Instead, this film follows Matsumura, the second in command of the Tensei Coalition – a political organization formed out of Hiroshima’s Yakuza families in the wake of the events of the last film. Akira Takeda (Akira Kobayashi), is intent to keep things quiet, and let business run – with the organization going more or less legit, to keep police pressure down.
Unfortunately, the best laid plans of mice and men often go astray, and when Hirono’s sworn brother, Terukichi Ichioka (Hiroki Matsukata), who is the boss of his own gang, gets out of the joint – he decides to throw his weight around, leading to a civil war within the Tensei Coalition. This leads to Takeda getting locked up early in the film. Now Matsumura, who is young and thus doesn’t have the respect of the older generations of gangsters, having to rein in a city’s worth of Yakuza who want to wage another war.
While this film certainly has its action scenes, the focus here is much more on the political maneuvering, and serves as an interesting mirror to the first film. Hirono was listless and without a place following the events of World War 2, and came to the Yakuza for purpose, and a sense of agency and empowerment that society denied him. During the events of Proxy War and Police Tactics, the Hiroshima Yakuza swelled their ranks with fighters.
However, you can’t muster down an organized crime family the same way you can muster down an army – even if you win. So now they’re stuck in a situation where there’s a rank and file that joined because they wanted a fight, and now they’re craving the next battle. Meanwhile, the higher ranks are so distanced from the fighting that they’re willing to throw away the lives of their subordinates for a quick power grab. This is particularly notable in the form of Hideo Hayakawa, the biggest Karma Houdini in the series, who has managed to avoid both long jail times and getting whacked by his fellow Yakuza over the course of all 5 movies. This leaves the Yakuza who are more reserved about doing violence – like Hirono, Matsumura, and Takeda – forced into bloodshed.
This leads to one of the aims of the series that Fukasaku and writers Koji Takada and Kōichi Iiboshi were aiming for – to break the mythology of the noble gangster. Aside from the second film, Hiroshima Deathmatch, Hirono has meshed almost perfectly with that archetype – he’s tough and able to do violence as needed without being a deranged psychopath, and he keeps to the code of the Yakuza even when he’s better off not doing so – and he triumphs because of it. You could almost say that the first and third films uphold that archetype.
What Police Tactics before and Final Episode highlight is that in the grand picture, that archetype is meaningless. Sticking to that ideal denies you agency and renders you powerless compared to those who are not willing to hold to that ideal. Conniving bosses will throw your life away if they outrank you, and will manipulate your belief in those ideals if they are your equals. Violent underlings in your organization or others will draw you into unnecessary fights no matter how hard you try to get them to change their mind, and – highlighted most of all in Police Tactics and Final Episode, you’re going to end up hurting the civilians you have built all this mythology around you protecting – and ultimately they’ll get sick of you and want you to go away.
The film wraps up with a metaphorical indictment of the Yakuza as a whole – making it clear that this cycle of violence and murder, once got started, can’t really be stopped. As long as the Yakuza exist, the cycle will continue, and the only way to end it is for the Yakuza to either give it up or get locked up.
As a conclusion, it feels more resonant than the “Crime Doesn’t Pay” endings of Scarface (You die rich) or Angels with Dirty Faces (You go to the chair). Crime doesn’t pay because you’ll be punished, but because you’re going to be unhappy and miserable. Even if you’re strong, even if you’re powerful, even if you think you’re going to be Michael Corleone and be the most clever, savvy gangster and out-maneuver your enemies, if you’re a “good” gangster, you’re going to be haunted by the ghosts of your subordinates who died on your watch.
The Yakuza Papers is available from Amazon.com.