Whenever someone names a predictable title like Plan 9 from Outer Space or Robot Monster or Yor, the Hunter from the Future as one of the worst movies of all time, my inevitable response is that if they think that’s one of the worst movies of all time, then they obviously haven’t seen enough movies. Certainly not enough to be making such bold proclamations such as naming it one of the worst of all time.
If I say “post apocalypse film,” then chances are, one of two things will pop into your mind. If you are my age or younger, or slightly older for that matter but not by much, then it’s entirely likely you’ll immediately picture Road Warrior and its many imitators often of an Italian origin. Pink mohawked men running wild in the desert atop supped up dune buggies while a stoic hero in leather mumbles and saves some band of peaceful folk trying to re-establish civilization. If you’re older, or more in tune with the length and breadth of exploitation film, then you might also drum up less-than-fond memories of those old 1950s atomic paranoia films, or the more interesting sci-fi films set after such a war had devastated the world and left it populated by nothing but nubile, sexy young women and virile, two-fisted scientists from the 20th century.
What you won’t think of, I’m willing to bet, is a gritty Japanese yakuza film set in the years immediately after the end of World War II, but that’s exactly what Battles Without Honor and Humanity can be construed as. It is, after all, taking place in the wake of the one atomic war we’ve actually had, and you can’t get more post-apocalyptic than Nagasaki or Hiroshima after the Bomb. And while you may not, thankfully, spy any pink-haired men in assless leather pants or bodybuilders in a Quiet Riot mask imploring a bunch of people in shoulder pads and burlap sacks to, “just walk away,” and while there may be no rolling deserts in sight, there are roving gangs of hooligans in leather jackets wreaking havoc on the innocent. The only real difference is that in the postwar chaos of Hiroshima, no hero emerges to defend the honor of the downtrodden. Everyone is too desperate, too defeated, too decimated to worry about heroism or honor – a state that seems foreign and inconceivable in a nation preoccupied with such notions. Here the hooligans are no better off than the citizens, and everyone is wracked by a panicky confusion that manifests itself either as defeatism or rage. This being a yakuza film, we’ll focus on the group of people who react with rage.
But if this is a post-apocalypse film of a different color, it is also a yakuza film quite unlike most anything that had come before it, and that difference stems entirely from the challenges facing postwar Japan, when survival suddenly seemed a hell of a lot more important than honor. Honor was paramount as a theme in yakuza films. Always there is the righteous gangster with an impeccable sense of honor and loyalty who stands in stark contrast to his foil, who will inevitably be the yakuza or samurai who has turned his back on “the code.” Even among thieves, there is still honor. Maverick director Kenji Fukasaku, however, would put an abrupt and bloody end to the classically romantic notion of the honorable gangster. After all, it is and always has been a load of crap. But no number of backstabbers, internal wars, hits, or squealers ratting out their fellow gangsters to the police seemed able to tarnish this idea of honor bound warriors abiding by a code of fair play, loyalty, and decency.
Fukasaku’s films sought to debunk this myth by portraying the yakuza as what gangsters and criminals often were – petty, vindictive, deceitful, and ready to exploit any vice if it’ll increase their power or the size of their bank account. He never dismissed the notions or any of the other conventions that were expected of the yakuza film as set down by the great icon Takakura Ken, who starred in dozens of post-war yakuza films that all seem to start with him being released from prison. Fukasaku knows the genre inside and out, and he makes sure he includes each of the clichés – the main character fresh out of prison, notions of honor, someone cutting off a pinky, so on and so forth; Once they’re in there, however, he twists them around wildly and turns them inside out in a way that hadn’t been done since yakuza genre deconstruction got its start under Seijun Suzuki in films like Tokyo Drifter and Branded to Kill. At the same time, however, he hasn’t set out to simply make a movie full of seedy characters in sunglasses shooting each other and selling drugs to little kids. At the center of it all is the motivation, the reason, these men have abandoned honor, and that is the war.
It all comes from a long lineage and the yakuza film’s peculiar position as one of the true Japanese cult genres. Samurai films were obviously Japanese, but they were also easily adaptable to other genres – as a good many Western has proved. And although they had in them the ideals of honor and loyalty, there were also swashbuckling sword films that could be, at least on the surface, translated into any number of other genres, such as sci-fi or fantasy. Yakuza films, on the other hand, are often so obsessed with the esoterica, Japanese tradition, secret codes, handshakes, and minutiae of their subject matter that it can’t be repeated without losing almost all its meaning. Strip it away, and you just have another gangster films, and while yakuza films were, on the surface, gangster films, they were also something quite different. There aren’t very many action-oriented shoot-em-ups in the yakuza genre. Most of them are fairly slow-moving, and that’s because most of them aren’t about the crime as much as they are about the criminals and the counter-culture they inhabit. A yakuza film without it isn’t a yakuza film; it’s just an action film. At their core and below the violence and gruff men shouting at each other, these are movies about a culture with roots stretching as far back as the Tokugawa Shogunate that first unified Japan and introduced to it a whole class of disenfranchised wandering samurai, or ronin, who basically lost their jobs when the petty warlords and regional masters become obsolete under the one government, one country system.
Suddenly, and in a way that eerily mirrors the post-bubble Japan of the early 21st century, these men who thought they’d been guaranteed jobs for life as noble samurai were out on the streets with nowhere to go and no one in need of their skills. Bands of ronin started forming their own societies, some acting almost like local police defending villages from marauders and greedy officials (like the chaps in Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai), others acting like local thugs. These bands of ronin eventually became known by the name yakuza – Japanese for the unlucky 8-9-3 combo in dice gambling that means you just lost. The early yakuza films dealt primarily with these historic and usually heroic samurai. 1927’s Chuji’s Travel Diary was the first of the bunch, but others quickly fell in and began writing the rules by which the genre would play. After World War II, however, yakuza films were more or less banned under the thinking that, to keep the Japanese from standing up to fight again, you had to strip them completely of their dignity and take away anything that might showcase that famous fighting spirit. Hey, it was MacAurthur’s idea, not mine.
The result, of course, was the desperation we see in the beginning of Battles Without Honor and Humanity. When we first meet our rowdy bunch of central characters – and there are a lot of them, with plenty more on the way, so you better keep a flow chart handy – they are bitter hustlers trying to stay alive in the turmoil and madness of post-bomb Hiroshima. Ostensibly, our main character is a young hustler named Shozo, played by yakuza film staple Bunta Sugawara. Sugawara became one of the most recognizable and beloved faces in the yakuza films of the 1970s, thanks in large part to his partnership with director Kenji Fukasaku. Shozo and his mates live in a world without a future. They’ve just survived the most horrific single attack man has ever seen (and no, I’m making a pro- or anti-atomic bomb statement there – I think proponents and opponents of dropping the bomb on Japan can agree at least on the fact that it was a pretty big deal), and in the aftermath, they find themselves at the mercy of an occupying force determined (so the story goes) to strip them entirely of what little dignity they may still retain. In such an atmosphere, honor and humanity was a distant consideration to simply staking out a claim, and if the myth of the yakuza code had ever been real, it was certainly killed in the atomic blasts.
When, in 1951, the Japanese regained much of their freedom as a nation, period films were back in action, but most of these were samurai films. They were the best way for the Japanese to recapture their lost glory and start to rebuild a sense of self-worth. Honor, nobility, self-respect – these were the things that made the samurai movie tick. And loyalty – loyalty was essential, both to the samurai and to the mid-century Japanese who were trying to forge a new nation and establish a new government unlike any they’d had before. The era of shoguns and emperors had given way to the Japanese Diet, or parliament, and democracy.
If there weren’t many yakuza on the screen, then it was compensated for by the fact that so many of them were involved behind the scenes. Bored with turf wars among themselves and with the Chinese and Korean minorities who formed their own gangs, the postwar hooligans saw money to be made in the newly revitalized Japanese film industry. Many of them became involved as scouts, producers, and a few even became studio heads. Eventually, of course, yakuza films started creeping back onto screens, this time set primarily during the period of rapid modernization just prior to World War II and involving a heroic gangster usually stubbornly clinging to traditional Japanese clothing facing off against corrupt gangsters who had usually sold out and started wearing Western style suits – very similar to what we’d see again in the 1970s when Hong Kong kungfu films invariably featured a guy in that traditional Chinese shirt and pants and slippers kicking the crap out of a bunch of thugs in bell bottoms and those Little Rascal caps.
When the yakuza films started toying with a more modern, post-war setting, the films were still richly melodramatic and steeped in nostalgia for the old ways. Takakura Ken became the poster boy for the new yakuza film and starred in more than a sane person would want to count. By the end of the 1960s, the social upheaval that was engulfing much of the world was just as strong in Japan as anywhere else, and people weren’t buying these sentimental doomed heroes bound by codes of honor and love. Seijun Suzuki had started messing with the truisms of the yakuza film, but his wild pop-art experiments were more a rebellion against assembly line, characterless filmmaking than they were against the yakuza genre itself. The real hit on honor-heavy yakuza films came in 1967 with the release of Junya Sato’s Organized Violence starring Tetsuro Tanba (best known to Western audiences as Tiger Tanaka from the James Bond film You Only Twice) and Sonny Chiba. In 1973, Kinji Fukasaku upped the ante with Battles Without Honor and Humanity, a cutthroat, unflinching, and decidedly unromantic look at the world of post-war gangs in Japan.
At the center of the maelstrom is Bunta Sugawara, a former matinee idol turned iconic bad boy and sporting a severe flattop and all-around stern, militaristic look. After striking back at some rowdy American GIs, typically portrayed as loud-mouthed, swaggering, and ready to beat up or rape anyone in sight, Bunta’s Shozo goes to prison, where he becomes blood brothers with another inmate, Hiroshi, played by Tatsuo Umemiya. When he gets out, Shozo is taken under the wing of the boss of Yamagumi Gang, but he quickly learns that the yakuza world is not as it was, if it was ever that way in the first place. His boss is a coward, ready to backstab at the drop of a hat, and equally ready to cower and sob if he can’t get a sucker punch in. Shozo is bewildered by the array of gangsters all fighting amongst themselves and jockeying for political alliances and territorial gains. It gets to the point where so many players are introduced and so many loyalties switch back and forth that it soon becomes impossible for the viewer to keep everything straight – which is precisely the effect Fukasaku is going for, as it mirrors perfectly the feelings of the confused and frustrated Shozo, who wanders through this madness in a half-dazed state, harboring still some notion of loyalty and honor that manages, paradoxically, to both make him the center of attention and marginalize him completely, to keep him in the crosshairs but also safer than most. When an old friend makes a dramatic power play, Shozo is caught between him and his old boss, who is hardly worthy of Shozo’s continuing loyalty.
Battles Without Honor and Humanity was based on a book by journalist Koichi Iiboshi chronicling the history of the real life Mino gang. As such, the film rings especially factual in its documentation of dirty yakuza life, playing at times almost like a series of yakuza home movies. The film is brutally violent but not action-packed. The drama between the character, and the stripping away of every lofty romanticized delusion regarding the yakuza and the yakuza film are the film’s primary weapons. When the violence does come, it is fast, ugly, and street-style. You’ll see no white-clad gangsters with two guns leaping through the air in balletic slow motion. Instead, there is only sweating, grunting, screaming, and blood. Fukasaku employs a lot of street-level hand-held cameras – something that was in vogue at Toei Studios, owing mostly to the fact that they were cheap, easy to use, and resulted in faster shooting schedules. The effect was often detrimental to the film, as in many of the Sonny Chiba karate flicks whose action was undermined by blurry, shaky handheld camera work. Here, however, it serves to throw you into the thick of the action and further confuse you and make you relate to Shozo and makes the movie feel even more like a piece of guerrilla documentary filmmaking.
Although the sheer number of characters keeps you from ever becoming too emotionally attached to any one person, Shozo included, it’s still an emotionally engaging film. It’s the entirety of the situation that pulls you in, the mere act of watching these people pull themselves – and ultimately, their entire country – out of the ashes only to self-destruct once the hard part was over. It’s a common occurrence that continues to play itself out on a daily basis. It’s easy to find unity when there is a common struggle, but once the struggle has been surmounted, once the battle has been won, people find it’s even harder for them to hold things together. The experiences in the desolation of Hiroshima pulled these men together, and the increasingly secure and prosperous times that followed tore them apart. The peace, as they say, is always harder to keep than to win. Compare these post-war yakuza, then, to something like the criminal gangs and militias of Chechnya. Like the yakuza, they banded together against a common enemy, in this case the Russian army and the utter ruin visited upon the country of Chechnya.
Like Hiroshima after the bomb, Chechnya has been reduced almost to ashes, its infrastructure shattered, its people hopeless and angry, and its future even bleaker than that of Japan at the close of World War II. Gangsters became politicians became resistance fighters and military heroes, and after years of bitter struggle the inhumanity of which may be unparalleled in the 20th Century, even by the standards set by such atrocities exhibitions as Sierra Leone and Pol Pot’s Cambodia, the Russians finally withdrew, claiming a bogus victory in the war and leaving the Chechens with a wasteland to rebuild. Unfortunately, the men who proved so valiant, fearless, and admittedly bloodthirsty and brutal in (and out of) combat could not rebuild the nation they defended. The war had been their element, but peace and rebuilding proved too much. In the end, at least for Chechnya, it didn’t matter, since as soon as Vladimir Putin was elected president of Russia, he made a point of resuming hostilities with a shocking ferocity that should leave the world aghast if the world ever bothered to pay attention to some bunch of mountain rabble with ties to fundamentalist Islam. The bitter cold of the Caucasus Mountains seems an odd place for jihad, accustomed as we are to seeing it played out on the sands of the Middle East. But then that whole area where the Middle East collides with Europe and Asia is a fascinating, confusing, and endlessly tumultuous corner of the world that few people seem to understand or take much interest in.
That nations are often built on the backs and from the sweat and blood of criminals is a frequent theme in history, and indeed most human history is little more that a chronicle of criminal acts committed in the name of god, king, and country. Martin Scorcese’s Gangs of New York sought to examine that very piece of the history of New York in particular and the United States as a whole, as did Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather before it. Kinji Fukasaku’s Battles Without Honor and Humanity does the same for Japan, and later entries into the series would trace the development even further, going so far as to make the claim, perhaps not outrageously, that much of Japan’s emergence as a global economic power is the result of the machinations of driven but corrupt criminal gangs. For the first entry in the series, we see simply their emergence from the war and subsequent failure to work cohesively without the immediate threat of US occupation. Left to their own devices, boredom sets in and brings with it violent internal conflict and turf wars. They were born of chaos and need chaos to survive. If there is no external threat to unite them, after all, then they will create an internal one to rip themselves to shreds.
Fukasaku’s film is not completely devoid of the yakuza genre trappings; it simply presents them so that it can dispel them. Indeed the beginning, in which Shozo is sent to prison and we meet him again as he is released after some brief scenes while incarcerated, could be the opening to any of a number of Takakura Ken films. The only difference is that there is very little in the way of nobility to any of it. Takakura Ken was always a majestic figure who radiated righteousness and honor even as a criminal. He was strong, confident, and trustworthy. Bunta Sugawara, however, plays his part with a sullen shiftiness. He never radiates confidence of nobility as much as he does awkward discomfort and confusion. Both actors and characters steep themselves in the melancholy, however, and Bunta’s Shozo might ultimately be what one of Takakura Ken’s yakuza figures would be like if he came out of prison and was faced with the ream world of organized crime, where men hardened by the experience of the war had little use for outdated romantic notions of the noble yakuza.
Fukasaku plays with other genre conventions as well. The obligatory pinky-chopping scene (chopping off a finger being the traditional way to atone for some offensive transgression of the code in the yakuza world) is played for laughs on an almost slapstick scale. Shozo, like Takakura Ken’s many yakuza characters, leaves prison to find the world is not as he left it, but rather than standing in stark contrast to it like one of Ken’s Walking Tall-esque gangsters, Shozo becomes a participant in it, maybe not as active as others, but a participant none the less. And no, he won’t be making any moving or eloquent speeches. If Takakura Ken was the Elvis of the yakuza film, then watching Bunta Sugawara must have been like The King seeing The Beatles for the first time.
By the time the final shots are fired and the groundwork is laid for future films, the viewer is exhausted, physically and emotionally, partly from the not-so-simple task of trying to keep straight all the betrayals and factions that come into play in this battle between the Doi and Yamagumi gangs. Besides Shozo, who is relegated almost to the role of spectator, there are very few people for whom to root, no honorable yakuza. There are only backstabbers, petulant childlike bosses, and the occasional visionary who wants to run the yakuza like a corporation and reap huge profits as a result – the road that would eventually win out, as it was. Bunta Sugawara remains, through it all, a solid presence with a deadly gaze. In effect, he’s seeing things the same as we see them and is just as confounded by it all. His performance is one of subtlety, which is often how people try to describe a bad performance they don’t want to call bad. Chuck Norris, for instance, is more bad than he subtle. Clint Eastwood, on the other hand, was subtle and deadly good at it. Bunta is more Clint.
If the film has any weakness, it’s in some of the period costumes. The film is set in the 1940s and early 1950s, but some of the cars and fashions on display are without a doubt early 1970s. It’s a good idea not to sweat a detail like that. Kinji isn’t Akira Kurosawa after all, who demanded that whole sets on Tora! Tora! Tora! be destroyed and rebuilt because the shade of paint on the battleship wasn’t historically accurate. That might be why Akira Kurosawa was replaced on that film by.hey, Kinji Fukasaku! So just let the big collars and ’70s shades slide. The film is trying to accurately dissect the yakuza, not the fashion trends that surrounded them.
Battles Without Honor and Humanity is a demanding film, especially for audiences who don’t speak Japanese or aren’t familiar with the intricacies of the yakuza genre. People looking for knockdown, wall-to-wall action are going to be disappointed. The action here come sin spurts and is ugly, unchoreographed, and very real. First and foremost this is a drama and a societal study, a philosophical film but stripped of lyricism and poetry. It is more like the streetwise wisdom delivered by some old crank. After all, you don’t sit down to watch Goodfellas or Miller’s Crossing for the action scenes. This is crime drama, and as crime drama and modern day film noir, it’s complex and engaging on multiple levels and remains one of the best and most unconventional yakuza films around. It does require a lot of the viewer, but then most good films do. Unlike many films in the crime genre, it can’t be enjoyed on a purely popcorn level. It’s not one of those movies where you can just sit back and enjoy the ride. You have to actively engage it and work at it, and even then it’s the film’s point that sometimes you’re going to be lost, just like Shozo.
If you aren’t interested in the yakuza as a social phenomenon or cultural study and not just as an action movie cliche, then Battles Without Honor and Humanity won’t do much for you. Not that the movie is dull or lacking in action, but it’ll seem that way if you were expecting something more.modern, I suppose. Guys in sharp suits posing and doing Hong Kong style kungfu fights, that sort of thing. Even contemporary Japanese audiences don’t seem that interested or able to grasp what a film like Battles Without Honor and Humanity was attempting to accomplish. This is a completely brilliant film, and like most brilliant films, it just isn’t dumb enough for some people.
It was a major hit at the time and made Kinji Fukasaku’s career. It’s odd that until the release of Battle Royale, the director was best known in the West for the movies that least defined his oeuvre. Sci-fi quickies like The Green Slime were hardly Fukasaku’s calling card, but since the yakuza films, and especially the kind of yakuza films Fukasaku was making, were and to some degree still are fairly inaccessible to most audiences, it’s Green Slime and Message for Space for Kinji. Or at least it was until, as an aged man with failing health and nothing to lose, he set Japan — and this time a good portion of the rest of the world — afire again with Battle Royale, another movie that seeks at its heart to pick away at Japan’s notion of itself as an orderly and honorable country in much the same way a chicken in Battles Without Honor and Humanity picked away at the dismembered pinky of a disgraced yakuza.
Films like this would later become some of the most popular films among real-life yakuza, who would gather in old theaters and watch them and pine for the days when crime was nasty and tough and violent instead of white-collar and dull and corporate. It probably has a lot to do with films like Battles Without Honor and Humanity being so grounded in the reality of the situation and with the fact that many of them involved real gangsters. Heck, Noboru Ando was a real life yakuza who eventually starred as himself in a series of more or less autobiographical film adventures about his seedy life. It’s the ultimate irony that these guys would get nostalgic for a type of film that made a point of dismantling nostalgia, romantic for a film that strove to strip away any notions of romanticism from its subject matter. It’s also a sign that when Kinji Fukasaku made this film, he was doing more than making a film; he was documenting an entire culture and way of life.
For a long time, yakuza films were the big missing piece of puzzle that is Japanese film in America. In the years before DVD, you could find any number of groovy Japanese monster movies. Sure, they were pan and scan and dubbed, but few people thought to be offended by such things at the time because we were simply happy to be watching Godzilla or Yog or any other creature smashing up the place. Samurai movies were a bit scarcer, but at least they were represented by a smattering of titles. Yakuza films were a vast and largely untapped reservoir just waiting to be unleashed on American fans who had perhaps read about the films, or knew people in Japan who had seen them, but had otherwise been limited to little more than tantalizing photos in magazines and stories about movies in which guys screamed a lot and cut off their pinky fingers.
In the past few years, all that has changed. Well, I reckon it started a little bit before that when someone decided to release a fistful of Seijun Suzuki films on VHS. Then in the past year, HVe and American Cinemathique really opened the floodgates and started pushing yakuza films into the forefront. And while certain notable titles remain MIA (the Abashiri Prison series, and frankly, most of the great old Takakura Ken films that started the craze back in the 50s and 60s), we’re certainly a hell of a lot better off now that we can walk into any old video store and pick up a copy of Blackmail is My Life, Underworld Beauty, or the movie on the chopping block right now, Yasuharu Hasebe’s 1969 yakuza thriller, Bloody Territories.
I first discovered Hasebe when I picked up the film Black Tight Killers, a movie in which sexy female assassins in a vast array of showy mod outfits do things like fling deadly razor-sharp 7-inch records. It was really my kind of movie. Hasebe, I’m told, learned his craft from the master of pop-art yakuza madness, Seijun Suzuki, and the influence of Japan’s number one maverick certainly showed in Black Tight Killers. By 1969, however, much of the eye-catching weirdness seems to have left the work of Hasebe, and while Bloody Territories is not a bad film, it’s also nothing special, certainly not as special, quirky, or weird as you would hope from the man that gave us Black Tight Killers. It is just a yakuza film. Well, no. Maybe it’s not just a yakuza film, but with Kinji Fukasaku just over the horizon, Bloody Territories is simply the kind of movie that gets lost in the shuffle even if it has a few interesting thematic twists.
The deconstruction of the yakuza genre that had been built up in the films of Takakura Ken began with Seijun Suzuki’s gleefully cracked subversion of the genre, but he was just so out there that a lot of people didn’t even realize exactly what was happening. In 1967, Junya Sato made what many consider to be the first “modern” yakuza film, that is to say, a film in which the noble notions of honor and righteousness that characterized the Takakura Ken films were completely trashed, and the yakuza were depicted mainly as a bunch of ruthless, opportunistic thugs with no sense of honor and no flare for the romantic. Hasebe’s Bloody Territories falls somewhere short of Sato’s Organized Violence when it comes to its depiction of the yakuza. The core characters still cling to the old values and traditions of loyalty and honor, but it’s obvious they live in a world that has abandoned such ideals. The twist Bloody Territories brings to the table isn’t that the other yakuza have become dishonorable and sleazy; it’s that the yakuza are bested at their own game by businessmen, who are every bit as ruthless and far more effective, it turns out, at running things.
The action revolves around the number two and number three man in the Onogi Clan, a renegade yakuza gang that refuses to dissolve their organization during a big pow wow where everyone else agrees to disband. The Onogi Clan, it seems, spends as much time cleaning up the streets and serving as a sort of neighborhood watch as they spend engaging in the usual activities that occupy the average yakuza’s day. In fact, as the credits roll we are treated to a montage of Onogi gangsters prowling the streets, protecting young ladies who are getting harassed, taking care of drunks who mess stuff up, and other small-time disturbances they don’t want going on in their turf. The Onogis are never the less disturbed by the fact that these random acts are even occurring. It never used to be like that. Turns out another big gang from out of town is attempting to muscle in on Onogi turf now that they know the Onogis have no larger organization supporting them.
Proud though they may be, the Onogis know their small neighborhood group can’t take on the entire Kansai region syndicate. They seek the help of old friends who have now entered into legitimate business to mediate a truce, though the price of mediation bankrupts the clan since they’d never measured their success in terms of money, but rather through their acquisition of turf, order, and respect. This newfangled obsession with money instead of “face” is simply outside the realm in which the Onogi operate. Before too long, they realize that they’ve been had, and while they were worrying about rival yakuza, what they should have been watching out for was the big corporation – a gang in its own right, but one with loyalties not to any single boss but instead simply to the practice of making a profit.
The central characters are Onogi’s number two (Seichi) and number three (Yuji, played by Akira Kobayashi, who starred in Suzuki’s Kanto Wanderer, Hasebe’s Black Tight Killers, and later a couple of Kinji Fukasaku’s Battles Without Honor and Humanity films). Seichi is the cool one, collected and smart and basically the man who will take control of the gang when the current boss retires. Yuiji is smart as well, but a bit more of a hothead who is quicker to call for retribution even when he knows it’ll be certain death. Seichi is confident that they can figure a way out of the predicament without all having to die in a valiant last stand in the name of old school honor. Yuiji figures they’re stuck in a no-win situation and might as well go out in defense of their out-of-date principles and notions of honor. Their opposite, at least for a while, is the underboss of the Kansai gang, a man who first sets out to destroy the Onogis and take over their territory until he himself finds out that even his larger gang is simply a pawn of big business. Although at war with the Onogis, he finds himself standing alongside Yuiji and Seichi in defense of the old ways.
The conflict’s shift from rival yakuza gangs to the entire concept of what it was to be a yakuza versus the amoral profit-motivated aggressiveness of big business provides Bloody Territories with the twist that keeps it from being dismissible as “just another yakuza film” and situates it as a nice bridge between the Takakura Ken films, which celebrate the morals and ideals upheld by Onogi gangsters, and the Kinji Fukasaku films in which we see the erosion and breakdown of the yakuza code. But remember, these are still knife wielding killer businessmen, not just guys who throw around a lot of business buzzwords. However, I doubt the yakuza would fare any better if pitted against an adversary who, instead of simply meeting them in the back alley for a fight, insisted instead on setting up a meeting to discuss enterprise-wide paradigm shifts in how the yakuza implement robust solutions for end user clients. And oh yeah, they intend to tear down your quaint neighborhood tea house and gang headquarters and replace it with a TGI Friday’s. Try being a tough yakuza hitman when you’re forced to have meetings in the rumpus room of a TGI Fridays while a peppy suspenders-wearing guy named Stevie brings you jalapeno poppers. You can’t kill people while eating jalapeno poppers!
Although the film takes a while to get going, once it does the twists are entertaining and the action is appropriately bloody. As if to underscore the position of the Onogi boys as die-hard old schoolers, they eschew the use of guns and favor the good ol’ tanto knives – probably more realistic than showing a bunch of gangsters sporting heavy duty firepower since firearms are harder to come by (not to mention get away with using) than blades.
Hasebe’s direction lacks the flare one would expect from him. This must have been his “normal” movie on the road from Black Tight Killers to Spectreman. Bloody Territories is still vividly colorful, especially when yakuza thugs get to have knife fights amid flowing white sheets of laundry, but there’s a certain something missing that keeps the film from being as visually innovative as it should be. I am thankful for the fact that they’re still using tripods and dollies for the shots. The 1970s would usher in the era of wildly shaking “heat of the action” shots that can really make an old man’s head hurt. And oh yeah — this being a Nikkatsu production (the studio who would later become to pinky violent and softcore porn films what Britain’s Hammer was to horror), there are a couple gratuitous boob shots and weirdly out-of-place and completely frivolous “sweat-dripping lesbians” scene. As always, we welcome such utterly throw-away and inexcusable forays into cheap and tawdry titillation. If only every movie ever made would cut away to a minute or two of wet, dripping, naked lesbians naking out for no reason!
The script also lacks flare as it dutifully covers all the yakuza film points from the loving wife whose man is killed, to the guy who has to chop off a pinky as atonement for some offense. And of course there is gambling and lots of sitting around in a teahouse engaging in boisterous talk. Aside from our three central yakuza, there are very few characters worth remembering. A former yakuza torn between his respect for the old ways and his position as a top employee at the corporation and the mistress of the head of the Kansai gang show promise as two more interesting characters, but their stories are either too spottily covered or simply seem to get lost and remain undeveloped amid the sundry plot threads that have to be tied up by the film’s rain-and-blood soaked finale. No one is as cool as Takakura Ken from the old films or Bunta Sugawara from the Fukasaku films that would follow. Akira Kobayashi is a good central character, but even the central characters lack anything that really makes them stand out. Although the movie’s plot pitting old-fashioned yakuza against corporate greed and corruption is a unique take on the genre, none of the characters are anything out of the ordinary for such a film. There’s cool and reserved guy, medium hothead, guy in floppy hat, so on and so forth. It simply doesn’t give us enough that’s new and different from what we’d seen beforehand, resulting in a film that isn’t a must-see but is instead one of those, “See it if you get the chance” films that don’t really demand any sense or urgency.
Even with so-so characters and a script that could use some tightening in places, Bloody Territories remains a good film. Just not a great one. It’s an interesting transition piece, but with Hasebe directing, one tends to expect more. Still, I’m just thankful to have so many yakuza films from which to chose now, and even a rather average one like this is still a treat.
Release Year: 1969 | Country: Japan | Starring: Akira Kobayashi, Ryoji Hayama, Tadao Nakamaru, Hiroshi Nawa, Tatsuya Fuji, Yuriko Hime, Jiro Okazaki, Yoshi Kato, Fujio Suga, Bontaro Miyak, Kichijiro Ueda, Takamaru Sasaki, Kyoko Mine | Writer: Kazuo Aoki, Yasuharu Hasebe | Director: Yasuharu Hasebe | Music: Hajime Kaburagi | Cinematographer: Muneo Ueda | Producer: Tetsuro Nakagawa
When people talk about the sequence of films that make up Hammer Studio’s “Dracula” series, a good many of them make the eight-year leap from the first film, 1958’s Horror of Dracula to Dracula, Prince of Darkness in 1966. It’s quite a jump, indeed, but one that seems to land you just about where you need to be, with the latter film beginning with a quick recap of the climax from the former. What gets lost in between the two films is the actual first sequel to Horror of Dracula, which is a shame because it’s one of the best in the series, and one of the best vampire films Hammer ever produced.
Whenever someone is promoting a film as either “getting back to the spirit of the original” or “the most faithful adaptation of the novel,” you know you’re going to be in trouble. They never recapture “the spirit of the original” even when the spirit of the original wasn’t that hot to begin with, and the more they crow about how faithful their adaptation is, the less likely it will be to stick to the source material.
Of all the television shows that have come and gone, few had the personal fashion impact of Miami Vice. Its influence was unmatched up until the day all those girls started getting the “Friends haircut.” While I may like to labor under the delusion that I’ve always been a wildly diverse, counter-culture fringe dweller for all my life and started fighting The Man the minutes I was cut out of my mother’s belly (or even before, since I insisted The Man drag me into his world by force), the sad fact of the matter is that in seventh grade, I was still a year away from my revelation. Though hardly a “business as usual” kind of kid, Lord knows I owned a few audaciously colored Polo shirts, a pair of Duck Head khakis, and a pair of those weird tan, soft leather Bass shoes. Not the boat shoes, but those other ones. At least I wasn’t one of the guys who wore Tretorns. I owned a copy of Thriller, and yes, I owned a Miami Vice soundtrack cassette. So sue me. It was the 1980s, and it wouldn’t be until a year later that I would discover skateboarding and begin my evolution.
When reviewing Sword and the Sorcerer, I remarked on the hesitation I feel any time I chose to revisit things from my past, especially from the period of my past falling roughly between 1982 to 1985, a period in which I knew all the words to “Easy Lover.” What disturbs me even more, as eBay makes revisiting my favorite films of that era an easy to afford reality, is that I keep discovering that I still like those movies. By all accounts, The Beastmaster and Gymkata should not be good movies once you cross the threshold into adulthood, doubly so for an adult who spent much of his college career writing papers on “the influence of expressionism in early German silent films” or “the influence of World War One on cinematic art design, 1919-1936.” After watching and dissecting films consider by popular consensus to be among the very best ever made, I should not be sitting down with giddy anticipation to watch The Perils of Pauline, having gained nary an ounce of sophistication since the day I first watched it at a friend’s house on cable television decades ago.
Yet here I sit, constructing a website about the world of film in which Citizen Kane is little more than the punch line to a variety of jokes, where religiously-themed masterpiece movies like Beckett are known but Devil Nuns of Monza is more likely to be given an in-depth analysis.
Michael Mann, the producer who gave the world Miami Vice and helped rocket Phillip Michael Thomas into a lucrative career as a phone psychic spokesman, has come a long way since the days when the interior of police stations were all done up in neon, Edward James Olmos was a police chief with ninja training, and Don Johnson was looking for a heartbeat. Since those days, he’s given the world the critically acclaimed feature films Manhunter (the first movie to introduce the world to the character of Hannibal Lecter), and Heat starring Al Pacino, Robert DeNiro, and a weird but unmentioned bulbous knob on Val Kilmer’s elbow. In 2001, Mann shook things up again with a highly anticipated biopic about Muhammad Ali with the controversial casting of Will Smith as Kentucky’s own and Mario Van Peebles as Malcom X.
So it is with no great surprise that we’ll be ignoring completely the respectable body of work Mann has given us in the past ten or fifteen years, and concentrating instead on the 1986 film Band of the Hand. Produced by Mann and directed by former Starsky and Hutch star Paul Michael Glaser (also a Miami Vice alumnus, though unlike Mann, he actually got less credible as his career progressed – if you call Kazaam progress), everything about Band of the Hand screams outdated 1980s chic. From the “cool” clothes to the frequent pink and blue neon, there’s certainly no mistaking the era in which this movie was produced. With all that dating going against it, not to mention the inevitable fate of being dismissed as “cheesy” by any feeble-minded simp who can’t get a grip on anything older than The Matrix, I was shocked upon viewing this film some fifteen years after I first thought it was pretty cool to find that it’s actually still pretty cool.
Not that it’s a forgotten classic or anything. There’s no real crime being committed by the bulk of humanity for not remembering this movie was ever made, but it’s still pretty fun, if not more than a little outlandish in its premise. We begin with a series of juvenile delinquents being rounded up for various crimes. To be honest, some of these juveniles look pretty old. I mean, is “international coke trafficker in a slick pastel blazer and sportscar” really something juvenile delinquents do? I figure, you know, knifing someone or stealing porno mags is what juvenile delinquents do, not setting up vast international drug rings. But that’s just what Ruben seems to be doing. He’s on the fast-track to success as a Cuban drug dealer until he gets busted.
Then there’s Moss and Carlos, the leaders of rival black and Puerto Rican street gangs. They get nabbed when a rumble between their respective posses turns into an all-out riot. Generic “pretty boy” Dorsey gets busted trying to sell drugs. Future cross-dressing sex symbol and Hedwig and the Angry Inch director/star John Cameron Mitchell rounds out our band of misfits as JL, a disturbed young punk rocker in the truest 1980s movie sense of the word, meaning they slap spikey orange hair, a pair of Oakleys, and some neon colored paint-splattered clothes on him. He gets arrested when he catches his abusive stepfather beating the shit out of his mom and decides that the old man deserves a little fatal justice for his actions.
But a funny thing happens on the way to jail.
Our five young trouble makers find themselves dropped off not at juvie, but instead in the middle of the swampy Everglades. The only other person around is a gruff dude named Joe who showcases early 1980s “mercenary” fashion by wearing nothing but black tank tops, black cargo pants tucked into his combat boots, and of course, accessorizing with the black bandana tied around his head. Joe informs them that he is about to use up the greater portion of the film’s “suspension of disbelief” allotment. The five rakehells have been drafted into a special rehabilitation program in which they are dropped into the middle of the swamp and forced to fend for themselves while Joe dispenses half-baked zen warrior wisdom, thus teaching them all the value of self-respect and team work, which will eventually prepare them to return to the means streets of Miami where they will defend the locals from a young Laurence Fishburne as a pimp and Ruben’s old drug kingpin boss.
There are, of course a couple problems with the plot. First of all, I don’t think, even in the Reagan era, you were allowed to shanghai young criminals and drop them in the swamp with Billy Jack. Sure, you could put a telephone book on their chest and hit it with a hammer, but dropping them in the swamp to eat bugs and slog through the murky, snake- and gator-invested waters of south Florida’s beautiful ecosystem was right out. Luckily, none of these guys seems to have any family, at least not any family that objects to their ne’r-do-well offspring being sent to the swamp to build bivouacs.
The second problem is that Joe doesn’t really seem to teach them very much, and their revelation about the value of sticking together and becoming friends is rushed through with very little development. I’m guessing they were out in the swamp for weeks, but the way the film is put together, it feels like a couple days. It becomes obvious very early on that the film treasures style over substance – not surprising with Michael Mann in the producer’s seat. The end result, also not surprising given Mann and Glaser were both primarily television guys at this point, is a movie that feels like a television show. Each of the boys plays a stereotyped character – -the two gang leaders, the suave drug dealer, the dumb pretty boy, and the quiet crazy guy, all of whom eventually discover the value of good. The story relies on you being familiar with those archetypes (and honestly, who isn’t at this point?), and never really does much to develop the characters beyond that.
Ruben is the one exception to the rule, as he’s the only character the movie spends any real time on. After he and the gang – the Band, if you will – successfully complete their program of Joe going off to eat hot wings while they wallow in the muck, Ruben’s first instinct is to bail on the ghetto squat they adopt as their home and headquarters and return to his posh life and position of power. Part of his motivation is his girlfriend, Nikki, played by a young Lauren Holly. She’s still caught up in “the life,” though she’s starting to fear for hers. When Ruben’s old boss declares war on “that bunch of young punks” who are cleaning up his most profitable ghetto, Ruben has to chose between the high life or street war alongside his new friends. Which way he goes is no big surprise, of course.
What is a big surprise, especially for a movie like this, is how good most of the young actors are. John Cameron Mitchell was years away from becoming a counter-culture darling, but he brings a quiet and believable intensity to the character of JL and actually softens the “smart, crazy dude” stereotype by playing it a little more subtle where most people would have hooted and hollered way over the top. The late Michael Carmine does a great job as Ruben, and the rest of the cast performs with workhorse-like competency within the limited roles assigned to them. Carlos is protrayed by Anthony Quinn’s son, though from the looks of him, he could just as easily be related to Antonio Sabata, Sr. James Remar, known in b-movie fandom as one of the greatest sleazy villains of all time (or alternately as “that guy who reminds me of Willem Dafoe”), turns in exactly the performance you expect: delightfulyl slimy. Lawrence Fishburne is mostly there to tool around in a pimpmobile and do that thing where you talk big and threaten some dude with a gun, then that guy disarms you in the blink of an eye and kicks your ass.
Where the movie fails the talents of the cast is in the writing, which as I said, suffers from shallowness and a certain degree of far-fetchedness, if there is such a word. It was the 1980s, though, and if Arnold could walk slowly across a lawn while three dozen guys with M-16s fail to shoot him, then a quintet of wacky young punks can train in the swamp to fight Miami drug dealers. At nearly two hours, though, they should have had time to do more with characters other than Ruben. Instead, it’s up to us to fill in the blanks. Joe spouts off idiotic “way of the peaceful warrior” philosophies that we have to accept as profound and deep because the movie calls for it. He’s wise, or so we’re told, but in reality, his wisdom comes off like the dime-store nonsense your finer high school football coaches spout off.
The scenario itself is rushed and undeveloped as well. It’s like we’re watching them bicker and fight with one another, then in the next scene there should be a bit of text saying, “And they fought long into the night, but by dawn, had learned to respect one another.” There’s no real sense of character development from the guys. We’re asked to simply accept at face value that somewhere out there in the swamp, they discover their humanity.
Where the first half of the film is a so-so Dirty Dozen type “misfits train to be the best of the best” type film, the second half sees the movie dive into a 1980s interpretation of all those “let’s clean up the ghetto” type films from the 1970s, with Joe being a link to the many “vets clean up the ghetto” type movies that became popular in the 1980s. You know the ones. A Vietnam vet returns to “The World” only to discover that the madness of war is nothing compared to the madness that has seized the streets of America. Where as the cats in the 1970s generally fought back with kungfu and various wacky schemes, in the Reagan Era, they decided to dispense with the shenanigans and simply start blowing people away and shooting them with flamethrowers.
The action is poured on pretty heavily in the second half of the film, and while it’s certainly not on par with what was going on in Hong Kong at the time, there were certainly worse atrocities committed in the name of American action choreography, many of them conveniently located in Ninja III: The Domination. With Mann’s guiding hand, and no neophyte to the world of action himself, Glaser directs the action sequences with style, energy, and a quick pace. The finale sees the Band unite to take out a major drug manufacturing plant in South Florida, disappointing hundreds if not thousands of Bret Easton Ellis characters and fans alike.
Stylewise, the movie is Miami Vice. Mann spared no Vice idiosyncrasy or element in this big-screen adaptation of his pastel, neon-drenched Miami. Had it been legally possible, they could have actually set this movie in the Miami Vice universe as a spin-off with Crockett and Tubbs cameos. No such cross-over, however, though the film looks exactly like its small-screen counterpart. Everyone dresses like a rock star. Everyone has cool cars. And of course, every light in Miami is neon pink. That last one actually isn’t so far from the truth. While it would have been nice to see Mann and Glaser concoct something a little different, you can’t really blame them for drawing from the Miami Vice well. That sort of style is inevitable for Mann. Even Heat, produced years later and set in Miami’s kindred spirit of a city, Los Angeles, still has certain scenes that are heavy on the Vice style. I wonder if Mann will apply the same glowing pink neon to the seedy world of boxing in Ali.
While the style of the film certainly dates it as a product of the 1980s, it doesn’t torpedo the film the way you might think. This could be because everyone these days apes John Woo, and some of Woo’s films, while certainly not mimicking Miami Vice possess that same “ultra suave” sense of style. Thus the Band of the Hand fashion isn’t as outlandish now as it probably should be.
The direction itself is solid if unspectacular. Like the plot, the direction relies primarily on the popularity of the Miami Vice sheen to carry the film, rising to the task only when the action scenes erupt and everyone starts jumping around with uzis, the gun of choice in pretty much every 1980s urban action film. Glaser keeps a solid pace throughout the film, even during the requisite dramatics between Ruben and Nikki. Plus, this sort of film always gets away with a false sense of tension since you know at least one character is going to die. As long as they aren’t all total jackasses, you’ll at least care somewhat about who it is. Once again, the charisma of the individual actors outshines the limitations of the script, making it easier to become more emotionally invested in everyone than the writing deserves. Not that we’re on the same level of Jimmy Cagney or Chow Yun-fat here, but considering the bulk of the characters populating the action films of the 1980s, the Band is certainly worth more of your time than the collected characters of Michael Dudikoff.
Music is important to the movie as well, and if you know a thing or two about Michael Mann, you know that he was one of the first people to really emphasize rock (or what passed for rock at the time), and if nothing else, he was very good at it. In fact, he’s better at using music to convey mood and emotion than the script is. While I won’t be searching eBay for copies of the Band of the Hand LP or cassette (CD? Whatever. Those things will never catch on), within the context of the film, it works remarkably well, though it also makes it feel even more like a Miami Vice spin-off than before.
So yeah, it’s not a great film, but it also doesn’t deserve to be dismissed as off-handedly as some people do. I regard any criticism that can’t get beyond, “Dude, it was so cheesy” and thus disregarding a film simply because it was made in a time and fashion period different from their own. I don’t think I give Band of the Hand the benefit of the doubt simply because it came from the 1980s, a time when I was, you know, discovering girls and growing hair on parts of my body where there hadn’t been any hair before (like the soles of my feet and my tongue). That’s not valid because, frankly, I hate the 1980s. Not as much as I hate the disco era, but if you want to get a groan out of me, simply force me to endure any number of “Retro Eighties” forms of entertainment. So it’s not like I have a soft spot for things that are distinctly 1980s.
What it boils down to, then, is the simple fact that I don’t think Band of the Hand is a particularly bad movie. Sure, it has some pretty obvious flaws, and in the end, it’s pretty silly. In the end, however, it does for Michael Mann what The Last Dragon did for Barry Gordy. Actually, “not much” would be what it did for them. But both, in my opinion, manage to rise above their obvious short-comings and deliver movies that are, if not perfect, at least fun. Compared to most of the action films from the 1980s, Band of the Hand is a damn work of art, but removed from those low standards, it remains a decent if not entirely successful action film with a goofy moral, lots of energy, and style to spare. I went into it expecting to laugh, and I discovered that despite the 1980s trappings, it was still an alright b-grade action film. It may not be The Killer, but at least it isn’t Panther Squad.