It's not until the fourth film in Kinji Fukasaku's acclaimed five-part yakuza series, Battles Without Honor and Humanity, that the cards are explicitly laid out as to the series' overarching thesis. At the end of that film, Police Tactics, the narrator notes even though public outrage led the Japanese government to heavily crack down on gang violence, the violence will never end until we solve the "societal contradictions." Therefore, the moral outrage we feel at the senseless brutality should probably be turned inward on ourselves if we truly want to get the heart of the problem.
This is the refreshing poignancy that separates Fukasaku's films from other works in the yakuza genre, and mob films on the whole. The first film, Battles Without Honor and Humanity, begins in Hiroshima in 1946, as we're introduced to a world in chaos. The city is in ruins, government barely exists, and U.S. military occupation rules with an iron fist. Soldiers from the war are returning home with no money or prospects, forcing them into the burgeoning black market controlled by local yakuza families as a simple means of survival.
The five films follow these families for a quarter century, documenting their rise and fall due to inner turmoil, hubris, and an intense public backlash against their wars played out in the streets. However, this did not happen in a vacuum. In this same time period, Japan as a country was concurrently rising out of its postwar ashes into an economic powerhouse, adopting ruthless Western capitalism and giving up its agency to the United States in its proxy battles against communism--thus giving birth to the "societal contradictions" noted above.
After all, if free market capitalism is, by its own virtues, a catalyst for systemic social Darwinism, then there isn't much of a philosophical difference between that and the "kill or be killed" ethos of the criminal underworld existing on the fringes of such a system. Two sides of the same coin, one could say. Both systems rely on exploitation, carelessness, and death, but ultimately, it only matters who is making the rules and who isn't. Not to mention that "legitimate" businessmen and government leaders secretly and corruptly exploit the mafia and its precarious position outside the law for their own personal gain.
It's funny to think now, that to a whole new generation of genre fans, Fukasaku is primarily known for his 2000 film, Battle Royale, where he takes the ideas above to their most logical (and extreme) conclusion. Having lived through the horrors of World War II, it would appear Fukasaku spent his entire life trying to say that violence is a product of the stresses of an unjust system weighing on an exploited underclass. Who fights the elites' wars, but the underclass?
Fukasaku makes such a point in the course of these five films in how the bosses revere their "young punks" who die in the streets for their battles. The series actually concludes with its hero, Shozo Hirono (Bunta Sugawara) making his decision to retire from yakuza life after attending the funeral of such a young gangster, whose face he "cannot even remember." Tellingly, Kazuo Kasahara, the writer of the first four films, interviewed all the real yakuza bosses involved, who were more than happy to divulge all the details of their exploits--except they refused to even discuss the young men who died.
This isn't all to say that Fukasaku is moralizing away all the yakuza's sins in a relative sense--far from it, actually. He's simply refusing to place a judgement on them one way or another; instead, he opts for a more fly on the wall, cinéma vérité approach, which can often be mistaken for sympathy or a kind of romanticization. The film, Goodfellas, in that regard, is a good reference point for comparison...
Battles Without Honor and Humanity (1973)
There is no way in hell Martin Scorsese did not have Battles Without Honor and Humanity in mind when he was planning the style for Goodfellas. Structurally and stylistically, they're almost identical. Fukasaku's film is fast-paced, episodic, and unfolds over a period of years--and it's all based on journalistic accounts, just as Scorsese took the episodes in Goodfellas from Nicholas Pileggi's nonfiction book, Wiseguys.
Both films also offer a dispassionate view of their characters and world. The camera just sorta drops in and observes the violence in unflinching (and non-judgmental) detail. While what we witness is brutal and shocking, it feels even more so due to the filmmakers explicitly choosing not to glamorize or sensationalize it, as you would expect in most exploitation crime films. The only real difference between the two is that while Scorsese opts for stylistic flourishes with brilliant (and counter-intuitive) uses of pop music, Fukasaku models his style around a newsreel and documentary aesthetic, lending the violence an even more realistic quality.
As mentioned previously, Battles Without Honor and Humanity opens in a world of chaos on the streets of Hiroshima in 1946. It's disorienting as it introduces character after character after character in a huge altercation between yazuka factions that we the audience have no context for or understanding of. Yet, the film settles down enough to let us know we will be following Shozo Hirono (Sugawara), a veteran home from the war, who ends up going to prison for killing a yakuza member in revenge for injuring his war buddy. In prison, Hirono becomes "sworn brothers" with a yakuza captain, and thus begins his introduction to the world of organized crime, a saga that will unfold over the next four films.
Sugawara became a massive star in Japan immediately upon the release of the film. And it's easy to see why. He inhabits the role of Hirono in a very stoic, charismatic manner, not unlike that of a hero in western films at the time. Hirono is the White Hat in a sea of Black Hats, as he exudes honor and code in a world that eschews it. He's the foil undercutting the romanticism of mob life. Through him, we see how honor and code mean absolutely nothing. They're only slogans and catchphrases that fall to the wayside whenever inconvenient.
Hiroshima Death Match (1973)
And if the series is placing any judgment on Hirona, it's saying his honor is misplaced. Actually, between this film and the second, Hiroshima Death Match, the theme is how misplaced honor (and maybe even honor in general) can destroy all around it in an unjust world that has no use for it.
Hiroshima Death Match is the only film in the series that does not focus on Hirono as the lead character. Instead, it shifts focus to Shoji Yamanaka (Kinya Kitaoji), a down-and-out young man who gains the respect of the yakuza for his nihilistic approach to fighting, thus becoming the most feared hitman in all of western Japan.
But the centerpiece of the film is the tragic love story between Yamanaka and Yasuko, the niece of the Muraoka family boss, Yamanaka's employer. Yasuko is a single mother after her husband died "honorably" in the war as a kamikazi pilot. She becomes a victim yet again to the honorable men in her life, after Yamanaka becomes existentially trapped between his loyalties to Muraoka and being forever separated from the love of his life.
Proxy War (1973)
Battles Without Honor and Humanity and Hiroshima Death Match are flat out masterpieces. Fukasaku made the series' five films in just two years, so it might have been too much to expect him to maintain such a level of quality going further. Though, however flawed the third film is, Proxy War is still a fascinating watch.
It's also an extremely hard movie to follow--and apparently a hard one to have written as well. The writer, Kazuo Kasahara, allegedly had a nervous breakdown while writing it, trying to keep the massive web of relationships and events straight enough to portray them coherently. The film is an analog to the Cold War happening at the same time, depicting all the yakuza families (and the families within families) attempting to maintain the peace as they form alliances, double cross each other, and keep their troops in line.
And the title, Proxy War, is a direct reference to the "societal contradictions" mentioned above. In the intervening years following World War II, Japan had given up all agency to the United States, becoming their pawn in the proxy (and actual) wars against communism in Asia. Not to mention, Japan was experiencing significant political unrest, especially after the televised assassination of socialist politician, Inejiro Asanuma in 1960 at the hands of a hardline nationalist. The events in Proxy Way mirror these events, and leave the viewer to decide if perhaps we should judge these mobsters any differently than the people who are in charge.
Police Tactics (1974)
Proxy Way is a very talky film, perhaps to its own detriment, but it's the table setter for the all out war of Police Tactics. All the families are at war with one another due to the fallout of events in the previous film, and the police are at war with the yakuza after the public reached its breaking point with all the violence. I would recommend watching all five films in quick succession, but if you're going to binge any two at the same time, you should do Proxy War and Police Tactics back to back, as they are essentially a two-parter.
The fourth film is a return to form, quality-wise, but it trades much of the philosophical weight of the first three for an undistilled look at the violence of war. It's definitely the most exploitation-y of all the films, and therefore, the most entertaining to watch.
Final Episode (1974)
But all fun must eventually come to an end. Police Tactics ends with all the major yakuza bosses in jail, including Hirono. This creates a power vacuum on the street, where the younger generation of gangsters begin pushing out the older guard, the war generation of the likes of Hirono.
It's an unsentimental look at the changing of the guard, a somber mediation on death; death on a personal level and death of an entire way of life. Japan is now an economic juggernaut that wants to erase its problematic past and look to the future. Therefore, the war generation must be forgotten or locked away where no one can see.
That means for the older yakuza, it's the end of the line--either by bullet or being replaced by the next generation. The film has an overall sadness to it, but it's a sober, unfocused melancholy. Hirono is no longer the stoic young man of yesteryear, but a broken middle aged man who walks alone on the city street, honor and code pointlessly in tact.