TOKYO (TR) – The year is 1945. Post-war Hiroshima is in ashes and ruins, and black markets dot the streets.
This is the setting for the start of director Kinji Fukasaku’s 1973 landmark “Jingi Naki Tatakai” (Battles Without Honor and Humanity). Bunta Sugawara plays Shozo Hirono, a former soldier who becomes acquainted with a gangster in prison. Hirono then turns to the dark side upon his release and a battle for supremacy in the underworld ensues.
Based on articles written by journalist Koichi Iiboshi, the film would spawn four sequels, all directed by Fukasaku and featuring Hirono as the central character.
On Thursday, a new five-disc Blu-ray box set by Toei Video will hit stores to commemorate four decades of “Battles Without Honor and Humanity” — the highly influential series, also known as “The Yakuza Papers,” that helped expose the gangster genre to audiences worldwide.
The gritty films, the last of which was released in 1974, were a contrast to their predecessors in the genre. In the 1960s, Seijun Suzuki (“Branded To Kill” and “Tokyo Drifter”) released yakuza films via the Nikkatsu studio with complicated plots that emphasized style. The first “Battles Without Honor and Humanity” would start a new wave that focused on realism in a near documentary style: from the blurry and shaking opening shots of the U.S. military G.I.s attacking the woman in the black market to the spurting blood after Hirono lops off his little finger with a knife on a cutting board.
“Fukasaku always said that action must be based in reality,” said Shinichi “Sonny” Chiba prior to an all-night screening of the five films at the Shin Bungeiza theater in Ikebukuro in January. “If the audience feels it’s fake they become disinterested.”
In the second film, “Hiroshima Death Match,” Chiba starred as Katsutoshi Otomo, the defiant son of a gang boss. Chiba said that Fukasaku exerted tremendous power on the set.
“Normally people are nervous when they go before Fukasaku because he is a great master, but for me we debuted in the same film so I could have a clear mind in front of him,” said Chiba in referring to “Wandering Detective: Tragedy in Red Valley” from 1961. “I could be relaxed and listen to how I should act. This I understood. So I was never nervous, and I could absorb his orders.”
As far as narratives, the films offered a bleak and chaotic view of the world of organized crime. Gangsters upholding a code of honor, as in the pre-World War II ninkyo (chivalrous) films, were replaced by Fukasaku with yakuza members lacking jingi, roughly meaning honor and humanity.
During a visit to Tokyo in February to promote “Django Unchained,” the story of a slave set free, director Quentin Tarantino compared the theme of the film to the “Battles Without” series.
“What makes Django move forward is not revenge but love,” said Tarantino, a fan of Fukasaku’s work who added that the concept is comparable to jingi. “I asked Fukasaku once and he explained that jingi is when a person is obligated to do something he does not want to do or even try to do.”
To be sure, love is not a motivating factor in “Battles Without Honor and Humanity.” Money and power drive the films forward in a fast-paced format that Chiba referred to as “Fukusaku rhythm” — a concept the director consciously maintained.
“If an actor or actress acted without Fukasaku rhythm, they’d have to try again,” said Chiba. “After the completion of a film, when a journalist would ask Fukasaku how it looked he’d say that it’s got good rhythm. For him, rhythm was an important factor.”
Three more films by Fukasaku in a series titled “New Battles Without Honor and Humanity” hit theaters up until 1976. Between 1979 and 2002, three additional films by different directors were released.
The legacy of the series endures. Numerous festivals around the world have featured the films in retrospectives. In 2009, Japanese cinema magazine Kinema Junpo ranked the first “Battles Without” film fifth in both its “Best Ten” and “All Time Best 200” lists of Japanese films.
Tarantino paid tribute to Fukasaku, who died in 2003 at the age of 72, by using Tomoyasu Hotei’s piece “Battle Without Honor or Humanity” on the soundtrack to “Kill Bill,” a film released later that year.
For Chiba, who appeared in “Kill Bill,” he was not initially cast in “Hiroshima Death Match” in the role of Otomo. Roughly a week before shooting was to commence, script writer Kazuo Kasahara and Fukasaku came to him and asked that he play the killer in the gang opposing Hirono.
“When I read the script again, I felt I couldn’t do it,” said Chiba, who to that point was viewed as something of a pretty-boy celebrity. “I thought about it so much that my stomach ached. But I decided to present myself in a different way by, for example, covering my imposing eyes with sunglasses.”
Chiba was pleased with the results.
“When I heard the fans afterwards wondering where I appeared in the film, I was so happy,” he said. “It was a success, and I went to Fukasaku and thanked him.”