Battles Without Honor and Humanity – The Complete Collection (Blu-ray)

June 29, 2016 24 Min Read

Review by: Jake Keet

Plot: What’s it about?

I remember it like it was yesterday. I was sixteen years old and reading a magazine about video games when an article mentioned a relatively unknown film called Battle Royale that had not found a distributor in the United States due to its graphic depiction of children killing each other. It was essentially Lord of the Flies with explosive necklaces and machine guns. After reading the brief synopsis I purchased the film on eBay on a VCD – not a DVD, a VCD, from Korea. This film quickly became one of my favorites, and I have watched it probably at least ten times, buying it on both DVD and Blu-Ray in later releases. Many people are familiar with the film now, due to the popularity of The Hunger Games, which borrowed liberally from it.

I have recently extolled the virtues of Arrow Video’s releases, and the reason I originally was turned on to Arrow Video was the release of a box set of Kinji Fukasaku’s Battles Without Honor and Humanity five film collection(also known as The Yakuza Papers,) released afterwards in stand alone editions of the films. I had never heard of the films before, but after looking into it further I decided to splurge on the set.

After a few weeks of watching the films, I can finally let you know my opinion of the set in general. After watching all of the box set, I must say that it is one of the better movie series that I have ever seen. This box set is a massive task, featuring five films (six if you include the four hour compendium version,) numerous special features, and an audio commentary track for the first film. In order to take in this box set you will need to set aside roughly fourteen hours (leaving out the four hour compendium version on disk six.) That is a massive undertaking. In my opinion, it is worth every bit of your time. I recommend that you skip the rest of my reviews that I have listed here, and just pick it up for yourself, but if you need convincing, keep reading.

Battles Without Honor and Humanity

BWHAH begins explosively with an image of the nuclear cloud that decimated Hiroshima. The film takes place between 1949 and late 1950s. Japan has been decimated from the war. The former soldiers are in GI camps, where they are struggling to make a living post-war. Many turn to crime and become Yakuza, subservient to different families and clans. The film follows one veteran named Shozo Hirono as he navigates his way into one of the Yakuza families, just to see violence and paranoia destroy those around him.

The movie is swift, brutal, and very realistic. The main character at one point apologizes for an offense to another clan by cutting off his pinky finger. If you have seen the film Gomorrah, this film is similar in tone – feeling chaotic with characters not developed past the point of being a face in the crowd and possibly being murdered. Violence happens frequently in the film, and occasionally the film will feel a bit confusing for the first time viewer. The reason the film moves so swiftly through these characters that are hardly on screen before their demise is that the film is based on actual memoirs of a former Yakuza boss and reporters’ accounts. This lends the film an air of gravity and realism that is typically lacking in gangster films.

The film is great. The acting – especially by Bunta Sugawara – is fantastic for the most part. The film at some points is strangely funny – at least to my sensibilities – because there are numerous scenes where gangsters cry. The movie is a lot of fun to watch with a great score by Toshiaki Tsushima and fast paced directing by Kinji Fukasaku. It also taught me so much I didn’t know about Japan in the middle of the last century, and about Yakuza rituals.

I am very happy that Arrow Video brought this cool movie to the states.

Hiroshima Death Match

The sequel to Battle Without Honor and Humanity is a very interesting follow up that was released the same year as the first film in the series. Warning: if you have not watched the first film, wait until you have seen it to read this review or just skip to the technical merits of the disk.

At the end of the first film the protagonist, Shozo Hirono, has split from the clan that had begun disintegrating and betraying itself. Naturally, the viewer wants to know what happens next, but Kinji Fukasaku has other plans. Instead of picking up where we left off, the film follows a different protagonist named Nakahara as he enters into the Otomo clan, another Yakuza group in Hiroshima, during the Korean War. Think of it as a parallel story in the same universe created by the first film.

Nakahara starts out as a petty card shark that is locked away for two years for assault. While in prison he befriends Shozo Hirono. Upon release he has no money and no options and is attacked by some men when he attempts to pay for some food with his watch. This attack makes him swear that he will kill the three men that have attacked him. Seeing that he may help their clan, he is brought under the Otomo clan. He immediately falls for the beautiful Yasuko (Meiko Kaji, Lady Snowblood, herself) and their love is forbidden. He is sent away to another clan and climbs the ranks until he can come back a seasoned killer. From this point he is used up by his leaders, constantly put in peril and deceived.

This is a very worthy sequel and an unexpected aside from the first film. The acting – while not quite on par with the first film – is fantastic for the most part. Sonny Chiba is particularly memorable as a nearly insane and anarchic gang leader in the film. The movie has a great score by Toshiaki Tsushima and the directing by Kinji Fukasaku is in top form. These films are incredibly convoluted which make reviewing them difficult, but once you get into the frenetic pace they are great. One of the reasons these films are so effective is the true basis behind them. People are killed so quickly that it seems like there is not even time to develop them as characters- similarly to the Italian film Gommorrah. These films are a solid indictment of the criminal structure that is essentially a meat grinder for the poor cattle led to slaughter. They are also an excellent history lesson on Japan during the middle of the twentieth century.

I loved the first Battles Without Honor and Humanity, and the sequel is a worthy follow up.

Proxy War

The third installment in Kinji Fukasaku’s Battles Without Honor and Humanity series was the third film that Fukasaku completed that year. I can’t imagine how much of a marathon it must have been to complete these films as quickly as he did. The third film is considered by many to be the best in the series, and I can absolutely understand why it is so well liked. Warning: if you have not watched the first film, wait until you have seen it to read this review or just skip to the technical merits of the disk.

At the end of the first film the protagonist, Shozo Hirono, has split from the clan that had begun disintegrating and betraying itself. The second film just barely touched on what Shozo had been up to after leaving the Yamamori clan. The third film is the true sequel to the first film and a great precursor to the next film, Police Tactics.

Proxy War brings us back to Hiroshima and now the year is 1960. The film begins by introducing us to Uchimoto (Takeshi Kato) an underboss for one of the powerful clans, the Muraoka. His superior is gunned down in the street and Uchimoto fails to seek vengeance quickly, leading to doubts as to his ability. Along with Shozo (Bunta Sugawara) he pledges allegiance to the Akashi clan, but is expelled from the Muraoka for the act. Meanwhile, the Shinwa Group align with the Muraoka clan, and a war for control all over Japan becomes imminent. Along the way, Shozo balances old allegiances and new ones as he tries to navigate the playing field.

This is a fantastic follow up to the first film and a good continuation thematically from the second film. This film and the two that would follow it is not based entirely on fact any more, but the plot is so realistic that I had no idea as I watched it. As with the other films, people are killed or attacked in spit fire motion. The acting is on par with the first film, showcasing some great Japanese actors like Nobuo Kaneko as the villainous Yamamori. The screenwriter, Kasuo Kasahara, is the same screenwriter as the previous films and Police Tactics unifying thematically and stylistically the series. His work here is razor sharp and just as complex as the previous episodes. This film must be watched in tandem with Police Tactics, as it only contains half of the story and is the setup to the natural conclusion in the next film.

I loved the first Battles Without Honor and Humanity, and this is the true follow up to that film.

Police Tactics

The fourth installment in Kinji Fukasaku’s Battles Without Honor and Humanity series is a follow up to Proxy War and can be looked at as a proper finale of the actual series of films. This was the last collaboration between screenwriter Kazuo Kasahara and Kinji Fukasaku in the series and the film comes to a natural and fitting conclusion.

At the end of the third film the protagonist, Shozo Hirono, has been expelled from the clan due to his rebellious nature. At the same time, Takeida has risen in the ranks underneath Yamamori. The fourth film brings us back to the mid sixties as the final lines are drawn in Hiroshima and the police begin to crack down on the Yakuza. In this chapter many of the alliances come to a head as the Shinwa Group, Yamamori Gang, and Akashi Family clash.

Police Tactics does an excellent job of wrapping up the series in a bow and was meant to be the final episode in the series. It is great to see all of the time that was invested in the previous three films rewarded with such a satisfying ending.

All of the Battles films are good and slightly different from each other, but I would rank this as being of the same quality as the very first entry. The story structure is very well thought out. The action scenes are on par with everything that has come before it. The acting throughout is very good.

What can I say? This movie is great and will surely satisfy any viewer that has followed the story up to this point.

Final Episode

The fifth installment in Kinji Fukasaku’s Battles Without Honor and Humanity series is a follow up to Police Tactics.  Police Tactics was a proper finale to the films, so why is there a fifth film? The answer? Demand. The series was so well received by critics and audiences alike that they made another installment.  Police Tactics was the last collaboration between screenwriter Kazuo Kasahara and Kinji Fukasaku, and this film was written by a different screenwriter, Koji Takaba. Going into watching this film, I was skeptical of the quality of the film, and it does feel different from the other films. That said, I was pleasantly surprised with how the film turned out, and if you consider it a slightly different entity from the previous four, it can be enjoyed for its own qualities. Warning: Spoilers! If you have not caught up to the series, skip to the technical aspects.

At the end of the fourth film the protagonist, Shozo Hirono, has been arrested. Takeida has been arrested. Yamamori has been arrested. In fact, almost everybody has been arrested. So, what is there to tell?

The fifth film brings us back to the late sixties and early seventies as the Yakuza clans try to piece together a coalition called the Takei Group. At the head of the group is Takeida, fresh from prison. His goal is for the Yakuza to stop the bloodshed and regain the trust of the populous. Unfortunately, Shozo Hirono’s gang is fairly autonomous with him in prison, and one of his henchman kills an important figure. As Takeida is sent to prison for a gun wrap, he trusts the organization to his protege. As alliances firm within the group, gangland war becomes inevitable again.

There was really no reason to wrap up the series with an additional wrap up, but the film is still very good. Police Tactics is the better of the two films, but this entry is worthy of being part of your collection. Of particular interest is seeing how the Yakuza began to angle themselves for the future. If you love the rest of the series, you will enjoy this film as well.

Video: How’s it look?

Arrow Video did a fantastic job on the transfer of the films using an MPEG 4 AVC codec of a new 2K restoration. The transfers look great overall. The first film fares the best, with the fourth and fifth films looking almost as beautiful. The third film suffers the most and has teh softest look. Overall, I really think that Arrow did an excellent job on these transfers. That said, if they ever release a new 4K scan, I will be the first in line to purchase it. For right now and the foreseeable future, this is the best that these films have ever looked. Fans will love seeing the vibrant colors during some truly outrageous street fights.

Audio: How’s it sound?

The audio treatment of BWHAH was very good. Being a LPCM 1.0 track, it can be expected that range is severely limited. That said, this track is still pretty boisterous. The score by Toshiaki Tsushima is very engaging and fits the films like a glove. I really can not think of any problems that come to mind with these tracks, aside from the repetitive nature of the score throughout the series of films. As long as you are not expecting any miracles you should be pleased. I personally think that the first film sounds best and the third film sounds the worst, but they all sound pretty good.

Supplements: What are the extras?

Battles Without Honor and Humanity

  • Trailer – Original trailer for the film. Pretty fun. (3 minutes)
  • Commentary– The very knowledgable film expert Stuart Gilbraith IV places the film in the time that the actions in the film take place, and places the film in the context of Japanese cinema. This commentary track was absolutely fantastic and is well worth your time.
  • Yakuza Graveyard – famous director Takashi Miike (Audition, Ichi the Killer) offers up a quick ten minute tribute to Fukasaku and discusses the Yakuza genre in general including his entries into the genre. I enjoyed this feature as a fan of his films. (11 minutes)

Hiroshima Death Match

  • Trailer – Original trailer for the film. Pretty fun. (3 minutes)
  • Man of Action– a small but very enjoyable talk with the fight coordinator Ryuzo Ueno who coordinating all of the fights in the series. This is short but really enjoyable. (11 minutes)

Proxy War

  • Trailer – Original trailer for the film.(3 minutes)
  • Secrets of the Piranha Army– an interesting feature the on the numerous background players and stunt men that were in the films. This was unlike any special feature that I can recall, and was really fun to watch. (28 minutes)
  • Tales of a Bit Player– an interview with supporting actor and stunt man Seizo Fukomoto. This continues the theme from the other special feature.

Police Tactics

  • Trailer – Original trailer for the film.(3 minutes)
  • Remembering Kinji– a good feature with reminiscences of the director. His son, Kenta Fukasaku gives the best of the tributes, with a story of drinking beer with him at a young age.
  • Fukasaku Family– an interview with assistant director Toru Dabashi about Fukasaku and working on the series of films. Good stuff.

Final Episode

  • Trailer – Original trailer for the film.(3 minutes)
  • Last Days of the Boss – Probably the most interesting feature on any of the disks, an in depth interview with screenwriter Koji Takada. Well worth your time.

The Complete Saga

Also included is the four hour condensed version of all the films. Given that I had just watched all of these films and their special features, I didn’t dig in and watch this version, but as a completist I am glad to own it. This disk also features an introduction by editorial supervisor Toru Dobashi.

The Bottom Line

Battles Without Honor and Humanity: The Complete Collection is a benchmark release from Arrow Video. In their catalogue of films, this series stands as an absolutely incredible accomplishment. This series of films manages to tell the story of the Yakuza through three decades with all the power struggles along the way. The films are aided by fantastic writing and a very skilled director, Kinji Fukasaku. Bunta Sugawara is cool as hell and a name I won’t forget soon. These films are unforgettable and challenging in their scope and complexity. The timelines move so swiftly and characters die so quickly it is likely to make your head spin. Arrow Video has provided numerous special features that add up to a large whole, (especially if you relegate the four hour Complete Saga to the special features section as I have done above,) even though on an individual release basis they may seem a bit light with only a couple features per disk. If you are wondering if this box set is worth your hard earned money, I would say that it is worth every penny. That said, currently the prices for this box set are pretty high due to its limited release nature. Luckily, all of these disks are going to be sold on an individual basis, so you may be able to purchase them all for slightly less in the near future. Regardless of how you get these films, if you have an interest in the Yakuza genre and Japanese history in the post war era, you can not go wrong by purchasing these films.

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