MUBI is a streaming service catering to cinephiles who believe in quality over quantity. Each day, MUBI adds a new film to its library, where it will stay for 30 days, after which it circulates out and gives room for another new entry. Throughout 2017, we will highlight one MUBI movie per month to help illustrate the catalog’s breadth and importance.
Sometimes you just want to watch a bunch of gangsters get killed. The who and why isn’t as important as the general mosaic cycle of power transfers, double-crosses, assassinations and revenge killings that make up a great gangster epic. Recently, Takeshi Kitano offered this with his great Outrage series. Johnny To’s Election movies are great examples as well. But the grandaddy of them all is Kinji Fukasaku’s Battles without Honor and Humanity (movie-wise, I suppose the real grandaddy might be Shakespeare's Henry VI plays).
Based on stories from real life Yakuza Kozo Mino (rewritten into novel form by journalist Koichi Iiboshi), Battles without Honor and Humanity broke with Yakuza movie tradition by portraying the Yakuza not as chivalrous underwood businessmen who sometimes had to kill each other, but as petty, greedy gangsters whose traditions and vaulted code of conduct do little to check their ambition or behavior.
The film takes place over the course of a decade and follows ex-soldier Shozo Hirono as he rises, and fails to rise, through the ranks of a Yakuza organization that frequently lets him down in regards to personal relationships and promised commitments. Things happen fast in Battles without Honor and Humanity, but Hirono remains consistent throughout while everything around him changes and grows more dangerous.
The details of those changes are better left for the viewer to discover rather than read. They wouldn’t make much sense anyway. And I’m honestly not sure they are important. Fukasaku isn’t trying to make an epic filled with characters you care about, but rather a film illustrating the fallacy of making heroes out of these men. Battles is cynical and has teeth. If the title alone doesn’t give that away, consider the title card itself, which we see over a still of a mushroom cloud.
That all sounds pretty dark, but there are so many joys here. For all its political statements, the film is nevertheless an ultra-cool time capsule utilizing an amazing soundtrack and filled with deliberately over the top performances to savor. It is also very funny, such as when Hirono cuts off his pinky and not only needs instructions from his boss’ wife on how it’s done, but loses his digit in a chicken coop afterward (“It’s a little pecked!”).
Battles without Honor and Humanity will remain on MUBI for sixteen more days. It is the first of a five-part series called The Yakuza Papers, parts two and three of which are on MUBI right now. Parts four and five will arrive soon. I highly recommend you check them out.