Monday, January 26, 2009

Battles without Honor and Humanity

I recently started watching the epic Yakuza Papers. I have only completed the first volume so far but I have to say that I am very impressed. Sometimes referred to as the Japanese Godfather this is probably the only other crime epic I have seen that can be reasonably compared with Coppola's Mafia masterpieces. There are many similarities between the impact, historical placement and influence that these two huge series have had on cinema.

Why The Yakuza Papers is not better known is a mystery to me. The only thing I can think of is that the film is so frenetic it can be hard for westerners to follow. The Godfather movies all take up at least three hours to tell very complicated and intricate stories. Whereas each of the five Yakuza films are only about 90 minutes each. When placed side by side 5 volumes of 90 minutes is still comparable to 9 hours, but the amount of information and story conveyed within the first film was almost ten years worth. 

Before Coppola translated Puzo's bestseller to the big screen Hollywood had never really seen criminals on film in any light but negative. Criminals were the bad guys. And the production code in America made sure that bad guys couldn't get away with much without seeing some kind of retribution. Maybe the good guys didn't always win but the bad guys ended up on the wrong side of a gun somewhere along the line. But in Coppola's epic this all got turned around. Now Cops are the bad guys, the heroes of our story are the most powerful Mafia crime family in America! Vito is almost comparable to Moses, or some similar religious patriarch. This changed everything. And the fall of the American Film Production Code made it all possible. After this cinematic interpretations of the nature of the criminal and the mafia were totally up for grabs. Criminals could now be rebellious anti heroes, fighting corruption or simply trying to stay alive. But in Japan the Yakuza films before Fukasaku directed this pentateuch of crime were tales of honor and chivalry. Basically they were samurai movies with guns and gangsters. Fukasaku changed all that. Just look at the title of the first film: Battles without Honor and Humanity. He took the honor out of the Yakuza and tried to portray what was really there right after WWII: desperation and chaos. Except for our hero. The main character Shozo Hirono is the only character during the first film that displays any honor or humanity. He was a soldier turned Yakuza after the war, because he didn't have many other choices. But over and over throughout the film we see Shozo selflessly trade in his freedom for his mob boss. He does whatever is needed for his Yakuza family. And finally by the end of the film he is sick of it. 

The Yakuza Papers began reaching theaters in 1973. The Godfather premiered in 1972. Both films were set right after World War II. Both films feature many brutal deaths and assassinations. Both films are allegedly based on "truth" to some degree. Both films changed the very nature of the crime genre in their countries. Both function on a metaphorical level as societal commentaries. 

The Godfather Trilogy is well known and praised for Gordon Willis' brilliant cinematography. The Yakuza Papers is well known for its revolutionary use of hand held camera work. I don't think I've ever seen such a vast difference in visual aesthetics for two series of films that have so much in common. The Yakuza Papers feels very gritty and realistic, like you're actually there seeing all these things happen. Yet all the information is still clearly portrayed, unlike a contemporary example of terrible hand held camerawork: The Bourne Supremacy. 

I don't really rate films with stars or numbers. Here a film is either bad, okay, good or great. I think that when I am done with this film series I will have a better handle on its value, but so far I think that this first entry is very good. Good acting, good cinematography, good directing, complicated intense story line, harsh social critiques, historical significance, and a very honest view of human nature make this one of the best films I've seen in the Mafia/Crime genre and one of my favorite foreign films to date.


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