Hiroshima, Mon Ammo

The smoking gun is a mushroom cloud in Fukasaku's 'Yakuza'

There's no polite way to say, "Thank you for fucking up my country." There's no polite way to say, "Sorry we dropped that atom bomb on you." These are two possible reasons why Kinji Fukasaku's five-part Japanese epic The Yakuza Papers--out Tuesday on DVD--has taken close to 30 years to get English subtitles.

To his credit, the late filmmaker hasn't made his global marketing easy. Just as Fukasaku was approaching stateside popularity for his diabolically tactless masterpiece Battle Royale (2000), he set out to make an anti-American/pro-terrorist sequel--Battle Royale II: Requiem--in which an army of conscripted junior high kids reenacts the Normandy Beach landing from Saving Private Ryan, the U.S. bombs Japan (on Christmas Day!), and footage from Afghanistan, of all places, reveals the magnificent triumph of youth. Requiem was completed by the filmmaker's son Kenta after the elder Fukasaku succumbed to cancer. Which is to say that tragedy surely compromised the sequel's production, although these are tough times for any artist who holds the current geopolitical context like a weapon, who dares to bring context to the criminal.

Blast from the past: One of the (many) killers of Fukasaku's 'Yakuza'
Home Vision Entertainment
Blast from the past: One of the (many) killers of Fukasaku's 'Yakuza'

Most likely we have Quentin Tarantino to thank for Fukasaku's resurrection in 2004. Although Tarantino is not the first American director to import the Japanese master's style (on the Yakuza DVDs, William Friedkin admits that his French Connection could've been made by Fukasaku), the Kill Bill perpetrator's Fukasaku homage in Vol. 1 (remember those jet-powered blood streams in the House of Blue Leaves?) was fairly gushing by most standards. The funny thing is that Fukasaku's own splatter hardly appears stylish; if anything, his ballets of blood, choreographed for maximum grit, seem more like Cassavetes than The Killer. When a fight breaks out in The Yakuza Papers, cinematographer Sadaji Yoshida gives chase, his camera brushing against bludgeoned bodies as it tilts, spins, and finally settles on an indelible image, corpses falling serendipitously into the action-movie equivalent of an art installation.

Still, there's no rest for the wicked here. Where the yakuza of Seijun Suzuki (Tokyo Drifter) find time for a go-go dance now and then, Fukasaku's seldom get more than a drink and a shag before someone starts peeling caps again. Offscreen there was a Method to the madness: Fukasaku favored 18-hour workdays in order to keep the crew under the gun as well. Onscreen, every shootout in The Yakuza Papers plays like an A-bomb aftershock, every yakuza war like a reflection of postwar imperialist politics.

Fukasaku based the series on the memoirs of a real yakuza "under-boss"; his protagonist, Shozo Hirono (Bunta Sugawara), is a soldier who returns from WWII in 1945 only to find himself in the midst of a new war between the destabilized yakuza families of Kure City, a suburb of Hiroshima. A blue-collar career criminal, Hirono scrapes by in near-poverty, serves his bosses dutifully, spends time in prison, and is eventually granted the task of...guarding scrap metal. No wonder the series' first chapter is called Battles Without Honor & Humanity. Rituals, vows of brotherhood, truces, standoffs, and allegedly principled turf wars barely mask the petty agendas of self-serving men. The low-level "bullet" yakuza whom the young Fukasaku saw marching to their deaths are represented in obituary-size stories that put faces to the statistics without diminishing the profound sense of human waste. As for Hirono, his success relies not on his ability to uphold honor, but on his ability to stay alive.

As the series progresses, the upper echelon of yakuza bosses becomes increasingly nervous about the new generation nipping at their heels. In Vol. 2: Deadly Fight in Hiroshima, Fukasaku profiles Shoji Yamanaka (Kinya Kitaoji), a young thug from post-atomic crater territory who enters the yakuza ranks and does what he's told. At the same time, this killer enjoys his work: After checking the pulses of three victims, the kid (who's involved with the boss's niece) breaks into a lovely whistle. Like the whistling psycho in Fritz Lang's M, Yamanaka is made more likable than anyone around him, and his sudden exit from the story--punctuated by the director's ice-cold title card ("Shoji Yamanaka: Life Imprisonment for Murder")--carries a pistol-whipping force.

Fukasaku uses these headlines for every murder and sentencing in the saga; their accumulating weight gradually smothers the series itself. Seeming to age with every death, Hirono finally stands to inherit the yakuza throne in Vol. 5: Final Episode--but by that point he's just too tired. Is there no vitality in killing anymore? Nearly seven hours into the series, Fukasaku lingers on a picture of lifelessness: a rival under-boss assassinated by a young kid who drugged his family's Coca-Cola in order to steal their money and buy an "American .45." In the dead man's face, the filmmaker seems to see a mushroom cloud--the image with which the series ironically bursts to life. Home Vision's Yakuza set comes with a six-page pullout guide to the dozens of murders that occur among 13 families in 3 cities over 25 years. Yet Fukasaku's pictures themselves tell a different story--that of how little has changed.

 
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