Tuesday, April 9, 2013
Thematic Wanderings: Shozo Hirono & The Yakuza Politiq
Been spending so many months considering how film is often a forum for not only the requisite escapes and flights of fancy so many viewers come to expect from a night at the cinema, but also of challenging, and often regressive forms of political musing. Much in the way that classic art and literature, at their core presented interesting ways to serve the public without being harshly transparent. And while many works attempt to avoid this, it is undeniable that many of filmdom's most iconic works are in fact collage-like representations of social constructs, questions, and occasional rally cries based on daily life of the time in which it was filmed. Even as markets lean more and more toward remakes and adaptations, it is not without an often pointed concern that even more spectacle-centric features are capable of carrying with them very real questions about the role of citizens versus that of those running the show. And the further we look back, the more this is evidently obvious in societies young in this manner of film discourse.
Specifically in realms of more rough and ready forms of media of the late 1960s-early 1970s anime and Japanese film, there was so much happening outside local movie houses and homes, that it was hard to watch anything of impact without it alluding to some form of strife taking place throughout multiple sectors of the post-war era. Where in anime, much of this frustration and angst could be seen manifested in works such as Devilman & others, few filmmakers captured the full-frontal conflict of hidden societies, scraping desperately for ever-shrinking dividends than Kinji Fukasaku. A man who's Battles Without Honor and Humanity (aka - The Yakuza Papers) series furiously carved out a stifling vision of systems forged and unforged in real time, without what so many once imagined to be firmly established codes. In this series, centering on the twenty-plus year war over Hiroshima's gangland titans and small fries, each installment paints a bloody tapestry, loosely based on real events that rocked an already unstable nation weary from conflicts abroad, aching for some manner of new identity.
With the young and often idealistic Shozo Hirono (in an icon-making performance by Bunta Sagawara) struggling to maintain a sense of honor to an increasingly chaotic underworld, we are host to a full-tilt typhoon of violence, treachery, and tattered pride that was up until that time, unseen in Japanese crime dramas outside of some of Fukasaku's earlier excursions into post-war criminality. Where Street Mobster, and others flirted with the dregs of an economic rollercoaster, the Battles saga dives headlong into the beast's belly, often surrounded by antiheroes with varying degrees of trustworthiness. Most of which is displayed by Sugawara's Hirono, a weathered man who's struggles from the very bottom of the pecking order, take him to the highest levels in Hiroshima gangland. His central struggle being that a man of old fashioned codes and morals, almost constantly finding himself in danger of irrevocably being stained by the erosion, not to mention treachery coming at him from nearly all sides.
Perhaps this is best encapsulated by his almost bleakly humorous relationship with would-be kingpin, Yamamori (Nobuo Kaneko), perhaps the new face of Japanese leadership. Sniveling, petty, and cowardly to a tee, Yamamori's almost whiny money-man approach seems primed to infect generations of more "jingi"-based members of the local families. This almost absurd invasion of big business into the affairs of those who would rather see themselves as local "Robin hood" types soon reveals hidden motivations, and newfound lusts for power that find Hirono almost inescapably trapped in Yamamori's orbit. Even as he begins making a name for himself amongst the Kure City gumi, the old man is never terribly far away. Almost becoming the father he never wanted, Yamamori (and even his equally cartoonish wife) ingratiates himself into poor Hirono's life, often leading to some truly terrible conflicts and bloodshed. The absurdity simply being in that our hero's often hard wood stubbornness to be the more honorable man keep him from destroying this longtime rival once and for all. But alas, nothing is ever so simple, therefore the two often require each other despite such animosity.
By the time we get to Proxy War, this is made into greater manifest once Hiroshima's gangs are met with a most unlikely leader in Uchimoto, "successor" to the Muraoka clan. Whiny, petulant and cowardly, he is in many ways a far more irresponsible rendition of Yamamori, only with that much more reckless pride. Even as Fukasaku front-loads the "messages" behind this third film, the story is no less potent in its satire as a multitude of the town's most brawny gangsters find themselves at the whims of a pair of niggling manchildren, ready to spill blood over the most shallow of justifications. In many ways a mirror to the tumult happening in the streets of Tokyo(Not to mention the world abroad) , with those in power squabbling over scraps as the young and powerful are meant to fight amongst each other (and often die) for what Fukasaku likely considered to be patently absurd reasons.
What makes the Battles series so singularly political, is evident from Fukasaku's unflinching rage that is painted with grand strokes and striking sound, often making no bones about the horrors that lie under the veils of propriety and tradition that are bandied over others in the name of order. Rituals of bonding and unification suddenly take on a mechanical, often transparently disingenuous nature, and are little more than showcases for which new schism is soon to appear, ready to unravel virtually seconds later. The worms of pride, and greed underlie virtually every "diplomatic" move that is made, often a false formality, and far from interested in anything as noble as peace. In the world of Fukasaku's yakuza, power is fleeting, honor is questionable, and even the strongest find themselves at odds with comrades, even to the point that they must grovel at the feet of their greatest rival for some infinitesimal piece of rotted meat on petrified bones.