Japanese Genre Firebombs Send Codes of Honor up in Flames

The posthumous reappraisal of Japan's most iconoclastic pulpster, Kinji Fukasaku, continues with this handsome packaging of what came to be known as the Battles Without Honor & Humanity series. A Quentin Tarantino favorite (the title song makes a memorable appearance in Kill Bill Vol. 1), the first Battles (1973) may be Fukasaku's emblematic film—a convoluted, overpopulated diagram of escalating gang warfare in which fights seem to break out at two-minute intervals. (Deaths are annotated with a burst of text and accompanied by a dramatic trumpet flourish on the soundtrack.) As much as Fukasaku relished the choreography of mob scenes—setting loose swarms of glowering thugs, jostling in for close-ups as the punches fly—he was at heart an abrasive social critic, channeling his fury and disgust over post-war Japanese society into genre firebombs. The title of the first film is instructive, positioning the series as a corrective to the chivalrous gangster movies that were popular in the '60s: Fukasaku's yakuza flicks drain criminal netherworlds of romance, crush codes of honor underfoot, and nullify distinctions between good and evil. The four sequels that followed in quick succession—Deadly Fight in Hiroshima (1973), Proxy War (1973), Police Tactics (1974), and Final Episode (1974)—are collected here; diminishing returns certainly apply, but the mounting sense of fatigue is its own perverse reward. Home Vision's box (metal case, actually) comes with a whole disc of extras (director William Friedkin attests to Fukasaku's influence on '70s Hollywood action; investigative reporter David Kaplan explains the codes of the Japanese criminal underworld), a brief contextual essay by Japanese cinema specialist Tom Mes, and an invaluable foldout family tree mapping the decades-spanning vendettas, backstabbings, arrests, imprisonments, and deaths chronicled in the series.

 
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