Written by: Michael Den Boer on December 18th, 2004
Theatrical Release Date: Japan, 1973, 1974
Director: Kinji Fukasaku
Writers: Koichi Iiboshi, Kazuo Kasahara
Cast: Bunta Sugawara, Hiroki Matsukata, Tatsuo Umemiya, Tsunehiko Watase, Nobuo Kaneko, Sonny Chiba, Meiko Kaji, Jo Shishido
DVD Released: December 14th, 2004
Approximate Running Time: 500 minutes
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1 Anamorphic Widescreen
Sound: Dolby Digital Mono Japanese
DVD Release: Home Vision
Region Coding: Region 1 NTSC
Retail Price: $99.95
The Yakuza Papers is a five part epic yakuza saga that consists of Battles without Honor and Humanity, Deadly Fight in Hiroshima, Proxy War, Police Tactics and Final Episode. The series is loosely based on the serialized two-volume novel by Koichi Iiboshi that chronicles the Hiroshima gang war that lasted nearly twenty five years. The series revolves around Shozo Hirono (Bunta Sugawara) an ex-solider living in Hiroshima after World War II. In the first film Battles without Honor and Humanity, Hirono meets Wagasugi (Tatsuo Umemiya) while he is serving in prison for killing a man. The two become blood brothers which lead to Hirono’s introduction into the world of the yakuza. Battles erupt as gangs as territories are fought for and Hirono quickly learns that betrayal and murder like loyalty are part of the yakuza code.
Deadly Fight in Hiroshima picks right up were Battles without Honor and Humanity left off. This film focuses most on the generational differences that help drive a wedge between old school and the new yakuza which helped ignite the twenty plus year war. Hirono’s role in this film is scaled backed as the main focus of the film is shifted too two characters Shoji Yamashiro played by Kinya Kitaoji and Katsutoshi Otomo played by Sonny Chiba. Unfortunately Chiba would not return for subsequent films and in later films in the series Jo Shishido would take over the role of Katsutoshi Otomo. In Proxy War the third film in the series Shozo Hirono returns to the forefront as several high ranking bosses’ double cross and switch sides as they try to position themselves for the recently opened position as the boss of Hiroshima’s largest gang. Alliances are formed and broken as the streets in Hiroshima and Kure explode into all out wars.
Police Tactics the fourth film in the series sees Hirono in a secondary role as the police under public disapproval over the recent gang wars demand that the police to clean things up. Japan after years of poverty after World War 2 is on its way to prosperity and the yakuza not wanting to lose its foot hold in the underworld wants to change its image. Hirono now considered an outsider by the two fractioning sides in the gang war is betrayed by his former boss and he is sent to prison for violating his parole. In the fifth final chapter in the Yakuza Papers Final Episode the yakuza tries to go legit and forms a corporation. The more the yakuza try to deny who they are the more out of control things gets as more bloodshed and killings this time by the more youthful and arrogant yakuza members. For thirty years Hirono has lived with the baggage that comes with being a yakuza and even as he retires he knows that the vicious cycle which began with him so many years before will never end as new recruits start new wars for no reason at all.
Bunta Sugawara portrayal of Shozo Hirono in the Yakuza Papers is the glue that holds the whole epic saga together. Through out this series Hirono he is betrayed by those he helps time and again. He wants to change and his generosity always comes back to haunt him in the end. The Yakuza Papers is full of degenerates and unsympathetic low life’s who profess loyalty one minute and betray their sworn brothers then next. There are so many double crosses through out the series that at times it is hard to remember who is on whose side. This series is blessed with an amazing ensemble cast many who had worked with Kinji Fukasaku in the past including Sonny Chiba. Even though he only appears in the second film Deadly Fight in Hiroshima his presence is undeniable as he steals the shows.
The Yakuza Papers is Japan’s answer to America’s The Godfather which was released a few years before. The yakuza and mobster are distant cousins that outside their language barriers they follow similar codes and are bound by a sense of honor to their boss. The Yakuza Papers like Fukasaku’s other films are often classified as nihilistic for their sadistic brutality towards women and overall visceral violent tone. Fukasaku though never uses violence just for the sake of violence and his films like all true artists represent the reality that surrounds them.
Fukusaku adds to the films documentary style as he frequently uses hand held compositions that add to the films chaotic subtext. He also makes full use of the widescreen frame as he fills every inch of every frame with details. The editing in the films is razor sharp and well paced as the film flies by without ever dragging. Fukasuka’s films are filled with a kenotic energy that is bursting with enthusiasm. Through his cinema landscapes he transcends language and culture with his universal themes. The Yakuza Papers is filled with so many characters and details that multiple viewings are required.
All five films included in Home Visions the Yakuza Papers are presented in an anamorphic widescreen that preserves their original 2.35:1 aspect ratio. The source material used is nearly flawless and just like their previous Kinji Fukasaku’s DVD release Home Vision comes through in spades. Fukasaku’s wide range of colors are nicely saturated through out with natural looking flesh tones. The amount of detail in each frame is exceptional as the black levels are solid and grain is kept to a minimum.
The only audio option included for these films is the original Japanese dialog track that is presented in a Dolby Digital mono. The dialog and action is clear through out with no sign of hiss or distortion. Overall there is a nice balance between music and effects with are blended seamlessly without ever overwhelming the spoken dialog. Home Vision has done an amazing job restoring and making this nearly thirty year old film sound as if it was made recently. Removable English subtitles have been included that are easy to read and follow.
The wealth of the extras have been included on the six DVD which is available exclusively to the Yakuza Papers box set. The five films are all available separately. Extras on this sixth disk include a nine minute interview “Friedken on Fukasaku” with director William Friedken and twenty minute featurette “Jitsuroku: Reinventing a genre” that includes interviews with Sadao Yamane (Fukasaku’s biographer), Kenta Fukasaku and filmmaker Junji Sakamoto. Other featurette’s include “Boryoku: Fukasaku and the art of violence” which includes a rare interview with Kinji Fukasaku and behind the scenes footage and “Kantoku: remembering the director” a twenty minute round table discussion with Sadao Yamane, Kenta Fukasaku and Sato Masao. The last two featurette’s “Kaplan on the Yakuza” and “Translating Fukasaku” with Linda Hoaglund who discusses subtitling Kinji’s Fukasaku films. The information contained in these interviews and featurettes is informative with the primarily focus being the Yakuza Papers and working with Kinji Fukasaku. There is an Easter egg on the sixth disk that can be accessed by highlighting it the far left corner. A former Yakuza “Mr. M” offers some brief anecdotes on Yakuza culture.
Each of the other five DVD’s included in this set included trailers for the Yakuza Papers (Volumes 1-5), Graveyard of Honor, Street Mobster and director filmography. Home Vision Yakuza Papers box set comes in a fold out digi pack that it stored in a metal case. The box set also comes with a 16-page booklet that includes essays by contemporary Japanese film scholars Patrick Macias and Tom Mes and a booklet called the Family Tree that is a comprehensive story guide that helps sort out the Yakuza Papers series complicated plot. Home Vision has slickly packaged the Yakuza Papers in a box set that is fully loaded with extras and the best audio/video presentation of these films to date making this set a must purchase whether you are a casual or hardcore Kinji Fukasaku fan.