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Sword cuts paper

Kinji Fukasaku is infamous in the United States for Battle Royale, a painfully cynical Lord of the Flies turned up to eleven. Among the actors in that movie, we find Chiaki Kuriyama, who later appeared in Kill Bill: Volume 1. Tarantino’s grindhouse epic draws strongly on Kinji Fukasaku’s Yakuza Papers, a series of five movies which begins with Battles Without Honor and Humanity — which, of course, is the title to the Tomoyasu Hotei song on the Kill Bill soundtrack. No mistake, that. Despite this circular dance of interconnections, the IMDB page listing movie links for Kill Bill does not list Battles Without Honor and Humanity as of this moment. Such is the fallibility of voluntarily edited databases.

I watched Battles Without Honor and Humanity because I’d heard it was a seminal moment in Japanese yakuza films, and I liked Battle Royale a lot. Now that I’ve seen it, there’s a clear electric connection between Fukasaku’s desperate gang epic and the brutal yakuza movies of Takashi Miike. I can’t imagine how liberating it must have been to see a movie as direct and honest as this at the time, in 1973. It casts a shadow.

When I step back and consider the movie as a whole, I’m left with a sense of a profound anger. Image one: the atomic bomb exploding in the heart of Hiroshima. Image two: American soldiers raping a Japanese woman. Then we’re plunged into the tensely muted world of the yakuza, but the bomb stays with us. It’s the original sin which informs this new generation of yakuza.

Not much else does. There’s a scene where Bunta Sugawara, the protagonist, decides he must cut off part of his little finger as atonement. He doesn’t know how to do it; he’s new to this business. Neither do any of his friends. In the end, the only person who can help is the wife of the boss — “I saw it done once in Osaka.” The final scene powers home the point, as Sugawara literally shatters the symbols of tradition. “Do you know what you’re doing?” Of course.

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