All of Fukusaku's trademarks are here in full effect. Think Sonny getting gunned down at the end of The Godfather was bad? Watch as a Fukusaku shows ganq of local thugs exacting their vengeance by de-limbinq their foes with a katana. And that's just in the first five minutes. Fukusaku was known for his penchant for unending mayhem, and Battles Without Honor and Humanity is no exception. But here, Fukusaku was workinq with greater intent. He was showing how his nation struqgled out of the atomic ashes of war.
The first film, covering the years 1946-1955, describe the turf wars between the Doi and Yamamori Yakuza clans in post-war Hiroshima. Fukusaku leading-man Bunta Sugarwara steadfastly portrays Shozo Hirono, an ex-soldier drafted into the Yamamori Yakuza clan in the wake of a short prison stint. His formal initiation into Hiroshima's criminal underworld is only the beginning of a criminal odyssey that spans five films and a quarter century.
Functionally, Battles Without Honor and Humanity doesn't differ much from his previous work. However, you can percieve at the outer edges a greater purpose. The labyrinth of alliances and betrayals that serve as the series' plot are incredibly complex, and navigating the various threads is a challenging proposition. Fortunately, Fukusaku's manic pacing never lets the film drag - even when you're not entirely certain what's going on. Though the movie stands well on its own, it also works fabulously as a setup for the rest of the series.
Actor Bunta Sugawara, who is to Kinji Fukusaku what Toshiro Mifune was to Akira Kurosawa, is as strong a presence here as he is any film in which he takes the lead. His incomparable screen presence, combined with a manic energy only matched by Fukusaku's camera work, make for some great cinema. Of course, with five films in the series, he's not quite as doomed as usual, which may be a refreshing change of pace to those used to seeing Sugawara fling himself into the void at the end of his films.
Battles WIthout Honor or Humanity is being offered alone or as part of a six-disc set accompanied by the other four films in the series as well as a sixth disc containting supplemental goodies. Even if you only go for the single-disc version, you're in for a nice presentation.
The film looks and sounds great, especially for one its age. The colors are rich and the transfer has plenty of depth. Despite a monaural soundtrack (which is no fault of HVe's), the audio presentation is decent, with little distortion, though you won't be using it to show off your home theater setup.
Extras are a bit light (unless you pick up the box set, of course), although it's nice that HVe has included trailers for all of the Yakuza Papers films, as well as two other recent Fukusaku releases, Street Mobster and Graveyard of Honor. There's also a massive 8-page filmography listing everything up to and including his last work, Battle Royale 2.
Whether you're going for the whole shebang, or opting to pick each film individually, Fukusaku's Battles Without Honor and Humanity is worth picking up. For fans of Yakuza cinema, or the director, it's indispensible.