Prior to Kinji Fukasaku's bloody crime thrillers, Japanese films about the yakuza tended to be modern-day extensions of the movie industry's historical samurai epics, with mob hit men acting out of deep principles of loyalty. Fukasaku countered with "jitsuroko": historically based gangster stories inspired equally by the grand sweep of The Godfather and the street violence of The French Connection. In 1973 and '74, Fukasaku made a five-film series known alternately as The Yakuza Papers and Battles Without Honor & Humanity (after the title of the first installment), tracing the complicated infighting of Hiroshima gangs from 1946 to 1970. In Fukasaku's world, yakuza adhere to codes of honor when it's in their best interest, but otherwise bully and kill indiscriminately.
Fukasaku begins Battles with a still picture of an atomic blast, establishing the series as a critique of the "in-the-ruins generation" that was born in the rubble of World War II. Throughout The Yakuza Papers, characters refer back to the war, as in Deadly Fight In Hiroshima, where the hero wishes he had been a kamikaze pilot, so he'd be spared the fate of a lovesick, suicidal button-man. The series starts in the Hiroshima refugee camps of 1946, where a group of young men get involved with the black market and ally themselves with the region's crime "families." Bunta Sugawara stars as the toughest of the lot, who watches his friends' idealism get swamped by the job's necessities. Over the next four films—Deadly Fight, Proxy War, Police Tactics, and Final Episode—the story hardly changes. For 25 years, the yakuza families swap loyalties and butcher each other, while Sugawara does his best to stay out of the fray and make a living.
The Yakuza Papers' seven-hour string of double-crossings and random hits makes the alliances hard to sort out, even with a helpful narrator explaining the action. Broken up into its component parts, though, the series has an invigorating leanness. The violence runs wild and tacky: In a typical Fukasaku fight sequence, a man picks up a severed hand and slaps his enemy with it, in a shot that lasts less than a second. To bring some order to the chaos, Fukasaku frequently freezes the film to identify the players, and to give the impression of news photos pulled from a historical archive. On the Yakuza Papers DVD set's excellent bonus disc the late director's son and admirers like William Friedkin explain how Fukasaku used a documentary style and unflinching bloodletting in an attempt to "understand peace through violence."
The series still resonates in Japan, where "Battles Without Honor & Humanity" has become a common T-shirt slogan (as well the title of a Tomoyasu Hotei instrumental used in Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill, and now the cue music for seemingly every sports-related talk-radio show in America). The Yakuza Papers' endurance has primarily to do with the filmmaker's critical analysis of Japan's national character. Fukasaku openly questions whether the legendary Japanese sense of duty was wiped out by the atomic bomb, or whether it was always just an ideal for tourists and old movies, never meant to be taken seriously.