The Film (4/5)
For years, the Kurashima police department has had an open secret relationship with the local yakuza because Detective Kuno (Bunta Sugawara) is friends with Kenji Hirotani (Hiroki Matsukata), a yakuza lieutenant. This friendship extends to favors to benefit both sides financially and everything is going along more or less smoothly. But it doesn’t take long for the higher-ups (both cops and yakuza) to take notice that this unique relationship could be a liability. While the surly Hirotani is busy making enemies among the yakuza, Detective Kuno finds himself butting heads with the new police lieutenant Kaida (Tatsuo Umemiya) who is there to clean up all of the police corruption in Kurashima. With a land deal worth tens of millions of dollars hanging in the balance, the tension steers this situation towards its inevitably violent conclusion.
Kinji Fukasaku masterfully directs this poignant tale of two kindred spirits on different sides of the law. It’s filled with all of the dark, cynical ironies that I’ve come to expect from this genre and I wasn’t disappointed. I loved the editing style that helped keep the pacing from getting bogged down too much. One thing about yakuza stories is that there are a lot of scenes with dudes having meetings and editor Kôzô Horiike takes pity on the viewer by summarizing some of these moments with still images and accompanying narration. Thanks, bro! Veteran film composer Toshiaki Tsushima contributes to the energy with his funky wah wah guitar and brassy trumpets in the music score. I’m also quite smitten with this cast. You can’t go wrong with Sugawara and Matsukata, who worked together on 21 films!
It’s immediately apparent from early on in this film -supposedly based on real events that took place in 1963- that the line between police and yakuza is intentionally blurred and that moral ambiguity is part of what makes this film so interesting. While there is some glamorization of the yakuza lifestyle -one extended sex scene and a boozing with the gang scene, in particular- I was very surprised at how unglamorous that the violence is portrayed. When shit goes down in Cops vs Thugs, it’s so chaotic and almost comically uncool that I found the various skirmish scenes rather unnerving to watch. Whatever the aggressors set out to accomplish is essentially pointless and in the end, no one wins.
I don’t think any company understands how to bring a genre film that’s over 40 years old to home video quite as well as Arrow Video. There’s minimal print damage on this one but nothing distracting. The colorful scenes look absolutely brilliant and the muted, darker scenes are sharp and easy to see. The sound mix is on point with the Japanese dialog never competing with the music score.
There’s lots to go through on this disc and that’s a very good thing for Fukasaku enthusiasts. Fukasaku biographer Sadao Yamane is on hand to talk about where Cops vs Thugs fits in the director’s filmography. Author Tom Mes contributes yet another great visual essay, this time it’s about some of Fukasaku’s recurring themes. What’s really surprising on this disc is a short bit of behind-the-scenes of the director talking about Cops vs Thugs with an eye-opening peek behind the curtain at one of this film’s most infamous scenes. Last but not least, there’s a booklet with an essay about yakuza and police characterizations in Fukasaku’s work by author Patrick Macias.
This film is my introduction to the world of Kinji Fukasaku’s yakuza films. For instance, I’ve never seen his Battles Without Honor and Humanity saga. I’m more familiar with his films from other genres like The Green Slime, Black Rose, and Battle Royale. Somehow I’m more familiar with the directors whose films were heavily influenced by Fukasaku’s yakuza titles. I blame this on my zigzagging through the world of cult cinema like I am wont to do. I guess I skip around a lot in the yakuza genre because I get tired of the female characters being treated like property in these films and this one is no exception. That being said, Cops vs Thugs is an excellent example of its genre and I highly recommend that yakuza completists check this one out if they haven’t already. Y’all are in for a treat.