The Films (5/5, 5/5)
Late last year the awesome people at Arrow Video released a box set containing the complete Battles Without Honor or Humanity films by director Kinji Fukasaku. The complete set sold out quite fast leaving fans who missed out on the opportunity to see the films without a way to do so without resorting to high eBay prices to secure the box set. It has been nearly a year since the release of that elaborate box, and Arrow have now re-released all 5 films under the name The Yakuza Papers in individual Blu-ray/DVD combo packs for fans who missed out the first time. Because not a lot of reviews were around for the box set, we decided to dip into the series a few at a time, and what better what way to go then with the first 2 films Battles without Honor and Humanity and Hiroshima Death Match.
The first film follows the rise of Shozo Hirono (Bunta Sagawara)charting his life from a former soldier at the end of World War II, to a low level Yakuza member. He gets involved with a gang, but quickly comes to not trust the boss of that organization, and after a series of incidents leaves the gang to strike out on his own. The first film in the Battles series does an excellent job of establishing the tone of what is to come (OK, for the 2 I've seen).
The second film, and possible contender for winner of the best film title ever award Hiroshima Death Match also has Hirono in it, but in this one he is a side character. Rather, this film is not his story, but of someone he also went to prison with named Yamanaka, who gets out of prison and joins a gang originally under Muraoka. Things for Yamanaka go badly wrong, and he ends up in jail, escaping, and finding himself in conflict with the police and a rival yakuza named Otomo (Sonny Chiba).
The Battles... films are often cited as a sort of Japanese Godfather series of films. I believe this is mostly due to the epic 5 film nature of the series, and also the proximity of the releases to the Godfather films as the first 2 films quickly prove that these series are 2 distinctly different beasts.
The first Battles film doesn't really so much have a straight forward narrative. It's an excellent ensemble piece with an epic grouping of characters flowing in and out of the film. What story there is serves to show the evolution of Hirono from soldier to disgruntled yakuza. The violence in the film is over the top, quick, but not shocking considering the abundance of it.
The second film is more straight forward with a more clear cut and defined set of characters. The films violence is as over the top, if not more so, but is actually better utilized in the film. Both films flow very well, and are endlessly entertaining between the performances, stories, and endlessly stylized bouts of violence.
Both films are presented by Arrow Video in 2:35:1 1080p AVC encoded transfer preserving their original aspect ratio. The film's themselves look quite excellent and natural with detail being strong, flesh tones accurate, and black levels quite solid.
Audio chores are handled by Japanese LPCM mono tracks in Japanese. The dialogue and score come through nicely. I did detect what sounded like a few pops in the first films, but overall both tracks were solid.
The first Battles disc gets a commentary with critic Stuart Galbraith IV that is highly informative and quite interesting. There is also an interview with director Takashi Miike about Fukasaku and yakuza films. Hiroshima Death Match has an interview with the series fight choreographer.
The box set of the Battles Without Honour or Humanity films sold out in a flash, and it's easy to see why. The first 2 Battles without Honor and Humanity films are gritty, gory, and fun yakuza films that are sure to please fans of Asian action cinema. The Blu-ray editions from Arrow Video look and sound stellar, and come with a few decent extras. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.