Thursday 23 December 2004

My DVD of the year

There are only a couple of days left if you want to vote in the Masters of Cinema DVD of the Year Award. The guidelines:

  1. The DVD can be from anywhere in the world and must have been released sometime in 2004;
  2. You can vote for box sets;
  3. Choose your personal favourite release;
  4. Please don’t vote for MoC DVDs, the vote will receive a glowing smile but won’t be counted.

DVD Box Set, The Yakuza Papers, Battles without Honor and HumanityI voted for Home Vision Entertainment’s DVD box set of Fukasaku Kinji’s The Yakuza Papers: Battles without Honor and Humanity. Dave Kehr’s New York Times review concisely conveys the importance of the films and the quality of the box set:

The most ambitious project in Mr. Fukasaku’s long career was The Yakuza Papers a five-feature series from 1973-74. Ostensibly, it’s the story of the gang leader Shozo Hirono, played by the charismatic Bunta Sugawara, an actor with the looks and bearing of Robert Ryan, who emerges from the chaos and trauma of postwar Hiroshima. But as the story moves from the late 40s to the early 70s, it becomes clear that Mr. Fukasaku (who died in 2003) is really relating the unofficial economic history of postwar Japan: the underground of ruthless aggression that made the Japanese “economic miracle” possible.

Home Vision Entertainment has packaged superb, widescreen transfers of all five films, plus a sixth supplementary disc filled with enlightening historical material, into a handsome metal case, creating one of the most impressive box sets in a year already quite rich in them. It’s a touchstone for those who know Mr. Fukasaku’s work and an excellent introduction for those who don’t.

I’d already seen the first film in the series as it is part of a Eureka Video box set titled Yakuza Triple Pack:

  • Battles without Honour and Humanity (仁義なき戦い, Jingi naki tatakai, 1973)
  • Yakuza Graveyard (やくざの墓場 くちなしの花, Yakuza no hakaba: kuchinashi no hana, 1976)
  • Street Mobster (現代やくざ 人斬り与太, Gendai yakuza: hitokiri yota, 1972)

Eureka offer a second Fukasaku box set called The Yakuza Collection:

  • Graveyard of Honor (仁義の墓場, Jingi no hakaba, 1975)
  • Cops vs Thugs (県警対組織暴力, Kenkeitai soshiki bōryoku, 1975)
  • Japan Organized Crime Boss (日本暴力団 組長, Nihon bōryokudan: kumichō, 1969)

Although I paid £19.99 (US$38.28) for each of these box sets (and regarded that as a bargain), Benson’s World in the UK is now offering both the Yakuza Triple Pack and The Yakuza Collection for only £14.99 (US$28.70) each. Note, however, that your television and DVD player must support Region 2 PAL DVDs.

Although I was impressed with the 16x9 anamorphic transfer on the Eureka DVD, even a quick comparison reveals that the Home Vision NTSC version of Battles without Honour and Humanity (also anamorphic) is undeniably superior.

Amazingly, Fukasaku made the five films in less than two years (the series was released over an eighteen month period between January 1973 and June 1974):

  • Battles without Honour and Humanity (仁義なき戦い, Jingi naki takakai, 1973)
  • Battles without Honour and Humanity: Deadly Fight in Hiroshima (仁義なき戦い 広島死闘篇, Jingi naki takakai: hiroshima shitō hen, 1973)
  • Battles without Honour and Humanity: Proxy War (仁義なき戦い 代理戦争, Jingi naki takakai: dairi sensō, 1973)
  • Battles without Honour and Humanity: Police Tactics (仁義なき戦い 頂上作戦, Jingi naki takakai: chōjoō sakusen, 1974)
  • Battles without Honour and Humanity: Final Episode (仁義なき戦い 完結篇, Jingi naki takakai: kanketsu hen, 1974)

I watched the six Eureka DVDs one after another and, on this first viewing, found the plotlines difficult to follow since Fukasaku kills off characters almost as fast as he introduces them, packing the widescreen frame with shootings, betrayals, and historical references—the ongoing voiceover narration fostering the illusion that one is watching a carefully researched documentary about the impact of organized crime on postwar Japan.

The Battles without Honor and Humanity series is proving easier to understand since Home Vision Entertainment have included a character tree—a small section of which is shown below—that shows the myriad characters and their relationships.

Character tree for the Battles without Honor and Humanity series

The sixth (supplementary) DVD contains interviews with Fukasaku and his son Kenta, director William Friedkin, and subtitler Linda Hoaglund, plus background video essays about the yakuza and how Battles without Honor and Humanity radically changed Japanese movies.

I’m not sure how long it will take these DVDs to reach the rental market but they’re certainly worth watching. And, if you like Quentin Tarantino’s movies, you might want to take a look at the real thing.

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© Copyright 2007 Jonathon Delacour