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Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2003

This gangster film pulls a fast one

Shin Jingi Naki Tatakai: Bosatsu

Rating: * * (out of 5)
Director: Hajime Hashimoto
Running time: 110 minutes
Language: Japanese
Currently showing

Kinji Fukasaku's five-part "Jingi Naki Tatakai (Battles Without Honor and Humanity)" series (1973-74) dared to tell the truth about the postwar yakuza in a manner appropriate to its subject matter: propulsive and raw, but focused more on the intricacies of gang politics than mere violence. Though not as stately and well-orchestrated as the "Godfather" trilogy -- characters are introduced in crowds and killed off in chaotic bursts -- the films have a documentary-like persuasiveness and cumulative force. Based on a series of confessional articles by a Hiroshima gang boss, they present an insider's view of the postwar underworld, with few of the usual filters.

News photo
Ken Watanabe and Katsunori Takahashi in "Shin Jingi Naki Tatakai: Bosatsu"

Kansai native Junji Sakamoto revived the series in 2000 with "Shin Jingi Naki Tatakai (Another Battle)." Set in the Japan of the new millennium, the film was a sprawling, ambitious epic that had its moments, but lacked the urgency of its predecessors. Toei, which produced both Fukasaku's films and Sakamoto's followup, has continued the new series with "Shin Jingi Naki Tatakai: Bosatsu (Another Battle: Conspiracy)." Directed by newcomer Hajime Hashimoto, the film has little in common with the previous one other than its title, its Kansai setting and its convoluted story line.

Working from a script by Izuru Narashima, Hashimoto updates the series for a new era, in which the gangs have adopted the trappings of modern business, from laptops to spreadsheets. The fuel propelling the narrative, however, is the standard genre blend of obligation and ambition, alliances and betrayals, fear and violence. The welter of plot complications -- fixers fixing the fixers, briefcases of cash flying back and forth -- obscure the story's core relationships. By the end, when all was revealed, I was too confused to care. (I say this after seeing the film twice, once with English subtitles at the Tokyo International Film Festival.) Also, though the payoff for all the machinations is clever enough, the bitter laughter as the curtain comes down rings hollow -- and the audience files out feeling had.

The story begins with the New Year's celebration of the Oda-gumi, a gang under the umbrella of the Sahashi-gumi, the largest underworld organization in western Japan. The boss, Oda (Nenji Kobayashi), may look the picture of vigorous middle-aged manhood, but for reasons of his own, plays the part of the garrulous codger. At a cabaret he regales his underlings with tales of his war exploits, though at the time, as one of them informs us, he had barely graduated from nappies.

Whatever the reason for the old man's act, pressure is building on Oda to anoint his successor. The two leading candidates are, ironically, the best of friends. One is Yahagi (Katsunori Takahashi), who not only looks the part of the rising young gang executive, with his smooth manner and immaculately tailored suits, but has a sterling track record running the gang's semilegitimate business activities. His mentor is Sugimori (Daisuke Ryu), the saturnine second-in-command of the Sahashi-gumi, whose weapons of choice are yen notes.

The other is Fujimaki (Ken Watanabe), a gangster in the old, violent mold, with a short fuse and no fear of anyone, including Oda, though he regards Yahagi more as a younger gang brother than a rival. Meanwhile, Yahagi supports Fujimaki, not only out of deference to his seniority but also because he believes the older man is the better person for the job. The gangs are really all about violence, he explains to Sugimori, and Fujimaki uses it more effectively than anyone else in the Oda gang.

Oda, however, is reluctant to cede power to Fujimaki, whom he regards as a loose cannon. In fact, knowing the usual fate of discarded gang bosses, he is far from ready to retire -- though he slyly hides his intentions. Instead, he names his No. 3, the easily manipulated Sanada (Higashinari Kochi), as his successor, baffling Yahagi and outraging Fujimaki.

Seeing his ambitions in Osaka thwarted, Fujimaki shifts the base of his operations to Nagoya, invading the territory of the local Ryumon-kai.

The weak-willed Ryumon-kai boss, Maeda (Katsu Shiga), seems easy prey for Fujimaki -- but he has the backing of the Domyo-kai, a Kanto-based gang whose leader, Watarai (Renji Ishibashi), has no love for either Fujimaki or the Oda-gumi. Working with Sugimori, he devises a plot to destroy both the Ryumon and Oda gangs.

The two gangs, it turns out, are feuding over not only territory and pride, but a big business deal involving a failing construction company. The spoils are rich, and both Sugimori and Watarai want their share. Meanwhile, Oda is biding his time and playing both ends against the middle, as the chaos builds and violence rages. These machinations and countermachinations put a strain on Yahagi and Fujima-ki's friendship. By this time, the power game has more than two players -- and the two men become unwitting pawns.

Takahashi and Watanabe are a well-matched set as Yahagi and Fujimaki, though they are hardly equals. Takahashi has the looks of a pop star manque, but Watanabe's Fujimaki is the real yakuza deal -- a scowling Nio guardian statue brought to life, able to intimidate anything that crosses his path (or blast it aside with those massive shoulders).

Fujimaki shows his human side, however, with his wife, a whiskey-voiced, sweets-gobbling toughie played by Mari Natsuki. This odd coupling -- Natsuki as the profane, wise-up older sister to Watanabe's impulsive younger brother -- is one sign that the film is not on auto pilot.

Another is Kobayashi's performance as the foxy Oda, who looks to be a few cards short of a full deck, but is really the dealer in a mug's game of three-card monte. Though too young by a decade for the role, Kobayashi plays it with great comic brio -- and nearly gets lost in the film's wheels within wheels. He may have the last laugh, but by then we have almost forgotten the joke.

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