The first (and best) installment of Kinji Fukasaku's Yakuza Papers quintet of scuzzy underworld warfare opens with a freeze-frame of the Hiroshima mushroom cloud, which in the director's vision razed the country's DNA down to its moral strands. The staccato opening 1946 scenes, with horny American soldiers soiling Japanese maidenhood and hoods dicing each other's limbs off, chart a chaos furiously scrambling to whip itself into some kind of stabilizing order amid the ashes of postwar Japan. Crime becomes order, and warring clans crowd the frame with double-crossings, vendettas and rubouts -- the plot sprawls into the '50s and follows a tortuous grid of characters of varying shadiness, though its linchpin (and moral barometer) remains ex-soldier-turned-mob-torpedo Bunta Sagawara, who struggles to hang on to something like honor in the degraded bloodshed. If he sympathizes with Sagawara's personal ethics as opposed to the ruthless tactics of "brother" Hiroki Matsukata, Fukasaku nevertheless pulverizes the fantasy of the Yakuza's codes of macho honor, instead channeling their absurdity -- the ceremonial slicing of a finger escalates into Hawksian comedy when the severed pinkie sails through the air and into a henhouse, and a disgusted Sagawara dismantles a pal's funeral proceedings when his death provides the Yakuza with a chance for a (spurious) display of tradition. Often palmed off as a Japanese Godfather saga, Fukasaku's film is angrier and less enthralled by its venal characters, closer to such Francesco Rosi Mafia studies as Lucky Luciano or Illustrious Corpses, where brutal violence and political inquiry fused across the genre canvas. Followed by Deadly Fight in Hiroshima, Proxy War, Police Tactics and Final Episode, exercises in mayhem laced with Fukasaku's fury. With Tatsuo Umemiya, Tsunehiko Watase, and Nobuo Kaneko.
--- Fernando F. Croce