Contributor; Chicago, Illinois


CIFF 2004 was exhausting, and exhilerating. Soon I'll have reviews up of Journey Into Bliss, Grey Gardens, McDull Prince De La Bun, The Taste of Tea, The Woodsman, Primer, Bitter Dream, and a host of others. But let me start with some coverage of a Special Screening of Kinji Fukasaku's Battles Without Honor and Humanity hosted by the good folks at Home Vision Entertainment.

I'm not a devotee of Asian film though I have been exposed too much more of it than the average person. Oddly enough I've avoided a full plunge because, even though much of what I have seen is excellent, I see the rabbit hole looming, threatening to swallow me and I'm afraid I might never find my way back. Saying Asian film is like saying American film; it implies a territory too vast and culturally diverse to be grasped in less than a lifetime. This is also one reason why I remain so steadfastly resolute about concentrating on fantasy, science fiction and horror film. It keeps me in a small enough arena to navigate.

But I do have friends that are constantly helping me explore the avalanche of Asian cinema that's always threatening to bury me. So when Home Vision Entertainment invited me out to their special screening of Kinji Fukasaku's Battles Without Honor and Humanity my keen critical faculties told me I should make time in my already too busy schedule. Actually, I had already viewed the screener tape that had been made available to the press at the Chicago International Film Festival Press Office. But in spite of the fact that film only loosely fit into my overall coverage of CIFF, I knew I had to see it again.

The screening opened with the introduction of Fukasaku biographer and scholar Yamane Sadao. Through an interpreter he gave us an overview of the importance of the director's work. Recently known to American audiences for the recent action horror hit Battle Royale, the late Kinji Fukasaku is better known and appreciated in his country of origin for his contributions to and re-envisioning of the Japanese gangster genre also known as Yakuza films.

Released within a year of Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather (1972), the film Battles Without Humanity and Honor (1973), not only offers equally complex plotting and Fukasaku's trademark dynamic use of camera, but a historically significant vision of a post war Japan struggling to emerge from Emperor worship and totalitarian rule into democracy. Peopled with characters who are neither simply "good guys" or "bad guys" Fukasaku's films offer a starling mix of comedy, drama, explosive violence, sentiment and at times even terror, but they do not offer a simple philosophic dissection of an era that was, for Fukasaku, experienced first hand. The result is desperately intimate.

My first viewing of the film had left me dazzled by its complexity but unaware of it's historical context. Set in that context by Sadao's introduction and the Q & A that followed, the second screening sold me on an extended exploration of Fukasaku's work. Even at its most violent and cinematically frenetic Battles Without Honor and Humanity is anything but casually exploitive. Indeed the film offers just what it's title describes, offering a resonating echo to a musical sentiment that became popular around the same time, "Here comes the new boss same as the old boss." Even as Japanese society strove to embrace newfound democratic freedom, a struggle for power left those who could shoot fastest and inspire the most fear running the show from behind the political scenery. Too remain unmoved by Fukasaku's vision simply because one objects to, (or fixates on) the extreme nature of some of its images, misses the point entirely. Fukasaku documents what was, truly using the lie of art to tell the truth.

As I made my way home from the Media Party held at Monsoon's I couldn't help but ruminate on the discovery of my own startled cinematic infancy. Several great conversations about cinema (Asian and otherwise) and storytelling had deconstructed the myth of Yakuza exploitation at least as far as Fukasaku's work was concerned. The human face is always waiting to be found in film. Underneath the trappings, the special effects, lighting and camera technique (or lack thereof) are the characters who embody our own battles, be they with, or without, honor and humanity. They tell their timeless stories again and again to a world in need of reminders that words like honor and humanity have not ceased to have meaning no matter how bad an example has been set by man. This is neither Asian, nor American but human in the truest sense.

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