Battles without Honour and Humanity: Hiroshima Death Match (Japan, 1973)
The second film in the Battles without Honour and Humanity series strays from the main storyline to focus on a low rank henchman Yamanaka (the reason for this was that some of the source material – articles based on the life of gangster Kozo Mino – had not been published in its entirety by the time the production begun). The result was a narrower focus than most other instalments in the series, some of which were overloaded with complicated gangster politics. This allowed a greater focus on one of the series’ main themes: the disposable young men blindly taking orders by no-good superiors.
Hiroshima Death Match was a career changing moment for Sonny Chiba, who had originally been cast as Yamanaka. The role would’ve been a logical next step for Chiba, who was a popular actor know for playing handsome action heroes, but had also begun to appear in some darker themed crime films such as A Narcotics Agent’s Ballad (1972) in the early 70s. Kinya Kitaoji, another young actor with record of playing good guys in movies, was set to play the the maniac yakuza Otomo. However, realizing just how vile and rude the character was, Kitaoji found himself unable to play the character and asked if he could have a different role. Chiba and Kitaoji then switched roles at the last moment. The rest is history.
For Chiba, Otomo was a career changing role. Having never played a villain before (in fact, he was one of the top selling idols at the time), Chiba decided to give all he’s got to portray the ugliest human being imaginable. Director Fukasaku was taking turns encouraging (“scratch your balls!”) and restraining (“don’t smell your hand after scratching your balls! Overkill!) Chiba, whose performance was as memorable as over-the-top. Even more importantly, it was the role that directly contributed to Chiba’s later characters, such as the classic anti-hero in The Street Fighter (1974 (a slightly more heroic karate version of Otomo) and the even crazier villain in Okinawa Yakuza War (1976) (a psychopath version of The Street Fighter).
The role switch worked for Kitaoji as well, who did excellent job portraying a tormented man who had even been denied the right to die (when he was too young to join the kamikaze during WWII). The film’s setting, Hiroshima, played both a symbolic and concrete role in the film. In real life Hiroshima was the only place where the yakuza conflicts got so violent even innocent bystanders were caught in the line of fire. Symbolically speaking, director Fukasaku has always portrayed the modern yakuza as a side-product of the post war misery.
To counter-balance the character focus, Fukasaku inserts several montage-like sequences of violence erupting on the streets, gangsters killing each other off in realistic scenes that are a far cry from cinematic cool, and the police and the press getting involved, all enhancing the image of a city taken over by violence. Toshiaki Tsushima’s amazing score, which is at its most effective in this movie, adds the final touch. Probably the best film in the Battles without Honour and Humanity series.
From Chiba’s perspective it’s interesting to speculate what might have happened had Chiba and Kitaoji not switched the roles. It’s a fascinating thought that Chiba could’ve have played the starring role; on the other hand his later filmography might’ve become very different. Without Hiroshima Death Match would he ever have created the unforgettable character he played in The Street Fighter, which not only lead him to international fame but also influenced the kind of characters he played in various other mid-70s action films?
* Original title: Battles without Honour and Humanity: Hiroshima Death Match (仁義なき戦い 広島死闘篇)
* Director: Kinji Fukasaku
* Chiba’s role: Major supporting role
* Film availability: Arrow DVD / BD (UK/US)