Arrow Video: Cops vs. Thugs (1975) - Reviewed

It’s a bit of a shame most Western filmgoers who hear the name of the late prolific Japanese director Kinji Fukusaku can only name his portions of Tora! Tora! Tora! and his now world infamous Battle Royale.  The man made countless films throughout the 1960s and 70s at an almost geometric rate and for better or worse set himself apart from his more formalistic contemporaries including but not limited to Akira Kurosawa and Yasujiro Ozu with his gritty, frenetic and frequently drab aesthetic.  With a boundless, manic energy the camera can barely keep up with, Fukusaku would no doubt pave the way and arguably influence the visual schema of director Takashi Miike whose Dead or Alive series, however lunatic, looks more and more like a Fukusaku film series with each passing day.

One thing is for sure, second to soon to be Japanese surrealist Seijun Suzuki, Fukusaku was the grand master of the yakuza picture who singlehandedly redefined the genre with his now iconic Battles Without Honor and Humanity film series co-written with impeccably detailed realism by screenwriter Kazuo Kasahara.  It’s no surprise that after the success of that film series led by actor Bunta Sugawara that this loose trio of creative artists would reunite once again for what is often referred to as one of the greatest yakuza films of all time, Cops vs. Thugs

Set in 1963 Kurashima, the film follows detective Kuno (Sugawara) who recognizes a ticking time bomb separating the Kawade gang aided by political connections and the Ohara gang aided by police connections is about to go off.  Working closely with best friend Ohara lieutenant Hirotani (Hiroki Matsukata) to maintain balance at what seems like a perpetual Mexican standoff between the two warring yakuza clans punctuated by occasionally random outbursts of violence, all mostly seems well despite the gray moral areas of the underworld’s participants.  But when a young by-the-books chief of police eager to make a name for himself invades and shakes up the fragile balance governing the Kurashima criminal and crime-fighting alliances, all ultraviolent and chaotic Hell begins to break loose on the streets and alleyways of Japan.  It’s up to Kuno to try and restore order separating the cops from the criminals before too many more bodies begin to fall.

Much like Miike’s Dead or Alive 2, Cops vs. Thugs is as much about yakuza depravity as it is about the tender bonds of friendship and how circumstance beyond anyone’s control can bring about demise for everyone.  Guiding the viewer through this maze is Sugawara’s hard-boiled detective Kuno who instinctively knows the terrain and is forced to make a choice that will either quell the chaos or fan the flames.  For a film so seemingly bereft of a moral compass, it’s an oddly sentimental, even conservative viewpoint that manages to imbue human warmth to the inhuman.

Shot in Fukusaku’s now trademark shaky camerawork which would no doubt inform the aesthetic of directors like Paul Greengrass replete with his key use of the freeze frame on moments of mayhem and frequent use of canted angles, watching Cops vs. Thugs feels like a ride in a derailed boxcar tumbling down a cliff.  At times Fukusaku’s war zone is hard to keep up with, moving a mile a minute with bodies, severed heads, guns and daggers bouncing about the frame coupled with screams and explosions. 

Also aiding the film’s grayscale mood is the film’s funky guitar rock soundtrack by frequent composer Toshiaki Tsushima (Battles Without Honor and Humanity), giving the film a vague sense of tension as well as a somewhat somber feeling of hopelessness.  Like the characters and the world within the film itself, it’s a strange yet appropriate dichotomy to have with the counterbalancing musical moods rapidly shifting between excitement and tragedy. 

Despite the social critique being rolled out in Fukusaku’s wild cops and robbers epic, much like Michael Mann’s Heat this is ultimately a character study about two friends on opposite sides of the fence who must choose between maintaining their bond or bringing each other down for the good of the city.  Though Cops vs. Thugs can be off-putting, even shocking for some for it’s almost constant wallow in illicit and unsavory behavior with almost no one coming out of it clean, if there’s one thing Fukusaku’s masterpiece does beautifully it proves even bad people deserve good stories.

- Andrew Kotwicki