Bombay Showcase

Debt of ‘honor’

Déjà vu: Kabali ’s characterisation of gangsters reminds one of Japanese filmmaker Kinji Fukasaku’s (above) gangster film, Battles Without Honor and Humanity (below).  

Minutes after watching the first-day-first-show screening of Kabali in Mumbai, I was still appreciating Pa. Ranjith’s accurate and closely-researched portrayal of gang hierarchy in Malaysia, down to the use of elaborate logos and Tamil slang unique to the country.

As I was explaining to my rather bemused banker cousin over plates of podi upma in one of the many fine south Indian establishments in Matunga, the film’s characterisation of gangsters, from the sharp suits to the retro look, reminded me of the work of Japanese filmmaker Kinji Fukasaku, particularly the Yakuza (Japanese gangster) film, Battles Without Honor and Humanity (1973). I have referred to his work several times, while discussing contemporary Japanese crime cinema, and now is as good a time as any to look at Fukasaku in more depth.

Younger audiences who are fans of Quentin Tarantino may well be familiar with the Battles Without Honor and Humanity track used on the Kill Bill films (2003, 2004) OST. Tarantino, well-known for mining music from soundtracks of yesteryears, used the track as almost a title track in the films. And for those interested in that period in cinema history, Fukasaku’s Lord of the Flies -esque Battle Royale films (2000, 2003), his last as it turned out, made quite a splash in art-house circles around the world.

After debuting in 1961 with the Wandering Detective film starring Sonny Chiba, Fukasaku would go on to direct several more in the prolific manner that some Japanese filmmakers had and continue to have, before arriving at Battles Without Honor and Humanity , now considered his seminal work. His spare, almost documentary approach, punctuated with moments of ultra-violence, struck a chord, and he went on to direct four more films in the series in a span of just two years. Obviously, the law of diminishing marginal utility applied to each successive film. The films are collectively known as The Yakuza Papers in the West, fitting shorthand, since the screenplays are based on several pieces written by the journalist Koichi Iiboshi, which in turn were based on the memoirs of real Yakuza, Kozo Mino.

Indian audiences who remember cinema releases of the late 1970s would remember the English dubbed version of Shogun’s Samurai (1978), Fukasaku’s indelible contribution to the Samurai genre. Fukasaku’s films have obviously been a direct influence on the directorial career of Takeshi Kitano, who acted in the Battle Royale films. Sonatine (1993), in particular, pays homage to Battles Without Honor and Humanity , in its moments of calm punctuated with short sharp shocks of hyper violence. There are similar moments in Kabali too, where the unexpected spikes of quick brutality are reminiscent of the world of the Japanese master.

I have no way of knowing whether Pa. Ranjith is a student of Yakuza cinema but two other moments in Kabali seem like a playful tribute to cinema from other parts of the world. In the sequence where the Tony Lee corporation stock is rapidly going down, the stock next to it is Stark: surely a reference to Iron Man’s firm in the Marvel universe. And, the big daddy of gangsters in the Malaysian hierarchy is called Ang Lee: surely not a coincidence, but a playful nod.

The writer is a journalist and the author of Rajinikanth: The Definitive Biography

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Printable version | Nov 27, 2020 11:08:17 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/mumbai/entertainment/Debt-of-%E2%80%98honor%E2%80%99/article14549050.ece

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