Review: Cops vs. Thugs (1975)

Back in the early 2000s, Kinji Fukasaku’s Battle Royale was probably one of the first live action Japanese films I ever watched. Its popularity helped highlight other Japanese cinema, and a for while, Japanese films were synonymous with shocking, violent pieces like Battle Royale or the work of prolific director Takashi Miike – slapstick exploitation like Ichi the Killer or the truly bizarre Happiness of the Katakuris. It moved the conversation away from the ubiquitous J-horror of the late ‘90s, led by Ring and Grudge and their imitators. Of course, there’s much more to Japanese cinema than that, but it’s where I got my start. It wasn’t until many years later that I became interested in throwback yakuza movies of the 1970s, largely off the back of my interest in SEGA’s Yakuza/Ryū ga Gotoku series. The title I kept seeing referenced as Japan’s equivalent of the Godfather trilogy was Battles Without Honour and Humanity, directed by none other than Kinji Fukasaku.

Cops vs Thugs
“Cops vs. Thugs”

That series remains perhaps the most well-known example of the “jitsuroku” style of yakuza filmmaking – ‘actual record’ or ‘true document’ films, based on or inspired by real stories or newspaper headlines; films that didn’t depict the yakuza as masculine heroes on the wrong side of the law, but focused on petty squabbles, violence, and a nihilistic take on Japan’s organised criminals. It was between the five-film Battles Without Honour and Humanity saga and its follow-up, New Battles Without Honour and Humanity, that Toei’s top brass brought Fukasaku in to direct Cops vs. Thugs (1975). Not content to deconstruct the yakuza alone, the film drags the police and civic leaders into a fascinating quagmire of corruption.

Patrick Macias, writing in an essay for the Arrow release of Cops vs. Thugs, explains the origins of the film as thus: after a kerfuffle with the Hyogo Prefectural Police over a flattering portrayal of yakuza in a series of films based on the real-life Yamaguchi-gumi that led to police raids on Toei’s offices, and a ban from the city of Hiroshima from filming on location there after the Battles Without Honour and Humanity films, Toei decided to take action and pitch a new kind of film that would be more to the authorities’ tastes. Clearly if that was the intention, something got lost in translation along the way. Battles star Bunta Sugawara is the absurdly hard-boiled Detective Kuno, a cop so dirty Sugawara doesn’t even bother to drop his growling yakuza drawl that worked so well as Battles’ Shozo Hirono. He’s a key player in maintaining a fragile peace between rival yakuza families in the fictional city of Kurashima, a thinly-veiled stand-in for Hiroshima after the above debacle.

Cops vs. Thugs: Kuno
Bunta Sugawara excels as Detective Kuno (right), a cop blurring the line between himself and the yakuza he’s supposed to be arresting

It’s Kuno’s relationship with the yakuza boss Hirotani (Hiroki Matsukata) and his role in a corrupt land deal that sets the story in motion. As things escalate between Hirotani’s Ohara gang and their rivals, the Kawade, the police are finally obliged to crack down on the yakuza. A by-the-books cop is brought in from out of town and orders Kuno and his colleagues to sever all ties with the yakuza; of course, ordering the cops not to fraternise with organised criminals might seem to be the obvious thing to do, but in both Cops vs. Thugs and the real world, the Japanese police and the yakuza are linked in strange ways.

The film does well to portray multiple aspects of this relationship, from the way the yakuza hand over one of their own after a crime – regardless of actual culpability – so that the police have someone to arrest and charge and don’t need to investigate any further, to the raucous drinking sessions attended by both corrupt cops like Kuno and high-ranking mobsters. Even in modern Japan, a history of relatively little crime and relying on co-operation from organised criminals has led to a bizarre state of affairs where, as The Economist notes, despite there being “so few crimes, [the police] solve less than 30% of them. Confessions, often made under duress, form the basis of most criminal prosecutions.” The arrival of a cop who actually follows the rules upsets the delicate balance between the police, the gangs, and the corrupt officials – personified by Nobuo Kaneko’s delightfully slimy Kawamoto – and throws the whole city into chaos, with inevitably violent, tragic results.

While it’s always interesting to be able to write about a yakuza movie – after all, that’s essentially the meaning behind Kino 893! – it’s especially welcome when that movie turns out to be as well-executed as Cops vs. Thugs. I’d expect nothing less from Kinji Fukasaku, of course, but now I’m really looking forward to watching more of his work beyond the seminal Battles Without Honour and Humanity series. Here’s hoping Arrow and other niche publishers keep restoring his work for more people to see.

Cops vs. Thugs / 県警対組織暴力 (Kenkei tai Soshiki Bōryoku)

Director: Kinji Fukasaku

Japanese Release Date: 26th April 1975

Version Watched: 101 min (Arrow Video)

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