Auteur Kinji Fukasaku is the quintessential director of yakuza films. Fukasaku helmed films across genres, but it is his work in the yakuza film that he is best known for as well as where he made the biggest mark. Fukasaku’s films in the genre are known for their dense plotting and complex characters, all of which helps obscure any clear moral reading of the work.
Cops vs. Thugs (1975) sees Fukasaku comparing the yakuza with the police and finding that these heavily ritualized societies are essentially the same. The code of the yakuza is the law of the cop and each enforces their will, their values through violence. Fukasaku proposes, in the form of Det. Kuno (Bunta Sugawara), that the police cannot beat the yakuza. The best that the cops can do in Fukasaku’s sordid picture is to control the yakuza by exploiting those laws and codes that intersect; by locating that place where each finds honor.
The shady dealings and coercive tactics of the yakuza are implied to be equivalent and perhaps a metaphor for the influence of Western capitalism on Japan, Cops vs. Thugs is “based on true events” and set in the mid-sixties which only reenforces this particular reading. Again and again Kuno rationalizes his association with yakuza boss Kenji (Hiroki Matsukata) by recalling how, in the aftermath of WWII, everyone in Japan got their rice on the black market, suggesting that every cop began as a criminal. The deprivation of Japan and the stranglehold of the Western powers becomes a kind of original sin that, for Kuno and Fukasaku, forever links cop and yakuza.
This link isn’t entirely sociological, finding a more intimate iteration in the relationship between Kenji and Kuno. These two men are bound by honor after Kuno let Kenji get away with a murder. Their relationship is queer coded with the women in their lives functioning as a kind of conduit of intimacy between the two men. In the highly stylized flashback it is their mutual gaze of longing that is the visual focus as they hatch their plan to cover up a yakuza assassination. Kuno lets Kenji off so Kenji does Kuno’s dishes in a sequence that implies a domestic connection between the two tough guys that is consummated only in the abstract by honor.
In his typical style, Fukasaku is at his best directing violent scenes of action. These scenes move rapidly through fast cuts as if the adrenaline of the characters had infected the film itself. The bicycle chase that ends with a decapitation is particularly effective. And, of course, Fukasaku employs his trademark strategy of cutting to news clippings to link the fiction of the illusion to the presumed reality of these “real life” black and white images.
While Cops vs. Thugs may not be Fukasaku’s best film in this genre, it is all in all a strong work of cinema. It’s bleak, sleazy and violent; everything one wants in a good crime picture. If one is coming to Fukasaku’s oeuvre for the first time via Cops vs. Thugs one will undoubtedly pick up on the film’s influence on Spike Lee’s Clockers (1995), Takashi Miike’s Shinjuku Triad Society (1995) and Scorsese’s Goodfellas (1990).