“COPS VS THUGS”— Action and Social Commentary


Action and Social Commentary

Amos Lassen

“Cops vs Thugs” is considered by many to be director Kinji Fukasaku’s greatest single-film achievement in the yakuza genre. Since I do not see many yakuza films so I must take their word for it did keep me on the edge of my seat. It is a realistic modern crime drama. Set in 1963 in the southern Japanese city of Kurashima, detective Kuno (Bunta Sugawara) is supervising a detente between the warring Kawade and Ohara gangs. Best friends with Ohara lieutenant Hirotani (Hiroki Matsukata), he realizes that there are no clear lines in the underworld, and that everything is just a different shade of gray. However, when random violence disturbs the peace, an ambitious, by-the-books lieutenant (Tatsuo Umemiya) comes to town causing Kuno’s fragile alliance to crumble. Greedy bosses and politicians alike use this opportunity to off their enemies, and Kuno then faces the painful choice of pledging allegiance to his police force badge and keeping a promise that he made to his brother. In Fukasaku’s world, there’s no honor among thieves or lawmen alike, and the only thing that matters is personal honor and duty among friends. 

Fukasaku’s direction and an all-star ensemble cast gives us an exciting, and deeply moving film about cops and criminals. It explores not only the darker side of the criminal underworld, but also corrupt society that allowed it to flourish, blurring the lines between straightforward depictions of good and evil and showing a far more complex and morally ambiguous society than in other films.

The Kawade gang is supported by congressman Tomoyasu, while the Ohara group has the local police force on its side. Kenji Hirotani is the acting leader of the Ohara group and he planned a scam over the purchase of some land, with the police force ignoring this. However, boss Ohara comes out of prison a changed man and wants to legitimize the organization. When a new straight-laced lieutenant, Kaida, is brought into the police-force things really are shaken up.

There is no one lead character and the various threads gradually fall into place leading to a dramatic and tense stand-off finale. The acting throughout is superb, with good characterization and realistic characters with complex moral ambiguities. Cops who are on the side of law and justice now, once lived on with the help of the black market as children in the post-war years when there was no other choice. We can only wonder if they are any better than those who enjoy the hospitality of gangsters because of the current economic situation. The press is vilified for its hypocrisy, reporting in the interests of justice (or perhaps just filling newspaper space to sell ads and compromising their integrity to please their advertisers).

The direction does not hold back on anything. There are, scenes of rape, brutal stabbings, decapitations and violent gang warfare in order to show a corrupt and morally bankrupt society where there is little difference between those who break the law and those who are supposed to be uphold it. This is a sad piece of social commentary under the guise of a brutal and violent action thriller.

The Ohara crime family was founded in 1946 and ruled the city until an underling named Miyake broke away to start his own family. Chaos reigned until Miyake was killed in 1958 and Ohara was sent to prison. Two years later, former Ohara gangster Tomoyasu quits and is eventually elected a city assemblyman. We pick things up in 1963, with Ken Hirotani (Hiroki Matsukata) in command of the Ohara family, Katsumi Kawade (Mikio Narita) in charge of the former Miyake gang, and Tomoyasu playing one side against the other — but favoring the Kawade family for the financial rewards he accrues.

The plot kicks into motion with a land deal that brings out the greedy monster in the gangsters. When a war breaks out between the gangs, Fukasaku kicks it into an insane gear. This It’s a heightened view of street-level action, with social criticism of post-war Japan knitted into the fabric.

Special Features include:

– High Definition digital transfer 

– High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) and Standard Definition DVD presentations

– Original uncompressed mono audio

– Optional English subtitles

Beyond the Film: Cops vs Thugs, a new video appreciation by Fukasaku biographer Sadao Yamane

– A new visual essay on cops & criminals in Fukasaku’s works by film scholar Tom Mes

– Theatrical trailer

– Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Ian MacEwan

FIRST PRESSING ONLY: Illustrated collector s booklet featuring new writing on the film by Patrick Macias

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