Tuesday, June 30, 2015

NYAFF ’15: Cops vs. Thugs

In this Yakuza power struggle, Det. Tokumatsu Kuno is backing one faction, while the city politicians have aligned themselves with the opposing clan. Over the long run, the politicians hold the advantage, but Kuno can do plenty of damage in the short term. The ensuing war will produce no heroes. There are only survivors and corpses in Kinji Fukasaku ironically titled Cops vs. Thugs (trailer here), which screens as part of the 2015 New York Asian Film Festival’s sidebar tribute to Ken Takakura and Bunta Sugawara.

Arguably, it was something of a blessing for the Ohara clan when old man Ohara was sent up the river. The infinitely more competent Kenji Hirotani subsequently stepped up as acting boss. For reasons that are never satisfactorily explained, Kuno has taken an active interest in promoting his criminal career. However, the industrial city’s crooked assemblyman, the exceptionally slimy Masaichi Tomoyasu is rather openly affiliated with Boss Kawade.

For years, Kuno has made it his business to tip off Hirotani whenever the cops move against Ohara operations, whereas he takes great enjoyment in busting Kawade’s men. Now under the pretense of a general crackdown, Tomoyasu has unleashed a goody two-shoes prefecture cop to decisively close down the Ohara outfit. Not coincidentally, Kuno quickly discovers he has been frozen out of department investigations. However, he will still do his best to gum up the works.

To describe C vs. T as cynical would be an understatement. Corruption in this grimy town is deep as a river and wide as a mile. Frankly, it probably is not the greatest Yakuza movie ever. Character motivation is consistently a mysterious black box for Fukasaku and screenwriter Kazuo Kasahara, but it has an impressive sense of history and scope. In many ways, it could be considered a stylistic forerunner to Cédric Jimenez’s The Connection, whether or not it directly influenced the French filmmaker.

As we would hope, Bunta Sugawara glowers and snarls like a wary junkyard dog as the morally compromised, but not completely amoral Kuno. Likewise, Hiroki Matsukata is nearly equally hardnosed as Hirotani. However, Nobuo Kaneko truly makes the film as the utterly detestable Tomoyasu. He is the sort of villain that makes you want to purge and shower under the Silkwood power-faucets.

It is kind of mind-blowing to think Fukasaku had previously helmed the sequences in Tora! Tora! Tora! set in Japan and would be best remembered for the Hunger Games precursor, Battle Royale, but his real specialty was caustic Yakuza dramas, as exemplified by C vs. T. It truly has the gritty, grungy look of classic 1970s New York cops and gangster movies. The anti-heroic Yakuza drama is also another Sugawara film that features a massively groovy soundtrack (in this case composed by Toshiaki Tsushima). Recommended for genre fans (but not with as much enthusiasm as The Man Who Stole the Sun or Abashiri Prison), Cops vs. Thugs screens this Friday (7/3) at the Walter Reade, as part of this year’s NYAFF.