Saturday Matinee: Cops vs. Thugs

Cops Vs. Thugs — No Honour Among Thieves (or Cops)

By Ben Warnock

Source: Ben Warnock Blog

“Yakuza and cops are just the same. We respect the law instead of a code. We’re the dropouts who couldn’t get good jobs.”

“We too are the dropouts of society. We all are!”

Kinji Fukasaku’s yakuza films are perhaps best described as being surrounded by an almost impenetrable, bleak aura of despair and nihilism. The cops who are supposed to be the protectors of the people are corrupt to the core, Fukasaku basically presents them as a mercenary force — one that can be bought if the bid is high enough. Government officials often use the police to do their bidding and much like their underlings are as corrupt as they come. This damning indictment of these systems does not mean that the director sides with the yakuza — often portraying them as morally reprehensible criminals — whilst their code may be one of honour, post-war Japan has created a society that allows for greedy capitalists to gain power simply at the expense of sullying their morals and code. Those who stick to a code of honour become the dead that litters the senseless gang wars that follow. Corruption is a recurring theme throughout Fukasaku’s yakuza films and Cops Vs. Thugs is perhaps his most interesting example of this outside of his famous Battles Without Honour and Humanity series.

Much like the aforementioned series of films, Fukasaku looks to highlight the corrupting nature of power and that those who seek power are often those who are corrupted the easiest. The police of the film are split between those who are corrupt but perhaps honourable in their own, twisted way — as characterised by Bunta Sugawara’s Kuno whose corruption is described as a way of keeping the peace — and the new faction led by Kaida who is vehemently against collaboration with the yakuza. However, Kaida’s allegiances should not be mistaken as honourability as Fukasaku is certain to illustrate. Kaida’s behaviour humiliates his co-workers in public spectacles — including repeatedly using his judo skills on an elderly police officer — where his power is cemented amongst the other police officers. This damning indictment of the police is nothing new to the films of Fukasaku but here, the director highlights that those who seek the position of a police officer are those who are power-hungry and susceptible to corruption from many outside forces. As Sugawara’s Kuno states when asked why he became a cop:

“I wanted to carry a gun. After the war only cops and narcotic agents could carry guns….we were short of food…every time we tried to buy rice on the black market, the cops snatched it away. So I decided to be a snatcher”.

Unlike the famous notion that power corrupts, Fukasaku’s films prove that it is not power that corrupts but it is in the nature of those who seek positions of power in a patriarchal, capitalist system to become corrupt. It is the damaged system’s cyclical nature that corrupts individuals.

The fates of those characters who have a shred of honour — Kuno and Kawamoto — ultimately end in tragedy. Kuno’s honour and trust in his friend Hirotani ultimately leads to his escape attempt and forces Kuno’s hand in killing Hirotani. Violence begets violence and Kuno — after being demoted and transferred as a reward for saving Kaida’s life — is killed by the remaining members of Hirotani’s gang. The yakuza honour forces them to avenge the death of their leader. Kawamoto, on the other hand, attempts to save his friend’s life by getting them to surrender and is gunned down by the very friend he tried to save. The honour and trust showcased have no place within the world of the police and the yakuza. Corrupt institutions whose original purposes have become eroded and replaced by pawns of the capitalist society they inherit. This ever-changing, impermeable alliance between characters is highlighted by Fukasaku’s camera. Battles devolve into a sweeping landscape of betrayal with snitches followed by the judging eye of the camera and gunfights where the action can barely be contained within the confines of the screen. Fukasaku’s frantic kineticism within these scenes is indicative of the disorientating landscape of unknown allegiances which these characters inhabit and thrive.

The world which is represented in Cops Vs. Thugs is one that is inherently damaged from its systems of government to its criminals whose honour and code have become meaningless in the current political landscape. The real threat presented to the governing officials is not the yakuza who seek to exploit the corrupted system but a change in ideology that would bring the system crashing down. Fukasaku even highlights this own threat with the police officer whose entire character consists of his hatred of communists even ahead of the very criminals that are terrorising the streets he is meant to protect. Fukasaku’s (literal) red herring of communism here is one that rewards those who buy into the paranoia. The anti-communist officer is inexplicably a member of Kaida’s team and Fukasaku ensures that he is the first officer seen to be arresting the yakuza once they surrender. This perhaps explains that Kaida’s corruption does not lie with the yakuza but the capitalist government which seeks to strengthen its own resolve within society. The film’s epilogue showing the demotion and untimely fate of Kuno also highlights that Kaida is now a leading figure in Nikko Oil — a company that was mentioned to be corrupt as well. Hiding behind a facade of friendly exercising with his co-workers — Fukasaku pulls out from a close-up to a wide shot allowing the audience to realise that this corrupt institution is just one of many within the industrial landscape. Corruption does not just lie with the police working with the yakuza but also — and more dangerously so — lies with the police collaborating with the government.

Watch Cops vs. Thugs on Kanopy here:

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