“Proxy War” – A.J. Hakari

For two straight films, Kinji Fukasaku brought audiences a grueling glimpse into the world of the Yakuza. Battles Without Honor & Humanity and Deadly Fight in Hiroshima, the two inaugural chapters of Fukasaku’s Yakuza Papers saga, brought to vivid life the often violent and constantly unpredictable existence led by gangsters in post-WWII Japan. But these pictures worked because they cut through the chaos and managed to focus on certain figures with compelling stories to tell. Proxy War, on the other hand, has none of the heart or sense of purpose its predecessors had. It mostly exists for the sake of existing, a stagnant entry that slows its series to a screeching halt just as it was getting started.

This third addition to the Yakuza Papers pantheon brings the action and bloodshed to the 1960s. Shozo Hirono (Bunta Sugawara) is once again the main figure, a veteran Yakuza man barely eeking out a life as the head of his own teensy family. His situation turns even more dour once circumstances force Shozo to ally himself once again with Yamamori (Nobuo Kaneko), the crime boss he thought he’d finally left behind. But as Shozo is also coerced into mentoring a budding gangster (Tsunehiko Watase), an event takes place that stirs up Hiroshima’s criminal scene in a big way. The ailing head of an expansive family is announcing his retirement, which means everyone and their mother is doing whatever they can to kiss up and be named the successor. Yamamori is especially determined to come out on top, but having been in service to the man before, Shozo is set to do whatever he can to see that the position of grand Yakuza poobah falls into more qualified hands.

I know I’m only at the halfway point of the series, but I couldn’t help but be let down by Proxy War. The first two movies made such a good impression, what with their no-nonsense approach to violence and overall frenetic nature, that I was surprised to see this one break the flow so abruptly. As far as I can tell, it serves no purpose in the scheme of things, contributing nothing to the epic atmosphere Fukasaku was starting to whip up. The film sets the stage intriguingly enough, outrightly comparing postwar Japan’s scramble for stability to the tumultuous times various Yakuza families were experiencing. But after unveiling these admittedly grandiose intentions, Proxy War doesn’t do a damn thing with them. Instead, it focuses on the most mundane aspects of a life of crime, ignoring the franchise’s trademark brutality in favor of serving up 100 minutes of the most listless talking heads known to man.

Alright, so maybe I’m exaggerating a little bit. After all, Fukasaku gave me two movies to get used to the fact that his overarching story includes a multitude of characters and so many alliances between them that a scorecard is all but mandatory. But there’s using these subplots to buff up the story a bit, and there’s leaning on them as a thematic crutch. The latter is what does Proxy War in, as it builds its entire foundation on the flimsiest of ideas and keeps churning out more useless information to pad out the running time. The criminal goings-on just aren’t that interesting this time around, especially when people we barely know are talking about events that won’t matter five minutes after they happen. We mostly spend our time watching Shozo playing both sides against the middle, pitting Yamamori against his rivals in proper Yojimbo fashion, but it holds your interest for only so long. Even the thug-in-training Shozo takes charge of is hastily thrown into the mix and forgotten just as quickly, yet again killing your hopes of seeing someone with an interesting backstory.

Still, the terrific first act and Sugawara’s always reliable performance as Shozo ensure that Proxy War doesn’t completely go down the tubes. I remain eager to see how Shozo’s story eventually ends, though I can’t quite forgive this cinematic stumbling block for giving me even a twinge of doubt.

Rating: ★★☆☆

-A.J. Hakari

Read more of A.J.’s reviews at ReelTalk Movie Reviews, Classic Movie Guide, and Terror Tube.

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