“Final Episode” – A.J. Hakari

One director. Five films. Countless beatings, mutilations, and cold-blooded killings. Battle Royale’s Kinji Fukasaku began the Yakuza Papers series with the story of some young thug struggling to survive in postwar Hiroshima. But with Final Episode, the last chapter of this Japanese gangster saga, he takes a solemn look back on a criminal empire slowly collapsing under the weight of its own treachery. Although there isn’t as powerful a sense of closure as you might expect, Fukasaku ends Final Episode on a note that rings of experience, ensuring that the conclusion of his epic tale is every bit as compelling as the beginning.

As Battles Without Honor & Humanity began in the aftermath of the atomic bombs, so Final Episode kicks off on the anniversary of that most fateful occasion. The 1970s have arrived, and the Yakuza gangs that once ruled Hiroshima and other cities across the country have been forced to adopt a more harmless visage. Thanks to public outcry against their violent activities, these families have taken on more corporate structures, reorganizing themselves into political groups like the Tensei Coalition. But just as many Yakuza are eager to abandon their past criminal lives and start over, the allure of power and past grudges is too much for others to turn away from. While Tensei quickly becomes a house divided, the matter still stands over what to do with long-time series protagonist Shozo Hirono (Bunta Sugawara). Using his time in the slammer to pen a memoir about his life as a gangster, Shozo is set to be released soon, into a world that’s as ready to snuff him out as it is to give him a fighting chance.

Throughout the entire Yakuza Papers series, my chief complaint has been how Fukasaku has given supporting characters the shaft. So much stock has been put into Shozo, so much of the story told from his perspective, the films just become a lot less interesting whenever he’s not around. But with Final Episode, this is the exact point. Picking up from the ending of Police Tactics, Shozo spends the majority of this picture serving a prison sentence. Instead, the events he foresaw in Tactics, of his former cronies warring amongst themselves, are coming to pass, in a story that doesn’t really require the main character’s input. By now, Fukasaku has become more concerned with the bigger picture at hand, finally bringing to the surface themes that he’s been setting up since the first film. Final Episode is less of a personal piece than it is a mosaic, showing how the tragic implications that a life of crime brings effect all those involved, from the biggest of bosses to the most dispensable of thugs.

But those looking for an epic conclusion to the tapestry of blood and chaos Fukasaku has woven through five pictures will walk away somewhat let down. Final Episode ends not with a bang but rather with a whimper, not to mention in a way you’d probably expect. There’s no violent crescendo here, no brutal climax to leave viewers shaking in their boots. Not to spoil anything, but Final Episode ends with the rather simple realization that all criminals become stuck in a vicious circle that’s difficult to escape. It’s not a dumb statement by any means but rather fitting, considering how many characters, Shozo included, have spent the series trying to avoid tragedy and bloodshed. Still, it is a bit of a no-brainer and presented in an anti-climactic manner, lacking the right tone of finality that really would’ve driven it home. Still, credit should go to Fukasaku for doing his best job yet of juggling the multiple players in this crime story, handling their inevitable descent not as a turgid routine but with the same spark shared by all the pictures.

The Yakuza Papers has been referred to as Japan’s equivalent to The Godfather; both tell tales of innocence lost, of normal people whose lives have been changed forever thanks to their part in a legacy of blood that shows no signs of stopping. Did Final Episode bring as powerful an end to this saga as I would’ve wished? Not really, but it did its job regardless, with plenty of energy and blood to spare — and after seeing where the series has gone before this, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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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