“Cops vs. Thugs” (1975): Kinji Fukasaku’s hard-boiled masterpiece of corruption and greed

By on February 19, 2018

Cops vs. Thugs — the film’s original title Kenkei tai Soshiki Bōryoku literally translates to “Police vs. Violence Groups” — is considered by many film critics and crime-film enthusiasts to be director Kinji Fukasaku’s greatest yakuza gangster film, a hard-boiled masterpiece of corruption and greed with flashes of action-packed bloody violence.

If you’re a subscriber, you can watch Arrow Video’s gorgeous new High-Def digital transfer of this classic 1975 Japanese crime thriller now on Night Flight Plus!

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This award-winning mid-Seventies film — released theatrically in Japan on April 26, 1975 — was made during the period in which Toei Studios were focused on jitsuroku eiga (meaning “actual record”) films, a post-war period similar in theme and content to the gritty ’70s realism of American crime films like Sidney Lumet’s Serpico (1973) and Prince of the City (1981), to name just two.

Directors in the U.S. and Japan were both employing a lot of documentary-style filmmaking techniques at this time, inserting black & white still photos and onscreen text, utilizing a lot of omniscient voiceover narration, and sometimes basing their violent movie plots on real-life stories ripped from their country’s national headlines.

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Fukasaku was one of the jitsuroku eiga genre’s main contributors — as were Toei Studios, who were the main producer of yakuza pictures — and Cops vs. Thugs was one of four great features he directed in 1975.

At this point in his long career as a filmmaker, Fukasaku had directed more than thirty films, most of them for Toei Studios.

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In 1975, Fukasaku once again joined forces with screenwriter Kazuo Kasahara — he’d previously penned the first four installments of the five-film Yakuza Papers series (aka Battles Without Honor and Humanity) — as well as starring actor Bunta Sugawara for what many agree is one of the best Japanese films of the 1970’s.

Kasahara — while doing research during the Yakuza Papers films — had first heard true-life crime stories and accounts of members of the police and the yakuza becoming friends.

He decided it needed to be part of a different story from the one he was currently working on, which is what led to this stand-alone story told in Cops vs. Thugs.

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Read more about Cops vs. Thugs below.

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Cops vs. Thugs‘s plot — reportedly based on real-life people and incidents — is set in 1963, when the fictional Kurashima City yakuza underworld in western Japan has splintered into two crime families at bloody war with eachother while battling for local supremacy.

Meanwhile, the city’s police department’s efforts to eradicate organized crime are proving to be unsuccessful, possibly because they’re not too different from the yakuza gangsters.

Both sides respect their own versions of internal codes and laws, we’re told.

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One family, the originally Osaka-based Kawade, are shown trying to use political influence in an attempt to legitimize their criminal empire’s lucrative rackets, while the other, the Ohara family, are shown to be in league with corrupt local police and politicians.

The Ohara family, founded in 1946, ruled the seaside Japanese city of Kurashima until one of their own, a man named Miyake, splintered off to begin his own crime family.

When Miyaka was killed in 1958, the leader of the Ohara family was sent to prison.

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Then, in 1960, former Ohara gangster Masaichi Tomoyasu tried to go legit, quitting the family to become an elected city assemblyman, and the story in Cops vs. Thugs picks up what is currently happening tin Kurashima City hree years later.

Kenji Hirotani (Hiroki Matsukata) is now the leader of the Ohara family, while Katsumi Kawade (Mikio Narita) in charge of the former Miyake gang.

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Tomoyasu — now a corrupt politician — cleverly plays one side against the other, although he favors the Kawade family because of the vast amounts of money he receives in kickbacks.

When the Ohara family attempts to grab a piece of valuable waterfront property for themselves, the violence ramps up to truly insane levels as open warfare erupts between the two sides.

The action is, at times, quite brutal, particularly a wild montage sequence involving a decapitation, all of it set to composer Toshiaki Tsushima’s wacko wah-wah-driven score.

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Caught in the middle is the corrupt and trigger-happy Detective Tokumatsu Kuno (Bunta Sugawara), who balks at the pressure he’s getting from his superiors while balancing a fondness for his best friend, yakuza kingpin and Ohara lieutenant Kenji Hirotani, which dates all the way back to their childhood.

Detective Kuno soon finds himself clashing with an ambitious by-the-books young lieutenant — Detective Kaida (Tatsuo Umemiya) — who has been brought in to reform the Kurashima City police force’s “Violence Squad” and take over the police squad’s efforts to get rid of the yakuza.

This causes problems for Kuno, who finds himself facing a difficult decision whether to remain loyal to his badge and the police force, or keep a promise he made to his brother.

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Fukasaku captures all of the action in long, unbroken takes and, during action scenes, with crazy handheld cameras and odd Dutch angles.

He often inserts flashbacks with news footage-style black & white photographs to document and give the viewer the necessary info they need to know what had happened in the past and why those events are affecting the present-day madness.

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In 1976, Tokyo-based critics and writers who are members of the Association of Japanese Film Journalists Awards awarded Cops vs. Thugs with two Blue Ribbon Awards — for Best Director (Fukasaku) and Best Actor (Sugawara) — which are considered Japan’s most prestigious national cinema awards.

Watch Cops vs. Thugs on Night Flight Plus!

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.