Arrow Video: New Battles Without Honor and Humanity - The Complete Trilogy (1974-1976) - Reviewed

Prolific Japanese auteur and often director-for-hire Kinji Fukusaku established himself in the early 1970s as one of the top yakuza genre picture directors with his quintet of postwar Yakuza action thrillers, Battles Without Honor and Humanity.  Having wrapped up the series with Final Episode, the fifth entry in the series starring Bunta Sugawara as former soldier turned yakuza hero Shozo Hirono, Fukusaku capped the series off but not before Toei Company asked the director if he’d be willing to make three more given the popularity of the series at the time.  Where Fukusaku stood by ending the original series in the manner he did, the filmmaker agreed to Toei’s wishes and wound up generating three more loosely connected entries resulting in what became the New Battles Without Honor and Humanity film trilogy. 

Prominently featuring Bunta Sugawara yet overlapping the time periods within the first series while recasting the actors in swapped roles, compounded by a greater emphasis on the female characters caught in the crossfire this time around, this new series of films are somewhat meta while offering viewers more or less a brief spinoff series to the smash hit Battles Without Honor and Humanity series.  While these new films don’t necessarily require newcomers to have seen the previous quintet of films leading up to them, as they each play as standalone stories with only the actors and director connecting them, this small trilogy of yakuza pictures play almost like bonus episodes for loyal fans with subtle nods to the original series while very much being their own items which aren’t linked in any chronological chain of events like the first series was.  In any event, with Arrow Video’s first-time home video release of these films in the United States, let us take a look at this spinoff series from one of Japan’s greatest yakuza filmmakers.

New Battles Without Honor and Humanity (1974)

In the first entry of the series generated almost immediately after the end of the Final Episode, New Battles Without Honor and Humanity jettisons much of the documentary approach utilized in the original series and fewer introductory notes to ease the audience into the proceedings.  More or less, we’re dropped into this series with only our familiarity being Bunta Sugarawa and director Fukusaku while offering up an entirely new set of characters and timelines.  Starring Sugawara as Miyoshi Makio as a yakuza underling who after prison time becomes the focus between two criminals, Yamamori and Aoki, who are struggling to get him to side with their respective factions.  On the side, Miyoshi shacks up with a prostitute he develops an affection for, offering up a newfound element of feminism absent from the previous Battles Without Honor and Humanity series. 

What is present, as always, is Fukusaku’s frenetic handheld visual style, mixing chaotic and intentionally bumpy tracking shots with canted angles give viewers something of a fly-on-the-wall perspective of the yakuza mayhem and bloodshed ensuing.  Fukusaku’s direction of the action sequence remains distinctive and clearly influential on modern day action pictures and while what’s being exercised in this New Battles Without Honor and Humanity don’t necessarily offer Fukusaku fans something wholly ‘new’ per se, the imagery and frantic energies are unmistakably Fukusaku’s.  Also carrying over from the original series is Sugawara’s debonair cool, stoic figure and formidability as a yakuza giant audiences learn to love while keeping their guard up around.  As with Sonny Chiba, Sugawara is pretty clearly Fukusaku’s teammate with an implicit understanding of how to approach the character, further explaining how Fukusaku and Sugawara were able to generate this new film only six months after the Final Episode had ended.

On it’s own, this first New Battles Without Honor and Humanity entry which deliberately plays like a semi-related kid cousin to the first series and as such, fans of the genre and Fukusaku will get a solid and entertaining standalone effort.  Seen in conjunction with the original series, the new film plays like more of the same which Fukusaku admittedly serves up in the action department and the casting.  While new ground isn’t necessarily being broken here, that Fukusaku was content to explore his own film series as a kind of spinoff while satisfying the demands of Toei Company shows the auteur as a unique and content artist who neither harbored too much pride to revisit the series that made him a namesake in Japan nor condescendingly offered up the same shtick again and again like most ongoing series of genre films tend to.  New Battles Without Honor and Humanity clearly is by design intended to stand in the shadows of the films which came before it but Fukusaku derails the settings and plotlines just enough that it can be regarded as it’s own animal.


The Boss's Head (1975)

Only a year later after the first loosely connected New Battles Without Honor and Humanity emerged, Fukusaku and Sugawara reunited again on the new series’ second entry, The Boss’s Head.  Falling somewhere between Fukusaku’s Doberman Cop and Cops Vs. Thugs than his preexisting Battles Without Honor and Humanity films, The Boss’s Head presents Sugawara again torn between rivaling factions when he tries to help out his heroin addicted friend and fellow yakuza Tetsuya (Tsutomu Yamazaki) take out a rival yakuza.  Needless to say, it goes wrong and Sugawara ultimately takes the fall, resulting in the battleground for a revenge thriller as Sugawara vows for justice.  Adding to the cast this time around is Female Prisoner Scorpion actress Meiko Kaji as Tetsuya’s wife Misako struggling with her husband’s downward spiral into addiction.

Amping up the action with a still spectacular car chase sequence involving three yakuzas relentlessly pursuing one another amid heavy gunfire, a sequence which still stuns even today, The Boss’s Head would afford director Fukusaku with the opportunity to exhibit some of the most graphic portrayals of heroin addiction presented at the time.  Still harrowing and unflinching even now, it’s a thread which would become characteristic in Fukusaku’s work regarding yakuzas descending into addiction and the fallout generated therein.  A strong factor in both If You Were Young: Rage and Graveyard of Honor, Japanese drug addiction had yet to be addressed in Japanese film at the time let alone with the ferocity Fukusaku brought to his depiction.  While commonplace now, this was pretty shocking for it’s day and further established Fukusaku as a hard nosed realist in Japanese film, giving us all the gory details whether we wanted them or not.

Back to the film’s place in the Battles Without Honor and Humanity lore, as with the first entry in the new series, The Boss’s Head understandably drew criticisms that Fukusaku was repeating himself with the new series by diving back into familiar territory.  While maybe true, Fukusaku’s technical mastery of the genre and command of his actors is so strong you don’t mind so much if you’re knowingly getting more of the same from him.  In a way these new entries, particularly this one, play like footnotes which offer up other aspects to series of threads enhancing the original series while finding their own wings as established yakuza yarns.  Not unlike the Outlaw Gangster: VIP film series, these were made in a heartbeat and gave viewers similarly repetitive iterations while presenting their own subtle differences.  As such, The Boss’s Head on it’s own stands as a gritty, funky, rain soaked and often noir-ish Yakuza yarn that proved to be an even more satisfying genre exercise than  the first film kicking off the new series.


The Last Days of the Boss (1976)

Fukusaku regular Bunta Sugawara returns to the leading role of the New Battles Without Honor and Humanity series one last time as vengeful yakuza Nozaki with the third and final installment, The Last Days of the Boss.  Bringing closure to the brief spinoff series following the success of his smash hit Battles Without Honor and Humanity yakuza action film series, of the three The Last Days of the Boss is often regarded as the most polished and linear of the trilogy which tended with Fukusaku’s fragmented and chaotic narrative approach to be all over the place.  Joining the cast this time around is Outlaw Gangster VIP regular Chieko Matsubara as Nozaki’s sister who finds herself in the crossfire of a yakuza war when Nozaki vows vengeance for the assassination of the boss who changed his life.  As with the previous two features, the stories remain disparate from the original Battles Without Honor and Humanity series, playing out like three episodes from a spinoff series which takes place within the same world yet with a new set of characters.

The New Battles Without Honor and Humanity series is noted for the depiction of how the yakuza world’s female characters are treated and nowhere is that truer here, opening the film on a bloody crime scene involving a murdered prostitute.  Further still, Chieko Matsubara, carrying over her own connection to the yakuza world from her Nikkatsu pictures, puts herself in a dangerous spot by being on the receiving end of the thuggish behavior of her fellow yakuza men.  While maltreatment of women in the yakuza picture remains an ugly reality of the world being dramatized, Fukusaku brought it to the forefront while presenting viewers with fully fledged three dimensional female characters who must fight to survive in the male dominated crime syndicate.  Moreover, it illustrates from a dramatic standpoint the emotional scars inflicted on the siblings of a battered woman and the toll it takes on the film’s hero trying to inject righteousness in a world chock full of wrongdoing.

The idea of assassinating a boss and the seriousness with which the yakuza treatment of women is addressed in The Last Days of the Boss closes the trilogy on notes viewers at the time never considered before.  In a way, The Last Days of the Boss was groundbreaking for the time for turning the genre picture on it’s head while serving up the familiar yakuza warfare filmgoers came to love.  While the prior two entries in the New Battles Without Honor and Humanity series hinted at the impending female perspective absent from the original film series, it comes into full bloom here, making the experience simultaneously tragic and cathartic.  Yes we get the usual hyperviolent action chase sequences and rapid gunfire as before, but it’s counterbalanced by a point of view that gives solidarity, heart and emotional resonance to the piece, rounding it out as easily the best of the trilogy.


- Andrew Kotwicki