New Battles Without Honor and Humanity: The Complete Trilogy Review
Out 21st August 2017
To celebrate their release of the seminal New Battles Without Honor and Humanity trilogy on Blu-ray, Arrow Video held an amazing launch event at London’s hip PimpShuei bar. Inspired by kung-fu movies and populated with retro arcade cabinets and stacks of VHS cassettes, the venue was a perfect spot to showcase this trilogy of gritty Yakuza movies starring the legendary Bunta Sugawara.
Much loved in Japan, they’ve rarely been seen in the UK…. Until now!
The late director Kinji Fukasaku is perhaps still best known to western audiences for his 1997 splatterfest Battle Royale. Long before he directed that masterpiece, Fukasaku had already created a seminal series of films with his Battles Without Honor and Humanity series of hard-boiled Yakuza crime thrillers.
Staggeringly produced in just two years, Fukasaku created a five-part epic which told a sprawling story of sparring Yakuza gangs, that not only revolutionized the Yakuza genre but even rivaled The Godfather. A hit with both audiences and critics in Japan, Tokyo film studio Toei weren’t ready to say goodbye to Fukasaku’s series and begged him to create more stories of Yakuza mayhem.
Starting with 1974’s New Battles without Honor and Humanity, the follow up series is made up of three stand-alone stories, all starring Japanese movie icon Bunta Sugawara. The trilogy kicks off with the story of Miyoshi Makio – a Yakuza assassin who finds himself in the middle of a family war after an eight-year stint in prison. Caught between two sides, Makio is forced to fight to keep the family intact in this gripping first chapter.
The first film kicks off the series in Fukasaku’s trademark style and affirms leading man Sugawara’s legacy as one of Japanese cinema’s most iconic actors. Following in 1975 and 1978 respectively, The Boss’s Head and The Last Days of the Boss unfurl two more stories of Yakuza mayhem in which star Bunta Sugawara plays two different characters caught between sparring families and rival clans. Both films add depth to Fukasuka’s depiction of the shady Yakuza underworld and boast catchy scores from Toshaiaki Tsushima.
Each film in the trilogy manages to stand on its own two feet, yet they’re united by Fukasaku’s renowned documentary style filmmaking. The many scenes of gang violence throughout the trilogy illustrate this best. Gunshots are fired in a cacophony of shaky camera action, panicked screams and exaggerated death throws. These moments in particular highlight why Fukasuku still remains such an influential figure to many filmmakers.
It could be easy to dismiss the New Battles trilogy as something of a cash grab. Yet while it’s clear Fukasaku was indulging the whims of his studio and audience, he capitalized on the opportunity by expanding the scope of his world (such as the addition of more prominent female characters) and injecting the films with moments inspired by American cinema of the 1970s. Perhaps most prominently, the emphasis on visceral car chases that recall the cinema-verité mayhem of The French Connection.
Reusing much of the same cast and riffing on Yakuza lore, the New Battles trilogy does occasionally succumb to repetition. There’s plenty of narrative and thematic overlaps, which become apparent when the films are viewed in quick succession. Nonetheless, each film in the trilogy features its own pleasures and delve deeper into facets of the Yakuza lifestyle. Fukasaku’s bolt-on trilogy remains a highly entertaining collection of hard-edged crime dramas that showcase his kinetic style of filmmaking.
All three films are given a long overdue UK release, in a fantastic HD box-set that includes some great bonus features. Highlights include an introduction to the trilogy with Fukasaku biographer Sadao Yamane, plus some engaging interviews with screenwriter Koji Takada who talks enthusiastically about his experiences writing on the films. A collectors booklet featuring a series of essays on the trilogy rounds out this excellent set from Arrow Video.
Duration: 98/94/91 minutes
Words by Stephen Leigh