Ear plugs at the ready for three more, all new, deafening instalments of the loudest yakuza franchise ever!…
It’s new folks, new! And like all things ‘new!’ it’s just old but with a different roman numeral at the end of the title; or in the case of these three new Battles films, words. Titles as long as your arm.
Thankfully these three ‘new’ Battles films are very much like the ‘old’ ones, with some, inevitable, minor differences. Three new flavours of your favourite ice cream to enjoy then. Unlike the first series of (five) films these are all standalone tales, they share common themes, tropes and even cast but all have their own song to sing, so to speak. So although you lose the soap opera pleasures of following a long, labyrinthine story the upside is that you gain the ability to actually keep track of what’s going on. There’s also a new soundtrack, that’s as bold and angry as you like.
Expect more of the same satisfyingly frenetic camerawork, gritty use of real locations (with the same surprised expressions from the unsuspecting general public), and of course the same captivating direction and hyper fast editing. Although Bunta Sugawara plays different characters in each new entry he doesn’t deviate much from his staring, grunting and impulsive bellowing act that we all know and love.
And because they are Fukasaku movies they also still contain vicious and scathing commentary; injecting a social conscience into the confines of the studio produced action / crime genre. Fukasaku’s Battles Without Honor And Humanity mantra: violence and violent conflict help no one and solve nothing. Trust no one in a position of power and look out for your fellow man, where ever they maybe from.
New Battles Without Honor and Humanity
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before…
It’s 1950, Bunta Sugawara plays, Maki, a young yakuza who, after a failed assassination, finds himself in jail for eight years. Meanwhile, to the backdrop of Japan’s post-war economy, everyone not yet in prison is chasing money and power. His gang, the Yamamori clan, are not immune to the financial politics of the time and have fallen on poorer times. Whilst in prison a friend of Maki’s, a lieutenant, Aoki (played by the Lone Wolf himself, Tomisaburo Wakayama) makes a play for control of the gang and on release Maki is caught up in the political aftermath.
His boss, as is customary in any Battles movie, is a weasel, doing his best to selfishly manipulate Maki for his own ends. Even his wife is involved, trying to win over the confidence of Maki’s Korean girlfriend, a prostitute he meets on one of his many visits to a bar. And whilst Maki is the kind of guy who wants to make matters right, old pal Aoki is simply selfish, careless and disruptive.
There are no close friendships here, familiar cries of “aniki!” (brother!) ring false, and Maki has no one he can trust. Eventually he takes matters into his own hands. Breaking his probation, that forbids any yakuza activity, he desperately gives up the end of his finger in the hope of settling scores and recovering the peace, peace it’s clear, Aoki isn’t interested in. Later Maki sticks his remaining fingers into someone’s eyes, in a gory, ironic twist of serendipity for the audience.
It all fails, obviously, so Maki decides the only option left is to kill Aoki himself, but someone beats him to it.
It was nearly as hard care about any of the characters here it was to take seriously the events unfolding on screen. And as much as I love him, a drunken cameo by Jo Shishido didn’t help. I felt like I was watching a parody of a Battles Without Honor And Humanity film.
This was frustrating as the cheesy action was actually offset by a far more engaging subtext surrounding the fallout for Japan of the Korean War (1950-53). A war that killed 100,000s of people on both sides and from many countries; communist North Korea / Russia / China & non communist South Korea / US / Britain. The eventual stalemate leaving the Korean north / south divide as we know it today. Events of the film parallel to some degree those of the civil war, Korean prostitutes and refugees, most notably Maki’s girlfriend, also feature in the narrative. When people can’t resolve conflicts with dialogue, people die.
New Battles Without Honor and Humanity: Boss Head (1975)
The second in the ‘new’ trilogy is much more downbeat, sour even. It’s much better too, and feels like it has it’s own identity, less constrained perhaps by the weight of its own franchise or an unconsciousness need to follow it.
This time round Bunta Sugawara plays Shuji Kuroda, a drifter, a chancer. We first meet him on the docks at a busy port near Hiroshima, which is, as the narrator informs us, a magnet for smugglers. Kuroda and friend, Tetsu (Tsutomu Yamazaki) have taken on the job of killing some lowly clan leader who’s fallen out of favour with the town’s bigger, more powerful, Owada family. Tetsu has a drug habit. First he fumbles his syringe, in a public toilet; it drops, in close up, into a filthy, shit encrusted pan. Then he fumbles the hit. Kuroda picks up the slack, along with his pistol, and finishes the job.
Seven years in jail is a price Kuroda is happy to pay for what he assumes is favour earnt with the Owada family. Whilst in jail he also saves a fellow inmate from being gang raped, violently slicing the face of the main perpetrator with a large serrated knife.
Kuroda, time done, is released. But no black limo waiting for him. The only people there to greet him outside the gate are the chap he helped in jail (released well before Shuji) and his young, boyish, friend, amusingly nicknamed Akira Kobayashi, after Nikkatsu’s handsome leading man. Someone else is running the Owada family now and why should they give a crap about Kuroda? Why indeed, it was seven years ago after all.
When Kuroda challenges the measly 100,000 yen (about £700) ‘compensation’ for his time and services rendered, he’s told, in relation to the recent Owada family shake up, bad luck “you bet on the wrong horse”. Surprisingly he accepts the situation, putting it down to his chosen ‘stray dog’ lifestyle. Tetsu has somehow married the new boss’s daughter (played by Meiko Kaji in yet another frustratingly and forgettable minor role) but hasn’t shifted the heroin habit. Furious at the treatment of his old friend, Tetsu drives a car into the new boss’ house – while he’s sleeping with his mistress! Kuroda can only watch as Tetsu forces the surprised pair, in torrential rain, to dig their own muddy graves in the back garden. Pay up or die! Job done. Or so Tetsu thinks. They’re palmed off with bags of heroin, which not only is not cash but has a street value well below the five million yen agreed, graveside.
When Kuroda and chums try to sell said heroin they’re drawn into yet more plots for power and control; crossing and double crossing, until the only path they can see open to them is murder. In particular the murder of a manipulative lieutenant responsible for the disruption to the gang in the first place, and therefore the mess Kuroda currently finds himself in.
I found Boss Head, to be much more engaging than the first entry. It felt like it actually had a story and characters you could root for. Something that stood out for me, in terms of characterisation, was Kuroda’s acceptance of his position. What was interesting is what he doesn’t do. When the roll of the dice are unfavourable he doesn’t run around stabbing, shooting or driving (see the next Battles film, Last Days Of The Boss!) people to death, refreshingly he chooses acceptance. Even though he’s more than capable of handling himself he can see that it’s the smart move. Everyone who doesn’t seems to wind up dead, sooner or later.
Boss Head is much more sombre, reflective even – by Fukasaku’s standards at least. Yes there are still many loud, bloodthirsty gunfights; guns replacing knives as the yakuza’s chosen weapon, and the violence is as gory as it’s ever been, but there’s something different at play. It feels bleaker than usual. When young Kobayashi is killed because of his involvement in trying to sell on the heroin, for example, his grieving mother reveals that his real name was actually Sasaki and that all he wanted to do was run away and live the life of his favourite movie mega-star. A direct warning to the audience (and rival Nikkatsu studio?) that the life of a yakuza is anything like the excitement of the movies, least of all Akira Kobayashi’s.
The only criticism of Boss Head is perhaps it’s ending; abrupt and lacking in ‘punch’. But maybe that’s the point.
New Battles Without Honor and Humanity: Last Days Of The Boss (1976)
The final part in Fukasaku’s ‘new’ trilogy continues the trend for drugs and throws in a little prostitution for good measure. It’s clear from the start how much value director Kinji Fukasaku feels (yakuza) society place on women; consider the graphic opening shot of a dead prostitute with a large knife in her stomach. A prostitute and heroin addict. The camera shows us close ups of needles as police nonchalantly investigate the crime scene. The number one suspect from a rival gang is then found dead in a nearby river. So starts the beginning of yet another clan feud.
Enter self serving low life, dealer, and all round scumbag, Nakamichi (Koji Wada), ‘boyfriend’ of the murdered prostitute. After screwing another of his women, who feed their habit by selling their bodies, Nakamichi is arrested and fills us in on some backstory. Backstory that introduces us to Bunta Sugawara’s latest character, Shuichi Nozaki. Nozaki is the brother of Nakamichi’s wife, herself the daughter of Nakmichi’s boss. Trying to go straight after his own run in with the law, he’s a man of integrity and a belief in hard work who now runs a small construction company. He was also very much against his sister’s marriage, seeing Nakamichi for what he is; the untrustworthy, polar opposite of himself. “I’ll kill you if I see you again!” he screams at Nakamichi across a tightly editing sequence of freeze frames during the flashback.
Flash forward and conflict between the rival gangs is in full swing, you can’t go five minutes without a gunfight, or its subsequent retaliation, with one explosive encounter in particular involving dynamite?! Police are corrupt and work for crime syndicates while both drugs and women are freely bought and sold.
Behind all this familiar in-fighting the bosses of the bosses are trying to form a peaceful alliance. Business over violence is both in vogue and way more profitable for everyone. This is disrupted when Nozaki’s old boss is assassinated, during his retirement party no less, by a transvestite masseuse; anyone who’s worked in the corporate sector for any length of time may well recognise the patterns here.
Nozaki’s name is put forward as his replacement but feels duty (honour) bound to avenge before accepting any management responsibility. The rest of the gang are hesitant, business over violence remember. He’s expelled when he goes after the obvious suspects, a rival gang. Utilising the trucks at his disposal Nozaki attempts, unsuccessfully, but in probably the best scene in the movie, to drive their convoy of cars off the mountainside!
Despondent, he decides to make amends with Nakamichi, hoping they can both return home and leave the violence and politics of the yakuza world behind them.
Not a chance. Nakamichi, fuelled as much by drugs as bitterness, refuses Kuroda’s hand and, with Fukasaku not being big on subtlety, is promptly run over by a truck just before he can shoot Kuroda in the metaphorical back. And Nozaki? Stabbed in the final freeze frame of the movie.
New Battles Without Honor and Humanity: Last Days Of The Boss, despite being part eight of a franchise, still manages to have something to add to the messages of previous films. It’s less a story of (failed) personal revenge, as it is the wider corruption and changing politics of the yakuza, and by inference, Japanese society as Fukasaku viewed it then.
Drugs are the enemy, the new problem, and big business, with its drive for profit alone, the cause of personal struggle. The traditional yakuza activities of gambling and prostitution seem harmless by comparison. Prostitution is an ugly business but far worse when heroin is brought into the mix. Fukasaku doesn’t flinch when it comes to showing, in close up, the raw consequences; women are a commodity worth less than the drugs; a tone at odds with the familiar over the top action of the rest of the movie. It’s almost nostalgic for the straightforward violence of earlier films, where even though the little guy was getting fucked over by greedy bosses, claiming to have their interests at heart, a man at least had some form of recompense for his injustice. The right to beat the wrongdoer, to within an inch of his life, or past it, was better than nothing, no? Here big business wipes out even the opportunity for personal justice.
Half way through the first entry I have to admit to feeling what I can only describe as ‘Fukasaku fatigue’. A depressing feeling of déjà vu; I’ve been here before, surely? But the second entry wiped that out and reminded me just what’s great about the famous director’s Battles films. The madness.
And these New Battles Without Honor And Humanity are pure Fukasaku madness. The camera throws itself around, mirroring the over the top actions of the cast in their death throes and screaming attacks on each other. As in the original series of movies, there’s no glamour here, just shouting and death, no heroic self sacrifice. As the title makes it very clear; no honour and no humanity.
Thankfully though, still a very cool dress code.