New Battles Without Honor and Humanity Complete Trilogy Blu-ray Review (originally published 2017)
In the early 1970s, director Kinji Fukasaku became the go-to guy at Toei Studios for yakuza (aka: jitsuroku) drama, action, and violence, thanks to the massively popular, genre-changing Battles without Honor and Humanity series (1973-74). The series’ success helped kick off a boom of realistic, fully modern yakuza films that were often based on true, publically-known stories, including Fukasaku’s own Graveyard of Honor (Japanese: Jingi no hakaba), Gambling Den Heist (Japanese: Shikingen godatsu), and Cops vs. Thugs (Japanese: Kenkei tai soshiki boryoku; aka Police vs. Violence Groups). Although Fukasaku had intended to complete the Battles series with Final Episode (1974), Toei Studio convinced him to return to the director's chair for this unconnected follow-up trilogy of films, also starring Bunta Sugawara. Each film in the New Battles Without Honor and Humanity was set in a different area of the country, but, much like Takashi Miike’s Black Society Trilogy and other resurgent Japanese gangster movies.
New Battles Without Honor and Humanity (Japanese: Shin Jingi Naki Tatakai, 1974):
Bunta Sugawara is Miyoshi, a low-level assassin of the Yamamori gang who is sent to jail after a bungled hit. While in stir, family member Aoki (Tomisaburo Wakayama) attempts to seize power from the boss and Miyoshi finds himself stuck between the two factions with no honorable way out. (From Arrow’s official synopsis)
The first film in the trilogy (not to be confused with Junji Sakamoto’s 2000 film of the same name) throws the audience head-first back into Fukasaku’s world of violence, heightened melodrama, black comedy, and complex gangland politics. As the director unloads his typically raw & ready filming style – complete with dizzying handheld camerawork and extreme widescreen compositions – the major players are introduced, each with their own still frame and title treatment. Frankly, these intros, coupled with extensive contextual narration, don’t make it much easier to track the alliances and motivations, but this hectic, neverending stew of exposition, betrayals, shouting matches, murders, and, of course, group meetings over food/drink/cigars (truly the trademark of yakuza cinema) is merely part of the franchise formula. The screenplay, by Female Prisoner Scorpion series writer Fumio Kōnami, from a story by original Battles without Honor co-architect Koichi Iiboshi, follows the emblematic ‘likable, low-level thug gets out of jail and has his loyalty tested’ storytelling tropes and supplies Fukasaku with plenty of fodder for his almost impressionistic deep dive into the genre. Even those of us left behind by the plot should still be able to enjoy the director’s impossible sense of momentum.
New Battles without Honor and Humanity: The Boss' Head (Japanese: Shin Jingi Naki Tatakai: Kumicho no Kubi, 1975):
Kuroda (Bunta Sugawara) is an itinerant gambler who steps in when a hit by drug-addicted assassin Kusunoki (Tsutomu Yamazaki) fails and takes the fall on behalf of the Owada family. But, when the gang fails to make good on financial promises to him, Kuroda targets the family bosses with a ruthless vengeance. (From Arrow’s official synopsis)
With introductions out of the way, the second film in the series utilizes the familiar Battles structure to tell a somewhat more character-driven story – one that admittedly begins exactly like the last one. Writers Susumu Saji and Kōji Takada dial back on the quantity of lead characters and considerably streamline the narrative, making The Boss’ Head the most satisfying and engaging of the three films. It’s less predictable and connects Fukasaku’s cruel, kinetic yakuza world to the juvenile delinquent tradition, which was falling out of fashion by the middle ‘70s. As the co-creator of the ultra-violent Street Fighter series, Takada appears to have influenced the sheer bloodiness of the fight sequences as well, because this is certainly the nastiest of the franchise (at least until it was reintroduced in the 2000s). The Boss’ Head draws focus onto star Sugawara in a manner not seen in the other two movies. The script gives him more room to stretch his dramatic and comedic skills as he morphs from a clumsy, definitively lower-rung criminal to a contender for yakuza leadership. Meiko Kaji makes a guest appearance as one of only two women who has any substantial dialogue.
New Battles without Honor and Humanity: Last Days of the Boss (Japanese: Shin Jingi Naki Tatakai: Kumicho Saigo no Hi; aka: The Boss’ Last Days, 1976):
Nozaki (Bunta Sugawara) is a labourer who swears allegiance to a sympathetic crime boss, only to find himself elected his successor after the boss is murdered. Restrained by a gang alliance that forbids retributions against high-level members, Nozaki forms a plot to exact revenge on his rivals, but a suspicious relationship with his own sister (Chieko Matsubara) taints his relationship with his fellow gang members. (From Arrow’s official synopsis)
For the final film, focus was again placed on the lower rungs of the criminal ladder and women are given a larger role to play – beyond the usual bit parts as innocent bystanders, weeping widows, and expendable prostitutes. Additionally, they aren’t exclusively the victims of physical, emotional, and sexual abuse, like they are in The Boss’ Head. This change was possibly tied to the rising popularity of girl gang movies and, more clearly, the influence of Susumu Saji, who was the sole credited writer (apparently, Takada also worked on it, though). Saji, who had worked with Seijun Suzuki on Voice Without a Shadow (1958, released as part of Arrow’s Nikkatsu Diamond Guys collection), has exhibited appreciation for underdog criminals in the past and finds the means to tell a more mature, family-based tale, while also leaving room for bone-crunching car chases (an arguable improvement over the already grand chase/shootout that ends The Boss’ Head) and the Battles trademarks – unhinged handheld camerawork, abrupt cuts to chaotic action, and even more dramatic meetings over food/drink/cigars.
Unlike their predecessors, the New Battles without Honor films have never been released on DVD outside of Japan. This Blu-ray Combo Pack collection – which marks their Blu-ray and DVD debut in both American and the UK) transfer was remastered by the Toei Company and sent directly to Arrow, who presents them in their original 2.35:1 aspect ratio and 1080p video. The image quality is mostly identical to Arrow’s other Toei and Nikkatsu discs with perhaps better overall gamma levels and blacks (just barely). Sharpness is hampered by the ragged use of handheld cameras and shifting focus, but the essential edges remain relatively tight and overall texture is plenty complex. Grain structure is fine, there are no clear signs of DNR enhancement, and other artifacts are mostly limited to small flecks, minor scratches, and occasional blotches (the title sequences of all three films are in pretty dire shape, but clear up quickly). The biggest issue for these transfers is the fact that these movies were shot in such prevalent darkness. Even with clarity at the best we can expect from the material, loads of information is flattened out and hidden by lack of highlights. When coupled with the largely brown, tan, and grey palette, this creates muddy issues, especially in the case of The Boss’ Head slightly greener tint (note that the occasional blurriness is likely an in-camera effect). The first film, New Battles without Honor and Humanity, tends to look the best, due to its more eclectic, neon-highlighted palette, but, for the most part, all three movies look the same.
The original mono Japanese audio is preserved and presented in LPCM 1.0 sound. This is a typical ‘70s mix that often foregoes atmospheric sound effects in favor of dialogue. This works just fine for interior scenes, in which characters speak clearly and the noises surrounding them are easily recorded. However, exteriors and big group fights seem to have been shot without sound and the foley/ADR work is a bit iffy. More specifically, there are somewhat random dips in quality, where aspirated consonants hiss, especially during narration and other off-screen dialogue. None of this is Arrow’s fault, of course, and the uncompressed nature of the track keeps distortion at bay. Sound effects tend to be set at a low volume, which is a little disappointing during shootouts, but there is still quite a bit going on for a mono track. Composer Toshiaki Tsushima returned to the franchise for all three films and his dramatic jazz and soul-driven tunes and electric guitar-heavy title themes drive each episode forward wonderfully.
New Battles without Honor or Humanity opens with a disclaimer about a piece of dialogue (one character refers to another using discriminatory language for Koreans) that was censored (clipped, specifically) before release, so the edit exists on the original negative’s audio.
Beyond the Films: New Battles Without Honor and Humanity (9:25, HD, disc one) – This new video appreciation/visual essay was compiled by Fukasaku biographer Sadao Yamane, who describes the series’ inception, overlapping narrative from the original Battles series, and changes that the formula went through between the three movies.
Koji Takada: New Stories, New Battles (12:36, HD, disc two) – Screenwriter Takada discusses his early career, the state of the Japanese film industry when the New Battles films were produced, and various behind-the-scenes processes.
Koji Takada: Closing Stories (17:26, HD, disc three) – Takada returns to talk about building new stories upon the foundation of the original Battles series and what made his entries in the franchise different.
Japanese teasers and trailers for all three films