Director: Kinji Fukasaku
Writer: Koichi Iiboshi, Koji Takada
Producer: Goro Kusakabe
Cast: Bunta Sugawara, Akira Kobayashi, Kinya Kitaoji, Joe Shishido, Junkichi Orimoto, Kunie Tanaka, Shingo Yamashirom Hiroki Matsukata, Goichi Yamada, Goro Ibuki, Nobuo Kaneko, Asao Uchida, Isao Konami
Running Time: 98 min.
By Kyle Warner
The Battles Without Honor and Humanity series was hugely successful when they were first released in the early 1970’s and the films remain highly regarded today. The series turned supporting actor Bunta Sugawara into a star and paved a way to greatness for director Kinji Fukasaku. Many other members of the cast and crew also went on to enjoy future success as a result of working on the series. If there’s one name that I feel has been unfairly overlooked in the legacy of the series, it’s screenwriter Kazuo Kasahara – but maybe that’s not a surprise, since screenwriters who don’t also double as directors rarely get the credit they deserve. With a dedication for research that’s more comparable to a journalist chasing a story instead of a screenwriter putting together an action movie, Kasahara’s attention to detail and realism pairs up perfectly with Fukasaku’s unflinching direction. They’re two sides of the same coin that made the Battles series so great.
Watching Police Tactics, it seems clear that at least Kasahara felt that film was the end of the story. The finale of Police Tactics gives some closure to various conflicts while also making its viewpoint on the yakuza in Hiroshima abundantly clear. Fans watching the films today know that there’s a fifth entry titled Final Episode, so despite that feeling of finality in Police Tactics there’s still obviously more to the story. There would be no more Battles for Kazuo Kasahara, though. He stuck to his guns, feeling that the story was done and stepped aside (the writer also admitted to being burnt-out from the hectic schedule of research and writing Battles Without Honor and Humanity — the four Battles films he wrote were all released over the span of just twelve months). In his place, Toei hired veteran screenwriter Koji Takada (The Streetfighter), who sought to stay true to the world Kasahara had helped create while also bringing some of his own flavor to the mix.
Final Episode is my least favorite entry in the Battles Without Honor and Humanity series for a few reasons. I call attention to the change in screenwriters first because it’s the most obvious one to me. Koji Takada’s a good writer but I feel like his script for Final Episode features too many starts and stops, making for a film with a weird sense of pacing. Much of Final Episode is based around the idea of the movers and shakers in the yakuza getting locked up and the trouble the subordinates get into while their leaders are away. But because the bosses have been the only characters to really latch onto for much of the series, their absence is a little too noticeable when they’re locked up. Some of the developments in the story are based on truth and can’t be helped — but too often the audience, like the characters, is left waiting impatiently for the more memorable characters to get out of jail and take control again.
After the major conflict in Hiroshima between rival yakuza clans has finally died down, Takeda (Akira Kobayashi) is intent on turning his yakuza family into a political party with legitimate business partners and aboveboard dealings. Dubbed the Tensei Coalition, Takeda successfully unites multiple yakuza with hopes that they may make money together without the usual hazards that plagued the life of crime. However, the unity in Tensei doesn’t last. Takeda is arrested and must serve time in prison after guns are discovered at one of his offices. Before he’s taken away, Takeda names the young Matsumura (Kinya Kitaoji) to be his acting successor. A smart young man with a good eye for business, Matsumura represents the future of the yakuza. Naturally the old-school yakuza see him as a threat. As soon as Takeda is away, Matsumura’s closest rival Otomo (Jo Shishido) stirs up discontent and secretly plots to murder the youthful upstart.
Final Episode is full of familiar faces, though not always in ways you’d expect or approve of. While multiple supporting actors return in the Battles series playing different characters, none are as noticeable and distracting as Kinya Kitaoji. Previously playing the crazed lead in Hiroshima Death Match, Kitaoji plays the polar opposite to that character in Final Episode, but that can’t change the fact that he’s still a very recognizable face playing two different people in a series that’s already complex and occasionally difficult to follow. Hiroki Matsukata also returns to the series in what I believe is his third character, but Matsukata is more of a chameleon than Kitaoji and this repeat in casting isn’t as immediately obvious. Similar to how Kitaoji took over Hiroshima Death Match, he’s also the central character in Final Episode. Unlike Hiroshima Death Match, Final Episode makes better use of Bunta Sugawara’s Hirono, though he may even see less screentime this time around. Not entering the story until about a third of the way through the picture, Hirono is a character often spoken of but rarely seen. By film five, Hirono’s developed the reputation of a troublemaker, so everyone fears his eventual release from prison and whether he will disturb the fragile peace that Tensei is working towards. I personally would’ve liked to have seen more of Sugawara in the film, but I liked how Final Episode treated his character like a sleeping dragon, causing tough guys to quake in their boots when debating who should be the one that confronts him.
The series began in the aftermath of WWII and Final Episode takes place in 1970, bringing the story closer to the time when the films were actually made. What that also means is that the characters who were young in the first film are now old men doing war with the younger generations. While Hirono and other familiar characters are locked away on various criminal charges for much of the story, the film needed someone to represent the old guard, and who better than the puffy-faced genre icon Jo Shishido? Less than a decade removed from Branded to Kill, Shishido looks rough and old in the part of Otomo, playing the gangster drunk and covered with sweat in nearly every scene. He’s a welcome addition to the great cast and it’s too bad that this is the only Battles film the actor appears in.
By the end of the film, many of the characters are dead, some have retired, and others are set to walk a path to presumed fortune and glory. Ultimately though, little has changed. One of the final scenes in the series features young yakuza killing each other in the street. It’s bloody, it’s chaotic, and it’s pointless. Who are they? Doesn’t matter. Why are they fighting? Doesn’t matter. What did the bloodshed achieve? Nothing at all. Whatever Tensei has done to try to change their image as bloodthirsty thugs, the way of the yakuza is still ultimately about young men dying for the pride of their elders. In the end, most the men we’ve followed over the decades are dead and buried, and the survivors feel disenchanted with their entire way of life. The series is known as cool and chaotic, but Final Episode surprises by offering up a more reflective and melancholy finale.
Final Episode may be my least favorite of the five original Battles Without Honor and Humanity films but that doesn’t make it a bad film. The film’s major failings are that the bumpy pace keeps it from being a breathlessly entertaining crime thriller and too often our favorite characters are left out of the central conflict. The rest of the film brings just about everything you expect from the series; the realistic look at a life of crime, the complicated relationships between sworn brothers, and the way that violence between a few greedy men impacted an entire city. Though not the series’ finest entry, Final Episode does put a fitting cap on the story, making for one of the best film series ever produced.
The Arrow Video Blu-ray for Final Episode is perhaps the best looking and sounding disc in their new Battles Without Honor and Humanity box set. For special features on this disc, Arrow gives us a new 18 minute interview with screenwriter Koji Takada, a gallery of posters from the series, and the film’s original trailer. I quite liked the interview with Takada. In fact, I think it’s probably the best interview on the set. Takada explains how he took over writing responsibilities from Kasahara and how they shared research. He shares some views on things he liked and disliked about Kasahara’s previous entries, making for a very honest and entertaining interview.
Kyle Warner’s Rating: 7.5/10