Director: Kinji Fukasaku
Writer: Koichi Iiboshi, Fumio Konami
Cast: Bunta Sugawara, Hiroki Matsukata, Nobuo Kaneko, Tomisaburo Wakayama, Tsunehiko Watase, Kunie Tanaka, Noboru Ando, Seizo Fukumoto, Reiko Ike, Ryuji Katagiri, Takuzo Kawatani, Yoko Koizumi
Running Time: 98 min.
By Kyle Warner
When Toei’s Battles Without Honor and Humanity came to a close in 1974 with Final Episode, audiences still in love with the series demanded more, and the studio was more than happy to oblige. Over the next three years, Toei and Battles director Kinji Fukasaku gave fans the New Battles Without Honor and Humanity trilogy. I hadn’t realized this before, but the ‘New’ trilogy began the very same year that the original series ended – Final Episode hit theatres in June 1974, New Battles 1 released in the final week of December that same year. To be honest, despite being a big fan of the original series, I knew very little about the New Battles films beyond the fact that director Kinji Fukasaku returned with a cast of familiar actors. For a long time, the New Battles trilogy has been out of reach for those in need of an English-friendly release. But that’s now changed with the new release of the New Battles Without Honor and Humanity trilogy on DVD and Blu-ray in the US and UK. So, over the next couple weeks, I’m going to be making my way through the trilogy and giving opinions on the films as I go.
Unlike the intricately plotted original series, as I understand it, New Battles is a trilogy of standalone films. It seems only the first film in the trilogy, simply titled New Battles Without Honor and Humanity, is connected to the original series (more on that in a sec). The second film takes place in the 60s and the third film takes place in the 70s, each of them decades removed from the post-war chaos that made up the original series.
In New Battles Without Honor and Humanity, our Battles lead Bunta Sugawara is back, but he’s not playing the Hirono character. Here, Sugawara plays Miyoshi, an all-new character that’s stepping into the gangland warfare between yakuza in post-war Japan. Miyoshi is very similar to Hirono, except for the fact that he seems less cool under pressure. While Hirono goes unseen and unmentioned in New Battles, the film does nonetheless fit into the story sometime post-Final Episode… I think. Or it could be that this film exists in a weird sequel alternate universe of the original series, a place where Fukasaku remixes the greatest hits of his five film series. The film’s status as a sequel, a reboot, or a spin-off is difficult to pin down.
You’re going to see some familiar Battles characters in this film. Nobuo Kaneko is back as the red-nosed, cheapskate yakuza boss Yamamori. But things get a little hazy after that. Kunie Tanaka is back as Yamamori’s gutless right-hand-man, but he’s no longer called Makihara, this time he’s Gen. Aoki, the yakuza in colored sunglasses and highest ranking subordinate in Yamamori’s crime family is back, this time played by series newcomer Tomisaburo Wakayama (Lone Wolf & Cub). Thing is, Aoki was originally known as Sakai in Battles, and was played by Hiroki Matsukata (13 Assassins). In this film, Matsukata plays the enemy of Aoki, a new character named Seki, which despite sounding a bit like Sakai is nonetheless definitely not Sakai because now Sakai is Aoki. Got it? It’s… kind of odd.
New Battles Without Honor and Humanity takes ideas from the original five films, scrambles ‘em up, and pastes them together into a new story. Screenwriter Fumio Konami (Female Prisoner Scorpion #701) is a capable fill-in for writer Kazuo Kasahara, who left the series after Police Tactics, when he felt the series story was done (studio and director apparently disagreed with him). Though much of the content feels very familiar (I’ve grown so tired of Yamamori’s whimpering), for the most part it moves with enough energy and anger that I wasn’t too bothered by repeating some of the notes of earlier, better Battles films.
In the movie, Bunta Sugawara’s Miyoshi is fresh out of jail at a time when Yamamori’s crime family is beginning to split apart. Aoki is ambitious and looking to supplant his boss and he doesn’t even try to make his plans a secret. Upon release, Miyoshi is approached by both Aoki and Yamamori, each asking him to join their side and help eliminate the other. Miyoshi takes his time deciding. At some points, I thought he might be planning a Yojimbo maneuver of having the two sides operate against one another to his benefit. But Miyoshi, unlike Yojimbo or even Bunta Sugawara’s Hirono, isn’t a decisive man of action. He’d much rather sit back and watch both sides crumble instead of getting his hands bloody.
The supporting cast makes the movie. Though I question why they cast Wakayama in a part that was already filled by a capable actor, I don’t deny that Wakayama brings some nice intensity to the film. Kunie Tanaka has some good comedic moments as his cowardly gangster tries to act beyond his abilities. Jo Shishido (Branded to Kill) has a minor, frankly strange part as a yakuza dying of syphilis in the brain, whom Aoki unleashes on his enemies like a rabid dog. And Reiko Ike (Cops vs. Thugs) has a role as a Korean woman who falls in love with Miyoshi but then begins to think she’s just there to be an attractive human shield. The scenes between Bunta Sugawara and Reiko Ike are very good and one wishes that there had been more of them.
In the original series, director Kinji Fukasaku sought to remove the chivalrous armor the yakuza wore in cinema and reveal them as the greedy, backstabbing thugs the real-world knew them to be. In New Battles, Fukasaku is still pursuing that aim, but I feel he goes even further here by making the yakuza look like fools and then laughing at them. At one point, a gangster reaches into his pocket for a harmless item of importance, and every character within sight freaks out, screams, and falls over themselves thinking that he’s going for a gun. And in moments of action, the yakuza who pride themselves in being ultimate badasses instead look like frightened children playing war. That there’s still a good deal of bloodshed might cancel out some of the laughs in the audience, but I think the message is clear that Fukasaku views these guys as idiots who act tough but don’t know how to back it up.
The movie may underwhelm with a been there, done that sort of plot, but Fukasaku and his cast are pros at this sort of film by now, and even the more pedestrian moments of New Battles stick in the viewer’s head long after the film is over. New Battles Without Honor and Humanity is at its best when the shit hits the fan and the characters take to the streets in panic-stricken terror. As a yakuza film, I liked it. As a follow-up to the masterful Battles Without Honor and Humanity, I find it more difficult to figure out. Maybe I’m trying too hard, though. As suggested by Fukasaku biographer Sadao Yamane on the disc’s special features, it’s probably best not to view New Battles shortly after the original series, because then you get too hung up on trying to connect the dots (and, for my part, you get frustrated when the dots refuse to connect). The first New Battles is not everything I was hoping for after years of anticipation, but there are still two films left in the trilogy and I can’t wait to give them a look.
Kyle Warner’s Rating: 6.5/10