Director: Kinji Fukasaku
Writer: Koji Takada
Cast: Bunta Sugawara, Isao Bito, Takeo Chii, Takuya Fujioka, Seizo Fukumoto, Eiji Go, Ryuji Katagiri, Takuzo Kawatani, Chieko Matsubara, Kan Mikami, Michiro Minami, Sanae Nakahara, Kōji Nanjo
Running Time: 91 min.
By Kyle Warner
1976 just happened to be a leap year. And on February 29th, a woman with a drug problem is murdered. The first suspect is the yakuza Imamura, her known supplier. But then Imamura turns up dead a couple days later. The cops round up the usual suspects and demand answers. The criminal underworld was tense already but now the murder investigation is making business difficult. The yakuza take it upon themselves to solve the murder – with bullets! Tensions boil over and all-out war breaks out between rival clans. Bombings and shootings occur in broad daylight. Bosses and underlings alike are getting murdered. The war rages on until the thing that sparked it, the mysterious murders of Imamura and the woman, is but a distant memory.
Unlike other Battles Without Honor and Humanity films (old or New), Kinji Fukasaku makes no effort to set up the board or name the alliances before dumping us into the action. The final New Battles film, Last Days of the Boss, is a frenetic, noisy action movie that rarely ever slows down. It’s lewd, mean, sometimes shockingly funny, and just full to the brim with the angry violence that the director is known for.
We’ve already sat through a good portion of the film before our hero, Bunta Sugawara, finally swaggers up wearing a yellow hardhat and looking nothing like the yakuza he played in the original series. Here Sugawara plays Nozaki, an orphan who was raised by a decent, honorable yakuza but is working as a blue-collar dockworker. Nozaki is not unfamiliar with the yakuza world, though. While he’s on good terms with his adoptive father and his father’s gang, Nozaki was dead set against his little sister Asami (Chieko Matsubara) marrying a yakuza from a rival gang, which created a schism between brother and sister.
When Nozaki’s adoptive father is assassinated, the mantle of boss for his small Kyushu gang falls to Nozaki. The outsider Nozaki reluctantly takes the position and swears to get revenge for his father’s death. However, his blood feud – which must be satisfied if he is to be considered a respectable yakuza – comes at a bad time, as those above him are beginning to discuss a peace accord with the competition in Osaka.
Nozaki is told to wait on vengeance, see how negotiations progress. But something goes wrong. An assassin jumps the gun, resulting in more senseless bloodshed, canceling out any idea of peace. It’s all the encouragement that Nozaki needs to commit his gang to war in a desperate struggle to kill off the bosses that lead the Osaka crime families.
The Battles series was among the first Japanese crime sagas to directly criticize the yakuza and strip them of their ‘Honor and Humanity.’ Until then, yakuza movies told tales of chivalrous anti-heroes with codes to uphold. Last Days of the Boss plays like a strong criticism of the classic, chivalry yakuza films, but it also shares more of their DNA than the other Battles films. This is a much pulpier, melodramatic, and stylized crime movie than the Battles movies that came before it. What saves it from becoming another chivalry picture, I think, are two important things. One: it’s super violent and that violence often appears to solve nothing (the film’s final frame hammers this home and might be the best moment in the movie). And two: the characters, acting on a personal code of honor, come across like crazy people. Nozaki wants vengeance, and I get that, but the lengths which he’s willing to go to achieve it are nuts. He’s the closest thing to a hero in Last Days of the Boss but he’s hardly a relatable figure.
Other bits of un-Battles-like melodrama include the brother/sister relationship between Nozaki and Asami. Rumors say they were *ahem* very close once. And as the gang war rages on, those rumors eat away at Asami’s husband, Nakamichi (Koji Wada). Soon, not only is Nozaki fighting the Osaka bosses, but now he has to worry about his brother-in-law, too.
Perhaps it’s a sign of the changing times – Last Days of the Boss is the only Battles film to take place in modern day (1976 at the time) – but the yakuza repeatedly reach out to contract killers in this film. The hitmen featured are a little larger than life, like the transvestite with a knife and the Korean soldier with a machine gun. The characters might’ve felt out of place in an earlier Battles film, but they fit the pulpy tone that Last Days of the Boss went with.
Kinji Fukasaku’s influence on cinema — and on the yakuza genre specifically — would continue for years to come. Hell, this isn’t even the lastBattles film. The Battles series would continue without Fukasaku with Aftermath of Battles Without Honor or Humanity in 1979 from director Eiichi Kudo (11 Samurai). The series was then revived again in 2000 with Another Battle from director Junji Sakamoto (Face). Another Battle was actually written by Last Days of the Boss screenwriter Koji Takada, but that appears to be one of the only links to the original films. I know very little about those films and don’t expect to see them available on DVD anytime soon. Then again, I once thought the same thing about the New Battles trilogy, and here we are.
Last Days of the Boss is a perfectly enjoyable final entry to the New Battles trilogy. I can’t say I liked the New Battles films as much as the original series – being standalone films, they cannot hope to achieve the epic scale of the original Battles films – but I do quite like these films just the same. If the original Battles Without Honor and Humanity series had a ‘ripped from the headlines’ feeling to it, then I’d say that New Battles feels ripped from the tabloids. They’re generally nastier, weirder, and less grounded in reality. The Boss’s Head is the finest chapter of the New Battles trilogy but Last Days of the Boss isn’t far behind. Fast-paced and in-your-face, it’s remarkably fresh for what is the eighth film of the Battles brand.
One marvels at how Fukasaku’s eight Battles movies were all made between 1973 and 1976. Not only am I in awe of what had to be an insane production schedule, but also that the quality of the films ranged from the good to the brilliant. And those weren’t the only movies Fukasaku directed during that time — great films like Cops vs. Thugs and Graveyard of Honor were also made during that same time period (not to mention the other, less well-known films). Now, at the end of the New Battles trilogy, I find myself wishing Fukasaku had made more of these films. But then I consider all of this and I think, you know, maybe that makes me sound just a little bit greedy.
About this release: New Battles Without Honor and Humanity is now available in a box set with three Blu-rays and three DVDs. It’s a very handsome looking set. Yes, I care about packaging, I’m one of those people. Picture quality is middle of the road, likely the result of source materials. And the special features are a little bit light, unfortunately. On the first film’s disc, Fukasaku biographer Sadao Yamane stammers his way through trying to describe what he thinks of the trilogy. New interviews with Koji Takada appear on the other discs. Takada talks about how he was brought in to fix the script for The Boss’s Head versus how he was the lead writer from day one for Last Days of the Boss. We also get trailers. I would’ve liked more, frankly.
The best extra is the 58-page booklet. Stephen Sarrazin focuses on New Battles Without Honor and Humanity. Tom Mes talks about The Boss’s Head and Hayley Scanlon talks about Last Days of the Boss, and they both talk about the growing importance of women in the series. Chris D. shares some info on Fukasaku’s contemporaries, Junya Sato (Bullet Train) and Sadao Nakajima (Memoir of Japanese Assassins), who helped create the new wave of darker, more reality-based crime dramas. I enjoyed every piece in the booklet, but might’ve liked Chris D.’s the most because it named about 20 films I gotta track down now. Marc Walkow talks about Kinji Fukasaku’s career, who became something of a chameleon after the 70’s, where you could never predict just what a Fukasaku film was anymore. And finally interpreter Toshiko Adilman remembers working with Fukasaku on the set of his film Virus.
Kyle Warner’s Rating: 7.5/10