Director: Kinji Fukasaku
Writer: Susumu Saji, Koji Takada
Cast: Seizo Fukumoto, Yuriko Hishimi, Meiko Kaji, Tomisaburo Wakayama, Ryuji Katagiri, Nenji Kobayashi, Hideo Murota, Mikio Narita, Ko Nishimura, Bunta Sugawara, Asao Uchida
Running Time: 94 min.
By Kyle Warner
Now this is more like it. I was a bit disappointed with the first New Battles film, and if writer Koji Takada’s account of things is correct, so was director Kinji Fukasaku. The first film of the trilogy is a kinda-sorta follow-up to the original series that also played like a confusing recycling project. New Battles Without Honor and Humanity 2: The Boss’s Head avoids any of that confusion by telling a standalone story that feels, well, New.
In The Boss’s Head (which might be one of the coolest titles for a gangster movie ever), the series’ regular lead Bunta Sugawara returns as a brand new character named Kuroda. There’s no mistaking Kuroda with Hirono and Miyoshi, the characters Sugawara played in the original 5-film series and the first New Battles, respectively. Kuroda is a drifter, a wannabe gangster without a penny to his name. And something we figure out pretty quick is that he doesn’t take “no” for an answer.
The Boss’s Head is a film about ruthlessly ambitious people making bets on which crime figure will get them the best return on their investment. We see this concept return again and again throughout. The free agent Kuroda selects Kusunoki (Tsutomu Yamazaki, Tampopo), because Kusunoki is engaged to marry the boss’s daughter and as such will likely be chosen to become the new boss in due time. Kuroda and Kusunoki pull off a hit on a rival boss and Kuroda takes the fall, serving seven years in prison with the understanding that Kusunoki will make him rich and give him a position within the crime family upon his release.
Seven years pass and Kuroda gets out of prison to find his investment didn’t pay off in the way he was expecting. Kusunoki is now a drug addict. He’s spent all his money on heroin and his father-in-law has basically kicked him out of the yakuza family. But Kuroda doesn’t care. This isn’t a film of brotherhood and understanding; these people are wolves. Kuroda wants the money he was promised, so he demands a sit-down with Boss Owada (Ko Nishimura, Intentions of Murder). When Boss Owada says that it’s Kusunoki’s problem, the junkie and the parolee flip out and stop asking nicely.
Through physical intimidation and back alley stabbings, Kuroda slowly starts working his way into Boss Owada’s trust, even as Kusunoki gets pushed farther aside. This ambitious young upstart attracts the ire of Owada’s senior lieutenant, Aihara (Mikio Narita, Female Prisoner Scorpion: Beast Stable). The story progresses from there with more power plays as ambitious people climb over the dead to reach the goal they have in mind for themselves.
Perhaps the most interesting character is Aya (Yuriko Hishimi, Godzilla vs. Gigan). She’s just as ambitious as the men and attaches herself to whatever yakuza she thinks will lead her to a life of luxury and power. Problem is, she often chooses poorly, as her men keep getting killed. Not deterred, she remains a constant in the yakuza underworld, and men begin to believe she’s cursed. It’s a sexy, sad, desperate character and Hishimi finds a way to make it all work. The Battles Without Honor and Humanity movies haven’t exactly had many meaty roles for women. But The Boss’s Head has a pretty strong stable of interesting female characters. In addition to Hishimi’s Aya, Meiko Kaiji (Lady Snowblood) delivers a strong dramatic performance as the wife of the junkie, Kusunoki.
I was beginning to worry after the first New Battles that perhaps this trilogy was going to be about reliving former successes, but The Boss’s Head proves to be one of the most interesting and entertaining films to share the Battles name. It’s odd to think that what is essentially the seventh Battles Without Honor and Humanity film would be one of the most accessible to new fans, but that’s exactly what we have here. It’s a standalone gangster epic with all the madness and swagger that fans have come to expect from Fukasaku and Sugawara and I’d love it just the same with or without the Battles name in the opening credits. The Boss’s Head is really, really good.
Kyle Warner’s Rating: 8/10