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August 29, 2017

New Battles without Honor and Humanity - The Complete Trilogy

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Japanese poster for New Battles with Honor and Humanity

New Battles without Honor and Humanity/Shin Jingi Naki Tatakai
Kinji Fukasaku - 1974

New Battles without Honor and Humanity: The Boss's Head/Shin Jingi Naki Tatakai: Kumicho no Kubi
Kinji Fukusaku - 1975

New Battles without Honor and Humanity: The Boss's Last Days/Shin Jingi Naki Tatakai: Kumicho Saigo no Hi
Kinji Fukasaku - 1976

Arrow Video six disc BD/DVD set

Like other western cinephiles around my age, I was introduced to yakuza films by Paul Schrader, both from the Hollywood film he co-wrote, The Yakuza, his writing about the genre for the magazine Film Comment, and two Toei productions Schrader presented at the Museum of Modern Art, around March of 1975. I bring this up because Schrader presented yakuza films as being about gangsters who lived by a strict code, fought with swords, and would atone for a perceived transgression by cutting off their pinkies. There's a pinkie cutting scene in New Battles without Honor and Humanity, but unlike Robert Mitchum or Ken Takakura merely wincing during their self-amputation, followed by deft wrapping the wound in a bandage, Bunta Sugawara howls in pain while blood gushes on a nearby wall, as well as the other gangster to whom seriousness of purpose has been expressed.

Would it be more correct to call Fukasaku's films "anti-yakuza"? There is no pretense of idealism, either in action or motivation. The weapon of choice is always a pistol, with the occasional knife, but never a sword. And for all of their ambition, some of these guys are inept at being criminals. The first two films begin with botched hit jobs, with Sugawara going off to prison, with the promise of financial rewards by gang leaders for time served. Promises turn out not to be kept, and Sugawara finds ways of getting even.

Following directly on the heels of the original Battles without Honor and Humanity, Fukasaku made three films with Sugawara as three different characters in each of the New Battles films. This was done during Fukasaku's most prolific period in the the 1970s, when he was making two films a year. What links the films is that the stories center around simultaneous internal and external power struggles, with high level gangsters squabbling over their place in their respective hierarchies, and low level thugs seeking ways to make themselves more than expendable soldiers. These men are fighting for their positions within confined spaces, made visually literal in scenes of yakuza crowded together in dining halls, meeting rooms, and in prison. While opening credits announce the films as works of fiction, there is some off-screen narration and hand-held camera work. The settings for each film is in a different metropolitan area, parts of three different regions.

My favorite of the three films here is the third, the anarchic The Boss's Last Days. Unlike the other films, this entry is solely the work of screenwriter Koji Takada, pushing Fukasaku in terms of content and visual experimentation. The film opens with the discovery of a dead prostitute hacked to death with what appears to be a phallically placed ax, with Sugawara as a ranking yakuza unable to avenge the death of his boss due to an agreement placed by the warring families. In addition to several bloody gun battles, there is a chase between a fleet of cars and some very large trucks, drug addled punks and whores, plus hints that feelings between Sugawara and his sister may be too close. Fukusaka plays out one scene with freeze frames, and edits a gun fight with shots of a red screen between gun shots.

The each of the three films here come with excerpts of an interview with screenwriter Koji Takada, discussing the history of the films' productions, a bit about Fukusaku's films outside the Battles and New Battles series, Takada's work with Hideo Gosha, and Toei studios starting to cast actors formerly associated with Nikkatsu who left when that studio began specializing in "pink" films. There is also booklet with writing by, among others, Chris D., Marc Walkow and Tom Mes.

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Japanese poster for The Boss's Last Days

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at August 29, 2017 06:52 AM