New Battles Without Honour and Humanity: The Complete Trilogy Review
Kinji Fukasaku is an interesting figure in Japanese cinema. He is probably most known in the west for his 2000 cult smash Battle Royale, AKA The Hunger Games before it was cool. However, within a Japanese context he is probably most well known for his Yakuza pictures, tales of rogues and robbers looking to get ahead in post war Japan. The most famous of these pictures was a series of films called Battles Without Honour and Humanity, a series that Arrow Video has recently released on Blu-ray. These films had a gritty, violent feel that differed from other slightly more glamorous Yakuza films in Japan and the Gangster movies of America. Though only five of these films were made Toei - the studio Kinji Fukasaku made Battles without Honor and Humanity for - wanted more. Thus three more films were produced, very originally entitled New Battles Without Honor and Humanity. It is these films that we are talking about because, just like the previous series, Arrow Video has kindly released all three of the newer films in a dual format collection. So, does this series maintain the high quality of the previous sequences, or should they have left the series alone?
All the stories of the New Battles films follow lower members of criminal families caught in a battle between corrupt gang bosses and boisterous underlings trying to maintain a sense of honour despite the increasingly nihilistic nature of their profession. In the first film, New Battles Without Honor and Humanity, a young gang member is in the middle of a power struggle between his old boss and the lieutenant that is seeking to usurp him. 1974's The Boss's Head has an outsider of a powerful crime family take the fall for a murder and then expects to be taken care of after his release. However, gang politics means that he is forced out and must struggle to get what is due to him and to survive. Finally, in The Boss's Last Days, released in 1976, an heir to a crime family seeks revenge for the death of his boss in the face of cowardly politics and double dealings.
Fukasaku's worlds are amoral, violent and harsh. No one is the hero, no one is the villain, there are just thieves and murders. Reflecting this nihilistic attitude perfectly are the characters. All of the New Battles films star Bunta Sugawara as the main character and it is his gruff portrayal that carries us through all three films. He can balance the fine between sympathetic, apathetic, cruel and honourable. They are masterful performances that makes the audience side with his low-life street punks despite the fact that he is also doing some truly despicable things. This alignment may be helped by the slimmest antagonists I have seen in cinema, from power hungry lieutenants to cowardly bosses. All these slimy self-centred individuals make a murderer like Bunta Sugawara look good, and all the actors play their parts to perfection.
Fukasaku's cinematography reflects these attitudes to modern Japan in an energetic and powerful use of the camera. Fight scenes are chaotic and drawn out, almost comically absurd affairs with a mass of people swarming around the action, all shouting and shooting. In times of action like this and during the car chases the camera swings wildly, barely containing the energy on the screen as it spills from the Blu-ray into your living room. I have said in a previous review of a Fukasaku film that there is "an almost French New Wave aesthetic" to his work. This was perhaps inaccurate: While not as disruptive of traditional film form in the way that the work of Godard was, Fukasaku turns the gangster genre on its head by removing all artifice from the proceedings and filling his films with a nervous volatile anger that bubbles and overflows into messy and massive conflicts.
These conflicts take place on the streets, in smoky underground bars and in cramped hotel rooms. Far from the vision of Japan as a futuristic metropolis, Fukasaku's Japan is grimy and filthy with exposed plumbing and wiring. He overturns the rock that the pretty facade of Japanese society sits on and looks at the underbelly covered in mould, rot and bugs of all types.
However, because of the energy, the fast-paced nature of these films tends to effect the plot. There were multiple periods where I had to pause to catch up with the film because they kept throwing names and places out and, as a non-Japanese speaker, I had difficulty organising them into the right character. Apart from this issue, the narratives of revenge, betrayal and murder are action packed and immensely entertaining, especially when Bunta Sugawara intimidates one of the weasely gang lieutenants.
This tone looks absolutely gorgeous in high definition 1080p transfer on the Blu-ray and even looks crisp on the standard definition DVD. Every spurt of blood, every bullet and every gang member is picked out in glorious high definition, though the films still retain that warm feeling you get only from films shot in the 1970s, even with the new 2017 coat of paint. This coupled with an uncompressed mono audio soundtrack, where you can hear all the ricochet of the gun battles and every cry from a Yakuza in raucous abandon, with optional English Subtitles, makes New Battles Without Honour and Humanity another successful Blu-ray/DVD combo collection for Arrow Video. There are no digital errors on the disc, and Arrow has given the discs their patented easy to navigate menu system.
While the films are great and look wonderfully gritty and dirty in high definition Blu-ray, the collection lacks any meaty extras that you can get your teeth into. Each of the three discs only contains one additional extra feature, either a talking head interview with screenwriter Koji Takada or with Fukasaku's biographer Sadao Yamane. It is altogether a little disappointing that there isn't more as I was hoping to gain more of an understanding of Fukasaku's work about wider themes in Japanese cinema.
New Battles Without Honour and Humanity is more Fukasaku levels of energy, violence and moral ambiguity. It is a series of films that kicks off where the other series finished exploring the darker side to post-war Japan. I feel grateful to Arrow Video for having licensed this series because they have done a great job in restoring the films, though maybe not in the amount of extras. If you want to see a different sort of gangster flick, then you could do worse than the New Battles Without Honour and Humanity collection.