Few things can be relied on to sell a movie like sex and blood.
Packaging is, however, important; especially in terms of genre. As audiences slowly grow disenchanted with old reliables – as Americans did with Westerns and musicals back in the mid-‘60s – it’s important for studios to get one step ahead.
Often this means embracing outside voices who can upon occasion capture the zeitgeist. Without Dennis Hopper and Easy Rider, without Arthur Penn’s willingness to come on board for Bonnie & Clyde, there would have been no New Hollywood; at least not as we recognise it today. A big part of their vision was in taking a more cynical view on elements of the American dream. Both Easy Rider and Bonnie & Clyde are, in their way, about rebels, outsiders, anti-heroes choosing to live outside of society and who meet bloody ends because of it.
This studio-embraced cynicism took a somewhat longer to make it across the ocean to Japan as the idealistic Ninkyo eiga, or chivalry movie, of the 1960s gave way to the ugliness and nihilism of Jitsuroku, or “true account” Yakuza films.Where its predecessor had depicted the Yakuza as honourable warriors bound by a code of ethics known as jingi, or righteousness, Battles Without Honour and Humanity presented the modern Yakuza as gangs of seedy low-lives shooting each other in the streets.
Shot in grainy, up-close-and-ugly Shakycam by Kinji Kukasaku, Fukasaku saw these desperate young gangsters fighting for meaningless prestige as representative of the moral and ideological vacuum Japan had found itself in at the end of the Second World War.
The original pentalogy of Battles, all released between 1973 and ’74, were based on the memoirs of a real-life Yakuza. All but the fifth film were written by Kazuo Kasahara, who stepped away from the series where he believed the narrative had been exhausted. Fukasaku, very much a company man, stayed on and at the studio’s request went on to direct a follow-up trilogy, New Battles without Honour or Humanity; unconnected to the original Battles and, narratively speaking, more or less cut from whole cloth.
These New Battles also starred Bunta Shugawara, but in a trio of different but very familiar roles. The first two films, New Battles and New Battles…: The Boss’ Head, see a perpetually scowling Shugawara as a mid-ranking hood who is released from prison having served time for a botched hit. He expects recompense, but the boss generally seems unwilling to pony up. Despite this, Shugawara’s characters find themselves drawn into a struggle between the boss – for instance, the snivelling, mustachioed Mr. Yamamori (Nobuo Kaneko) – and an ambitious interloper.
They may all proclaim their undying loyalty, but everyone is out for themselves. The lower guys, especially, seem to essentially in poverty. Whenever money comes their way, they immediately blow on a raucous night of booze and harassed hostesses. The mid-ranking guys, of whom Shugawara is generally one, largely spend their time squabbling in tea rooms; though he seems to prefer the company of his crew in whatever dive bar or inn they stumble into and proceed to fall around in.
On the whole, they make Martin Scorsese’s criminal underworld look reputable by comparison. Where Frank Costello in The Departed mused on making his environment a product of him1, this bunch seem unlikely to make it through the next five minutes. Unlike in say, The Godfather, which clearly lays out the respective revenue streams of each of the Five Families – the Barzinis have gambling; the Tattalgias, prostitution, – we never see how, for instance, the Owada family and the Kyoei Group make their money.
This serves to make the killing, of which there is a lot, seem all the more pointless. And the Fukasaku’s Yakuza kill like they party: messily, impulsively, and without dignity. Assassination is far too neat a word for it. Even the professionals can’t be relied upon. Bullets ping and echo at close range; more miss than seem to hit their mark.2 Blood spills red as paint as men scramble, and stumble, and crawl, often directly into the path of their assailants. The chaos is generally underscored by Toshiaki Tsushima’s twangy guitar.
With most of these hits taking place in public, civilian casualties seem inevitable, but they, like the police, scarcely feature. One of the few in the series is the drunken mother of a dead gangster who turns up to hysterically demand money. Female roles are mostly limited to expendable mistresses, manipulative wives – sly à la Mrs. Yamamori or seemingly demure, as with Sugawara’s sister Asama (Chieko Matsubara) in The Boss’ Last Days – or unfortunate molls, like Aya (Yuriko Hishimi), trying to get by.3
The New Battles trilogy feels like a saga, sprawling and loosely connected, but more satisfying when viewed as an organic whole. Over the course of the films, the Yakuza structure become increasingly corporate, though any meeting still has a likelihood of devolving into a quarrel. They even talk about consolidating for the sake of a lasting peace – no more killing bosses. The bottom-feeders, too, have a different vibe: gaudy, flowery shirts and circular sunglasses. Even the police seem to have become more competent, or at least slightly more present.
The films become more action-oriented with drag-out car chases that recalls the films of Peter Yates and Walter Hill. The style, too, develops with the The Last Days Of The Boss’ introducing jarring freeze-frame, which, rotating furiously, serve to throw the narrative off-kilter. Ironically, the trilogy ends with the chance of a lasting peace destroyed by Sugawara’s twisted sense of honour, cold-bloodedly murdering the elderly Hidemitsu Sakamoto (Eitaro Ozawa) on his deathbed to avenge his own slain father figure.
Nozaki starts the film as a relatively honest man down on the docks. He ends it sat in the back of a cop car; staring at the blood on his hands, some of it his own. In this, the trilogy comes thematically full circle as Shugawara, having started the film a free man, returns surely to prison.
All three New Battles films were released within the space of three years, 1973 to ’75, to much success. Fusaku directed a further four films in the Jitsuroku genre before moving on toShogun’s samurai, starring Sonny Chiba, which saw with it a rebirth of the code of honour.4 By the time of Fukasaku’s final completed film, the legendary Battle Royale with its bloody and controversial depiction of government-enforced teenage murder – sadly perhaps the only one for which he is known outside of Japan – the wheel had swung around once more to cynicism.
Even so, the New Battles series represents a sunburst of pure, glorious exploitation; a remarkable outpouring of hard-boiled cinematic brilliance that, even if mass-produced, remained consistently surprising and inventive right till the end.
New Battles without Honour or Humanity is now available from Arrow Films on both DVD and BluRay, including HD digital transfers of all three films and an illustrated collectors book featuring original articles on the films, the Yakuza genre, and Fukasaku’s career.