The Battles Without Honour and Humanity series is probably one of the most successful franchises you’ve never heard of, spanning 11 entries including an obligatory remake. But they’re big in Japan. Starting in the early 70s, director Kinji Fukasaku intended to make a sequence of realistic, modern yakuza films based on true stories: memoirs by real-life yakuza Kozo Mino. Across an acclaimed five film saga of guns, girls and gangs, released in 73-74, Eastern A-lister Bunta Sugawara played the part of Shozo Hirono (a stand in for Mino), chronicling the rise and fall.
Originally Fukasaku wanted to quit there but, as is often the case, he was talked into more. However, with the source material thoroughly mined, his focus became recreating the success of earlier films with a fictional approach. The result was the similarly well received New Battles Without Honour and Humanity trilogy (released 74-75). Sugawara returned, along with some of the other cast, but this time the movies told entirely stand-alone tales of scheming, intrigue and illicit behaviour. This month Arrow Films proudly present all three of this follow up trilogy for their English-language home video debut on Blu-ray and DVD.
The boxset sees all three receive the 1080p treatment, and packages them with a generous range of extras and brand new artwork. In the first, Sugawara plays a low-level assassin sent to jail following a failed hit. While inside he is told about a power struggle and on release he soon finds himself stuck between the two factions. In part two, The Boss’s Head, he plays a gambler who takes the fall, on behalf of a different family, after an assassination attempt goes wrong. But when they fail to make good on compensating him for his sacrifice, he goes straight for the boss. In the third entry, Last Days of the Boss, he plays a labourer who finds himself elected as successor to a murdered boss. Unfortunately, he can’t enjoy the perks of the job ‘til he’s taken revenge: something gangland alliances make very tricky.
Maybe the best part of being a movie critic is seeing the sorts of films you would never have even thought about watching otherwise. In my case I’m not an aficionado of either Japanese cinema or gangster flicks. As such I was curious when Arrow invited myself, and many better writers, to a special showing of The Boss’s Head in PimpSheui, central London. Note this is as fitting a venue as they could have chosen – being themed around old school marital arts films – and with its range of themed cocktails, sushi and eastern beer it set the scene (seriously, if you live nearby, be sure to check it out). After a couple of drinks, and some mingling, we passed a line of retro arcade games to go upstairs to the screening room.
To the uninitiated, like me, The Boss’s Head watches something like Goodfellas by way of James Bond. As per the former there’s an emphasis on the high stakes of underground and the sorts of sociopathic personalities that get by. But as per the latter there’s an enjoyable mix of sleaze, action-adventure, glamourous locations and very funky music – I hummed the main theme for several hours after. It also serves as a great time capsule to 70s Japan: a time and place very different to the UK today. And after my first trip I’m itching to go back.
The New Battles Without Honour and Humanity trilogy boxset is released August 21st, 2017, via Arrow Films.