It’s ironic that the films that inspired me to write about Japanese cinema aren’t yet covered here, but it was Kinji Fukasaku’s original, sprawling Battles Without Honour and Humanity series that turned me around on Japanese film and cemented my love of yakuza on the silver screen. After the success of those films, Toei apparently felt the same way: they wanted Fukasaku to create more sequels. Instead, the director created a new three-film anthology – different stories, different locations, and different characters, but with many of the same actors from his original series. The first film, New Battles Without Honour and Humanity (1974), walks a fine line between retelling the events of the film that started it all and being a brand new experience.
Like the original it begins soon after the end of World War 2 – this time in 1950, when a botched hit lands the lead character in jail, and picking up again in 1959 when he gets out on parole. The world has changed as Japan’s postwar recession has turned into an economic boom from Korean War profiteering, but the erstwhile hitman’s slimy boss Yamamori (once again played by Nobuo Kaneko, in the only exactly replicated role between the two films) has abandoned him. Bunta Sugawara plays the lead once more but this time he’s Miyoshi, another gruff outsider within his own family, trying to keep away from the scheming Yamamori. Unlike his character from the original films, Miyoshi seems less ambitious, or maybe it’s just the condensed timeline of New Battles. He’s clearly resentful of Yamamori and thinks little of the boss’ attempts to get him to murder fellow family member Aoki (Lone Wolf and Cub’s Tomisaburo Wakayama), but that resentment doesn’t have time to build to the point it does in the original pentalogy, where Sugawara’s Hirono forms his own breakaway family. Miyoshi seems more concerned with keeping his head down and looking after the few men under his control than grabbing at power.
Despite a plot that diverges in the details, it’s hard not to question how “new” New Battles Without Honour and Humanity actually is. There are a multitude of familiar faces from the previous series, as well as other yakuza and action cinema of the time – in addition to Sugawara and Kaneko all-but reprising their roles, there’s Wakayama as Yamamori’s main rival, Joe Shishido (Branded to Kill, Retaliation) in a small role as a delirious, syphilitic gangster, and the ever-welcome Kunie Tanaka (Battles Without Honour and Humanity, The Bullet Train) as Aoki’s devious henchman. It’s familiar faces like Tanaka that throw the whole thing off kilter – unlike Kaneko as Yamamori he’s not technically playing the same role, but his character is almost indistinguishable from the scheming Makihara of the original films.
Likewise, it’s hard not to draw comparisons across the whole production. Both start just after the Second World War, but the Japan featured at the beginning of Battles Without Honour and Humanity is still reeling from the war – it’s a completely different world. The black market at the film’s opening is wildly different from even the Japan depicted just a few years later in the 1950s. By comparison, the world shown before and after Miyoshi’s prison sentence in New Battles is much harder to distinguish – and looks suspiciously like Japan in the 1970s, when filming actually took place. The cars in particular look far too boxy, more like ‘70s cars than ‘50s. It gives the impression that the same level of care was not taken in this series as in the original.
On the other hand, where New Battles succeeds – just as many of Fukasaku’s films of the ‘70s did – is in creating a fantastically filthy setting. My favourite scenes are not the action sequences, where as in many other yakuza movies of the era, the actors tend to flail around in ugly, slapstick gunfights that seem designed to show off just how unprepared everyone involved is. Instead, it’s the meetings in restaurants and homes, dimly lit, filled to the brim with clutter, bottles of beer and sake, steaming pots of nabe, the air filled with cigarette smoke, half-drunk yakuza falling over each other to ingratiate themselves with their elders, shouting and laughing and weeping theatrically.
It also exploits the motif seen in the original Battles films, which were lifted in part from newspaper articles on the yakuza conflicts of the time. There’s an almost documentary-like quality to the presentation, with freeze-frames to introduce characters and their gang affiliations, and voice over narration of still images as if they were archived photographs filling in the blanks between time skips. It worked brilliantly in the original films and it works just as well here.
Ultimately, New Battles Without Honour and Humanity feels too slight to hold up to Fukasaku’s earlier work. It’s too familiar to the original Battles without bringing anything new to the table, and if anything, the story feels less complex and the attempts to set-dress the film as the late ‘50s and early ‘60s are less assured. It’s a peculiar film, as Fukasaku was clearly not out of ideas; a year later he would direct Cops vs. Thugs, which with its emphasis on the (corrupt) police feels fresh even while retreading familiar territory of alliances, betrayals, and gangster brotherhood. Perhaps with the pseudo-sequel The Boss’s Head Fukasaku can bring something genuinely new to New Battles Without Honour and Humanity.
New Battles Without Honour and Humanity / 新仁義なき戦い
Director: Kinji Fukasaku
Japanese Release Date: 28th December 1974
Version Watched: 98 min (Arrow Video)