Review: New Battles Without Honour and Humanity: Last Days of the Boss (1976)

It’s safe to say I’ve been somewhat disappointed with New Battles Without Honour and Last Days of the Boss PosterHumanity, the studio-mandated follow-up series to Kinji Fukasaku’s spectacular Battles Without Honour and Humanity. In the first New Battles film, Fukasaku more or less remade his earlier work, but without some of the depth or care. The Boss’s Head turned the series into an anthology of disconnected stories, and while that was an improvement, it still couldn’t hold a candle to Fukasaku’s stronger films. For the first time, then, New Battles Without Honour and Humanity: Last Days of the Boss (1976) feels like Fukasaku and his team brought something genuinely new to the table and turned out a compelling – if flawed – yakuza flick.

The opening of Last Days of the Boss is somewhat murky and despite its relatively short running time, it takes a while to get going and establish frequent Fukasaku collaborator Bunta Sugawara as its true protagonist. He plays Nozaki, a yakuza, but at least at first appearance a much more unassuming figure than he usually cuts in Fukasaku’s films. There’s little of the ambition or greed that drives his other Battles Without Honour and Humanity characters on show.

Last Days of the Boss 1
The title image for Last Days of the Boss features some of the same brilliant typography common across both Battles series, but surprisingly doesn’t feature the same character intro splashes frequent in the other films

Before Nozaki is properly introduced, Last Days of the Boss leans into the broad scope, ripped-from-the-headlines kind of storytelling the series began with. A gang war is brewing between the Kansai-based Sakamoto gangs and its various sub-families, and a Kitakyushu-based alliance of seven different families. What starts as a relatively petty squabble between two lower-ranked gangs stemming from a double murder quickly escalates as each side retaliates with increasing recklessness. When Nozaki’s boss Iwaki is murdered, his hopes of staying relatively quiet and serving out his tenure at a construction firm – the yakuza have always been heavily involved in construction – goes out the window. Suddenly, his Kitakyushu superiors are expecting him to take over the Iwaki gang – but not until he gets revenge by taking out their rival boss in Kansai, Yonemoto.

Last Days of the Boss 3
Bunta Sugawara as Nozaki. He takes a considerably heavier beating in this film than in some of his other Fukasaku appearances, as shown off by this fairly impressive bit of battle-scarred makeup

Yonemoto (Takuya Fujimoto) is a fantastic bit of character work. Fukasaku’s films have rarely shied away from portraying the yakuza as grimy, sleazy, and unromanticised, but Yonemoto is something else. A voluble, volatile man, constantly shifting, never standing or sitting still without sniffing, wiping away sweat, wiping his nose, hawking spit, shining his shoes. He makes an excellent foil for the mostly quiet, brooding Nozaki.

A frequent theme of both the original and new Battles films is that the yakuza are untrustworthy, dishonourable, and backstabbing – it’s a big part of what separates the jitsuroku (“actual record”) subgenre from earlier films that painted gangster protagonists in a more flattering light. After initially setting Nozaki up to take revenge on Yonemoto, his superiors quickly start backtracking. The Kansai gangs bring another option: an alliance, of sorts, but really more a gentleman’s agreement to not target any gang bosses. Let the lower ranking men fight and die if needs be, but keep the bosses out of it. It’s an offer they can’t refuse, which leaves Nozaki out in the cold when a hit he had put in motion against Yonemoto goes ahead but fails spectacularly.

Last Days of the Boss 2
Sugawara’s Nozaki (right) with his boss Iwaki (left), played by Jun Tatara

This puts Nozaki out of favour with his own allies and firmly in the sights of the Sakamoto – a situation much more familiar for a Bunta Sugawara character in a Kinji Fukasaku gangster film. Here is Sugawara putting in some of his best work as Nozaki on the run, increasingly obsessed with getting revenge on Yonemoto – or on the boss of the entire rival family, Sakamoto himself. There’s a firelit soliloquy, coat draped over his shoulders as a cape, that truly stands out. Screenwriter Koji Takada explains it as a remnant from an earlier, unused kernel of a story, that sees Nozaki recounting how he lost his parents in a mining accident and was unable to let it go, drawing obvious parallels to his journey towards revenge. It also provides further backstory to his relationship with his sister, played by Outlaw VIP’s Chieko Matsubara, that gives Nozaki the film a different flavour to a wealth of otherwise similar gangster stories.

It’s a shame that sometimes the film’s ideas seem to get ahead of the production values

Last Days of the Boss New Poster
The Arrow Video cover art is gorgeous as always

because there is some excellent action on display. In particular, the standout sequence involves a truck and car chase through winding mountain passes that far surpasses the car chase in The Boss’s Head. Unfortunately a lot of the action is marred by weird frame rate shifts, jerky camera movement, and some odd ghosting – to the point where I was actually wondering if it was more my copy of the film or a bad restoration than a remnant of the original.

In the end, Last Days of the Boss is not quite Fukasaku at his best, but it’s an extremely solid entry in the yakuza genre. If what you want is Bunta Sugawara wearing his coat as a cape while going rogue and leading his outcast gang against impossible odds, then like me, you will find a lot to enjoy.

New Battles Without Honour and Humanity: Last Days of the Boss /

新仁義なき戦い 組長最後の日

Director: Kinji Fukasaku

Japanese Release Date: 24th April, 1976

Version Watched: 91 min (Arrow Video)

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