Where New Battles Without Honour and Humanity was essentially a remake of Kinji Fukasaku’s own earlier film, in The Boss’s Head (1975) the director returns with an original story that nevertheless reunites much of his earlier cast. Bunta Sugawara stars as Kuroda, a wanderer who takes the fall for a murder on the understanding that when he gets out of jail, the Owada crime family will take him on-board and pay handsomely for his service. When his heroin junkie contact (Tsutomu Yamazaki, A Taxing Woman) in the family lets him down, Kuroda stops at nothing to get what he feels he deserves.
While companies like Arrow, Criterion, and Eureka’s Master of Cinema are doing a lot to bring lesser known or previously unavailable Japanese films to the west – sometimes being seen for the first time with English language translations – there are still hundreds upon hundreds of films languishing in obscurity. Anime and even Japanese dramas can sometimes count on dedicated fansubbbers to provide unofficial translations (and host illegitimate, downloadable copies) but films rarely get the same treatment. Hard to Find will be an irregular feature on Kino 893 looking at films I’d love to watch, but haven’t yet found a way to.
For the first entry in Hard to Find, let’s talk Shakotan Boogie (1987). I stumbled across this title through my interest in cars – particularly (you guessed it) classic cars from Japan. Automotive enthusiast site Speedhunters is my regular fix for old Skylines and Fairlady Zs. I’d come across the word shakotan before, used to describe a particular style of quite extreme car modification, typically with the car riding low, tall bosozoku-style exhaust pipes, and outlandishly cambered wheels. I have no idea whether the term shakotan came first or if it was popularised by the manga, anime, and film – all titled Shakotan Boogie – but I first heard of the connection in this article by Mike Garrett. I think Garrett actually has some of the timeline wrong here, at least going by Wikipedia; it looks as if the film was in fact an adaptation of an on-going manga – but that’s neither here nor there. We’re here to talk about the Toei movie from 1987.
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.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: a small town cop arrives in the big city to help solve a crime with links to his home. Except in Kinji Fukasaku’s Doberman Cop (1977), that rural detective is Shinichi “Sonny” Chiba, and he rolls into Tokyo’s Kabukicho entertainment district with his straw hat and delightful piglet in tow. What follows is a remarkable police thriller closer in feel to an ‘80s action film that Fukasaku’s earlier jitsuroku work – more Lethal Weapon than Battles Without Honour and Humanity. Only very loosely based on the manga of the same name by ‘Bronson’, it’s an eclectic mix of action, comedy, martial arts, and grisly crime drama; a film that should result in complete tonal whiplash, but somehow comes together into an off kilter but satisfying, cohesive whole.
Back in the early 2000s, Kinji Fukasaku’s Battle Royale was probably one of the first live action Japanese films I ever watched. Its popularity helped highlight other Japanese cinema, and a for while, Japanese films were synonymous with shocking, violent pieces like Battle Royale or the work of prolific director Takashi Miike – slapstick exploitation like Ichi the Killer or the truly bizarre Happiness of the Katakuris. It moved the conversation away from the ubiquitous J-horror of the late ‘90s, led by Ring and Grudge and their imitators. Of course, there’s much more to Japanese cinema than that, but it’s where I got my start. It wasn’t until many years later that I became interested in throwback yakuza movies of the 1970s, largely off the back of my interest in SEGA’s Yakuza/Ryū ga Gotoku series. The title I kept seeing referenced as Japan’s equivalent of the Godfather trilogy was Battles Without Honour and Humanity, directed by none other than Kinji Fukasaku.
That series remains perhaps the most well-known example of the “jitsuroku” style of yakuza filmmaking – ‘actual record’ or ‘true document’ films, based on or inspired by real stories or newspaper headlines; films that didn’t depict the yakuza as masculine heroes on the wrong side of the law, but focused on petty squabbles, violence, and a nihilistic take on Japan’s organised criminals. It was between the five-film Battles Without Honour and Humanity saga and its follow-up, New Battles Without Honour and Humanity, that Toei’s top brass brought Fukasaku in to direct Cops vs. Thugs (1975). Not content to deconstruct the yakuza alone, the film drags the police and civic leaders into a fascinating quagmire of corruption.
The Female Prisoner Scorpion and Lady Snowblood film series present a similar challenge: at the end of the first film in each, Meiko Kaji’s protagonist has found her revenge, so how will the series continue? I suspected Female Prisoner Scorpion: Jailhouse 41 (1972) might be a sequel in name only, starring Kaji and her titular, vengeful protagonist in a new scenario, rather like the Outlaw films of the 60s. Instead, Jailhouse 41 picks up where the first film left off, with a brutal reminder that Scorpion’s vengeance is not complete: the prison warden yet lives.
As I look to explore the cult and classic movies of Japanese cinema from the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s, I’m limited by what’s actually available in the West and guided by recommendations from other film fans and critics. Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion (1972) was an early suggestion for this blog and one that I’m glad I sought out. The directorial debut of Shunya Itō, starring Meiko Kaji, Scorpion is a brutal exploitation film and a subversive example of the women in prison subgenre.
I think now that I’m thirty, all my heroes are in their 40s or 50s; old enough that I can actually still aspire, rather than compare myself, to them. Toshiro Mifune’s unhinged, trolltastic performance in Seven Samurai is great, sure, but it’s Takashi Shimura’s older, stoic-yet-jolly Kambei who’s my favourite character. He’s the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon connection to The Bullet Train (1975), where he has a minor role as the head of Japan National Railway.