One of the unexpected pluses of the current blu-ray cult film collector market has been the opportunity to finally catch up on some of the less well-known examples of 1970s Japanese cinema. This box set is a fine example – never before released in the UK in any form, and barely known outside the circles of hardened Japanese exploitation enthusiasts, the New Battles Without Honor and Humanity films are a welcome release. At the same time, watching the films, it becomes pretty obvious why they hadn’t previously been picked up. Unlike contemporaries like The Streetfighter, the Stray Cat Rock and Female Prisoner Scorpion films (not exactly titles that had wide international releases themselves on the whole), this trilogy – and the original Battles Without Honor and Humanity series that preceded it – makes no concession to global audiences. Like many localised comedy films, these are movies that were too specific in tone and style to Japan to ever really find a significant worldwide audience. Even now, viewers are advised that unless you are both a hardened fan of Japanese crime cinema and reasonably au fait with Japanese culture, then these three films might sometimes seen a touch head scratching.
There’s additional confusion too in the fact that director Kinji Fukasaku wasn’t planning – or interested – in making a sequel series to his original Battles… films, and so here brings back many of the same cast, but playing different roles in a trio of stand-alone films. To say that the films are unrelated is a bit of a stretch, as each deals with the internal struggles of Japanese yakuza gangs, and each takes an almost newsreel approach to presenting the stories, complete with on-screen captions and narration. As each is also a period piece, it adds to the impression that you are watching some sort of historical document based on fact. In reality, the films are all fictional works.
Stylistically, these are gritty, macho affairs centering around ambitious criminals who have served a prison sentence as a result of a botched crime, and are now eager to make up for lost time – especially as, in more than one case, our anti-hero has taken the fall for others. There’s a lot of social climbing, fear of a loss of face, and gangland politiking that is sometimes intriguing, sometimes rather long-winded, and although we have a central character in each story, there’s no one to really sympathise with – these are not, by and large, charismatic criminals.
While Japanese action cinema was pretty progressive in putting women at the centre of the action during the 1970s, this series is a very male affair. Meiko Kaji was already established as a kick-ass action star by the time the second film – The Boss’s Head – appeared in 1975, but here she is just a supporting, pt-upon character, the daughter of a gang boss who is married to a former gangster who had sampled a bit too much of the heroin they were shifting. It’s a little disappointing to see her in such a disposable role.
What is interesting about these films is they way they develop intricate plots and manage to throw up multi-faceted characters within the gangland world (and this is, by and large, a world that the authorities rarely seem to enter). Essentially, these gangs seem more like powerful businesses, with ageing bosses, social climbers, ambitious employees, rivalries and those executives who are happy to stay at mid-level – and who find themselves hopelessly out of their depth when thrust into power. It’s probably not an entirely original idea to present criminal organisations as just another corporation, but these films manage that better than most, possibly because they are so immersed in Japanese culture.
Interestingly though, while the world of the criminal is normalised to a degree, the films don’t particularly glamourise it. These characters are still petty, mean-spirited thugs who might have a code of honour, but are only too happy to violate it when convenient. The whole series shows organised crime to be ultimately ugly and petty. Not that the films skimp on the more sensationalist aspects of the genre – there’s plenty of shoot outs, bloodshed, violence and gratuitous nudity to keep exploitation fans happy.
As a shorter (and cheaper) collection, this might be a good set to begin with is you are curious about the Battles… series. Be warned though that they make no concessions to Western tastes, and so are probably mostly of interest to viewers who are already familiar with the tropes and eccentricities of the yakuza crime film.