New Battles Without Honor and Humanity Blu-ray Box Set Review: Movies with Honor

That “New” in the title is your tip that these films are a continuation of a previous project. In this case, the “original” was a series of five interconnected yakuza films from the same director and star. The original films proved to be so popular upon their release in the early 1970s that Toei Studio begged the talent to come back for more, leading to this mid-’70s follow-up trilogy. Unlike their predecessors, each of the films in this trilogy are unrelated to each other, with the primary constants being the director, star, genre, and theme music.

The titular first film finds star Junta Sugawara’s character in an impossible position in his gang: support his close friend’s attempt to seize control or continue to honor his current boss. In The Boss’s Head, Sugawara takes the fall for a crime with the expectation of reward upon release, but when his boss fails to come through he goes after him for vengeance. Finally, in Last Days of the Boss, Sugawara finds himself in a leadership role after his boss is taken out by a rival gang, leading him to go after the opposing boss in spite of strict code of honor preventing retribution against head crime bosses.

Lead actor Sugawara exudes incredible cool in each of his roles here, effortlessly portraying tough gangster characters who rise to middle management in the yakuza crime syndicate. Director Kinji Fukasaku (who later capped off his career with the notorious Battle Royale) makes the films feel very realistic, eschewing the lurid, over-the-top efforts by other directors in the ’60s for a hard dose of subdued reality that drives home the danger of the situations. He keeps each of the films moving well and peppers them with visceral action sequences, including harrowing car chases in the final two films. Their supporting players all contribute fine performances that expertly flesh out the criminal underworld.

All three films were shot in fairly quick succession, and while their characters don’t carry over between films they are unified by their yakuza themes and settings. The films are all enjoyable and well worth a watch for crime-genre aficionados. Even though they were initiated as a cash grab by their studio, the end results prove that the talent remained committed to presenting entertaining, worthwhile work.

I wasn’t previously familiar with Arrow Video’s products, so I was particularly impressed by their classy work on this box set. The box itself is much sturdier than most generic flimsy efforts, ensuring added protection for the precious goods inside. Each film is housed in its own individual full-size plastic DVD case, not slimlines or cheap cardstock sleeves. Each case includes different original and newly commissioned artwork for the reversible sleeve of each film, with the film and its bonus features stored on both Blu-ray and DVD discs. Those bonus features are headlined by an appreciation by a Fukasaku biographer and a new interview with the second and third films’ screenwriter where he discusses the production of his films. Rounding out the package is a substantial squarebound booklet featuring stills, multiple informative essays about the films, director, and genre, as well as information on the technical aspects of their presentation in this collection.

The most important technical aspect: these films look superb on both Blu-ray and DVD. The hi-def digital transfers are incredibly clean, with no noticeable scratches, debris, or even graininess anywhere to be found. The uncompressed monaural sound is also expertly presented, with no perceptible hiss or clipping. Frankly, if I hadn’t looked at the label, I could have easily assumed this entire package was a Criterion release, it really is that lovingly and obsessively produced. Anyone with even a passing interest in Japanese films of the era will find much to appreciate in Arrow’s masterful box set.

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Steve Geise

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