Director: Kinji Fukasaku
Notable Cast: Bunta Sugawara, Ninji Kobayashi, Kan Mikami, Ko Nishimura, Tsutomu Yamazaki, Tsunehiko Watase, Sanae Nakahara, Mikio Narita, Meiko Kaji, Junkichi Orimoto, Hideo Murota
The biggest flaw in the rebooted New Battles Without Honor and Humanity film is the fact that the first film of the trilogy is too much like its predecessors. It tried too hard to be like the original five and it came off as redundant and rushed, even with its strong direction and performances. The second of this trilogy, New Battles Without Honor and Humanity: The Boss’s Head, attempts to rectify that major issue by bringing in an entirely new story with some of the stylistic choices of the series, but some new additions and approaches. The results are definitely a step up above the first as the new ground in the film makes for a much more interesting film that pulls a bit more away from the documentary-esque structures and dense character interactions for a more straight forward yakuza action affair. Fans may be a bit more mixed on it for its deviations from the core style, but it’s a refreshing spin that has its own effective merits.
Kuroda (Bunta Sugawara) needs money and vows to help a friend in the local yakuza family with a very touchy situation knowing he’ll be taken care of after the fact with a large sum of cash. He ends up in prison for seven years for his work. After his release though, his friend is no longer a respected member of the yakuza and Kuroda is left with only empty promises from the yakuza who just want him to go away. He won’t be slighted that easily.
Like the previous New Battles film, The Boss’s Head features a brand new story in the ‘universe’ of the franchise where actors and actresses from previous entries come back as new characters for this stand alone entry. The film is anchored once again by the strong screen presence of Bunta Sugawara, but this time instead of the calculating strategist that is playing two yakuza sides against one another like the previous films, he plays the role of an unaffiliated wanderer with no loyalty and no connection to the yakuza world except to get what’s his. While this allows the film to retain its core components around his performance and character, who must take meetings with various yakuza members and participate in some of their activities to worm his way into positions to take better advantage, his character is more of an anti-hero than ever before as he freelances his way into making life a bit of a hellish landscape for the family that burned him. A plethora of phenomenal secondary casting supports this, including some fantastic subtle performances from Yamazaki as his heroine addicted friend and Meiko Kaji as his friend’s heartbroken wife, and the trimmed focus of characters benefits the more straight forward manner of the film. It uses the character connections in some surprisingly ways, although outside of the death of one of Kuroda’s followers (a character who desperately wants to be like the actor Akira Kobayashi and takes his namesake and plays guitar that adds a strange meta level to the proceedings), it doesn’t have quite the emotional depth of its character interactions to take it to a new echelon. Like most of the previous ones, The Boss’s Head benefits from the sheer power of its cast and the characters work to support the film’s approach even if it’s flawed.
The style of The Boss’s Head reinforces the kind of chaos that surrounds Kuroda as Fukasaku once again brings to the table the handheld shaky action sequences and fly on the wall discussions about yakuza business, but the style is reinforced by the tone and swirling hurricane of distrust and paranoia that his character creates around him. The narrative follows suit. In a way, the film is much less complex in its foundations, particularly by the third act as it boils itself down into a much more simplistic ‘kill or be killed’ action thriller, but retains the documentary style at points to give it a realistic and chaotic tone. At times this does seem to play against the use of a narrator to spell out some of the transitions of time to keep the pacing that gave the series its distinct feel, but it works in the end as this blends the series’ structure with something more akin to Kukasaku’s other yakuza flicks like Cops Vs Thugs or Graveyard of Honor. This explains some of the new territory that the film covers for the series, like the 70s setting, the use of car chases, and the use of female characters that worked in the previous New Battles film, which only shows that, as this new trilogy goes, it evolves into something a bit more refreshing and unique.
Still, the lacking depth and emotional resonance of The Boss’s Head proves to be the chief reason why it can’t quite stand with the original series, but it proves that the evolutionary steps of some of its new elements and simplification of its story do improve on its direct predecessor. Fans may find the changes to be “un-Battles-like” in the end though and it’s easy to see why The Boss’s Head is a bit more controversial to enjoy. For me, the changes make for some refreshing new ground to cover and the blend of its slightly off kilter narrative with the visual style of the series makes this film one of the more interesting ones to watch even with its minute flaws that prevent it from soaring. It’s a film mostly for fans of Fukasaku’s other yakuza films more than the Battles series.
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Written By Matt Reifschneider