Saturday, March 21, 2015

Brother (2000)

Around the turn of the 21st century, Kitano Takeshi decided to try to break into the Western film market, and since he’s known for violent gangster movies, it only makes sense that he’d lead with a Yakuza film. Brother was the result. It seems to have gotten generally mixed reviews at best, but it didn't seem to really open up the market for him. He's still pretty much relegated to the dark realm of art house desolation and cinema nerds. Despite all that, Brother is a pretty solid film, albeit with a few minor issues.

Most Yakuza films fall into one of about three categories – ridiculous action crime drama, dark and serious crime drama, or comedic hijinx. Kitano “Beat” Takeshi’s Yakuza film Brother takes a more fantasy route. Much like how the Grand Theft Auto game series imagines a city with a very organized crime structure based on racial stereotypes (The Chinese Triad runs this area, and over here we have the Italian Mafia, and just around that corner we have the black Gangbangers…), Brother takes Los Angeles, and basically does the same thing. Takeshi breaks up LA among various “legendary” crime groups, from gangbangers to cholos to the local Little Tokyo mafia to the actual Italian mafia, and then tosses an exiled Japanese Yakuza member into the mix to attempt a takeover. It seems like Brother treats LA the way that Yakuza groups are portrayed in more typical Yakuza films – gangs that hold certain territories with specific alliances, and by killing a specific member here, and by aligning yourself with another member there, you can effect a city wide takeover. Not sure if that’s even remotely viable in a crime ridden American city with a collection of disparate elements, but that’s what we’re working with here.

The Plot. 

The film starts with old school Yakuza member Yamamoto (Played, ,of course, by Kitano Takeshi) in a taxi in L.A., but quickly backtracks to Japan to explain his situation in a typical display of Yakuza film complexity: Yamamoto’s boss is killed in an assassination by another Yakuza group, the Jinseikai, which then absorbs his group into it. Yamamoto isn’t having that, so to get him out of the way, his former partner Harada (Osugi Ren from Party 7, Tokyo Mafia: Yakuza Wars, and Fireworks) is tasked with killing him by the new boss, played by Japanese film legend Watari Tetsuya (Tokyo Drifter, Yakuza Graveyard, and Graveyard of Honor). Yamamoto, in true badass fashion, offers Harada his own gun to kill him. Harada refuses; they’re sworn brothers, after all. So he sends Yamamoto to America and kills and mutilates a bum to pass off as Yamamoto’s corpse. Now Yamamoto is free and clear of the Japanese Yakuza and on his way to Los Angeles to find his younger half-brother, Ken (Claude Maki, A Scene at the Sea). Convoluted enough for you? Fortunately the rest of the plot is pretty straightforward.

Yamamoto finds Ken living with his drug-dealing hoodlum buddies Denny (Omar Epps), Jay (Royale Watkins), and Mo (Lombardo Boyar). It should be mentioned that Yamamoto is taciturn and expressionless (as nearly all of Kitano's roles tend to be), and one would imagine that now that his ties have been cut from the Yakuza he is world weary and finished with that life. Oh, but no. On the contrary, Yamamoto quickly inserts himself into his younger brother’s drug dealings, with decisiveness and swift violence. Apparently the expressionless Yakuza has no interest in retirement. Why the hell he wants to push in on territory that he knows nothing about, and with no real resources is a mystery, but I guess it’s just part of the fantasy.

The first act is Yamamoto effecting a takeover of the small time gangs in the area and consolidating power. The second act abruptly starts with the “family” now holding real power, having transitioned from a ghetto apartment to a high-end fancy loft complete with a basketball half court and an accountant, and some of the coolest suits ever put to film. The abruptness with which the movie shifts forward into the future is jarring, and it takes some time to figure out that probably a few months or more has passed – the actual amount of time is never made clear beyond the fact that so much has changed. It has to be a pretty good amount of time based on the visual cues. Anyway, after this indeterminate amount of time has passed, they are making real money, and looking to cut into the Italian mafia’s territory – which, if you've ever seen a gangster film, is never a good idea. However, when your strategy as a drug dealing Yakuza crime boss is really nothing more than to kill anyone that gets in the way of your plan, I guess expansion is the only option.

The main focus of the film, aside from the violence, is the friendship that develops between Denny and “Aniki” (Denny’s term for Yamamoto, Yakuza-speak for “brother”). They have a good enough chemistry on screen, and the ending hinges on the viewer buying into the friendship in the first place, but I don’t think quite enough development was put into the friendship to give the ending the impact that it really wants.

The Characters.

Aside from Yamamoto, there is a large collection of characters, although mostly bit players and background filler – only a few characters of note. Most notable is my personal favorite, Susumu Terajima (Shark Skin Man and Peach Hip Girl, Gonin 2, Ichi the Killer, Sonatine) as Kato, Yamamoto’s most loyal lieutenant, and Kato Masaya (Shinjuku Incident, Agitator) as the Little Tokyo mob boss Shirase. Also worthy of mention is Ishibashi Ryo (Another Lonely Hitman), as Shirase’s right hand man Ishihara.

The Violent Rundown. 

As in any good Kitano Takeshi film, there is a healthy helping of violence. We are treated to the brutal beating of a drunken bum, a broken bottle to the eye, two stabbings, a pair of broken chopsticks up the nose, a car bomb, around 13 shootings including a Russian Roulette style suicide, and probably another 10 more off-screen shootings. As this is a yakuza film, things wouldn't feel complete without the two hacked off fingers and a good old-fashioned disembowelment.

The Final Verdict.

Brother is a good introduction to Yakuza films for English speakers who aren't familiar with the genre. It hits on all the typical Yakuza themes, is probably 80% English, and dishes up a big serving
of gangland violence. As for the overall plot, well, the underlying point of the movie is never really made all that clear, and is pretty much left up to interpretation. Is the point the “friendship across cultures” between gangsta Denny and gangster Yamamoto? Is it the parable of the old Yakuza who can’t change his ways? Or, is it simply a “suicide by crime spree” on the part of Yamamoto, who has been banished from not only his country, but his entire Yakuza identity? I dunno. Brother isn't a bad film, and if you’re a fan of the genre, there is plenty here to like, and since it is sort of an experiment in crossing cultures plot-wise, and production wise, it turns out to be a generally entertaining experiment that was only a failure insofar as it failed to get Kitano the international exposure that he wanted. I guess it was panned because it feels like a B movie, and probably because of the terrible editing and jarring scene transitions that plagued it throughout, along with some weak acting here and there. But, see it anyway.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Shark Skin Man and Peach Hip Girl (1998)

It’s hard to find a crime drama that came out in the five-year span after Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction that wasn’t directly or indirectly influenced by them, and this goes for Japanese crime dramas as well. Case in point, Shark Skin Man and Peach Hip Girl, a wild rock n’ roll ride with a wordy title that is obviously influenced by Tarantino, although a comparison to a Guy Ritchie film might be more apt, as Shark Skin Man and Peach Hip Girl moves at a frenetic pace, and sports a cast of wild, crazy, buffoonish, cartoonish, and violent characters. However, Snatch came out around the same time, and Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels was still a year away when Shark Skin Man and Peach Hip Girl came out, so there’s no way of knowing if the influence is there. Regardless, the spirit is.

The Plot.

SSM&PHG is the surrealist story of Momojiri (“Peach Hip”, or "Peach ass" if you prefer) Toshiko (played by Shie Kohinata - an actress who doesn't seem to have done much before or after this role), a youngish girl held as an employed captive by her creepy uncle Sonezaki, played by Shimada Yohachi (Party 7) at the rundown hotel “Symphonia” in an undetermined mountainous area somewhere in rural Japan. Toshiko implements a plan to run away from her disturbed uncle and is finally on the road when she is distracted from her drive by a guy fleeing past her car naked but for his tighty whities.  This underwear clad guy is a good-natured bad guy by the name of Samehada ("Sharkskin"), played by Asano Tadanobu (Party 7, Ichi the Killer). Samehada stole some money from this yakuza group he worked for, and seems to be haphazardly fleeing without much in the way of an escape plan. Fortunately for him, and not so much for Toshiko, she rams into the pursuing vehicle filled with Yakuza, flipping their car and knocking her unconscious.  Samehada quickly commandeers Toshiko's damaged car (with her unconscious still inside), and the chase is on. When Samehada and Toshiko hit the road, bullets and knives fly, and we are introduced to director Katsuhito Ishii’s crazy cast of characters.

Chasing the young lovers is Samehada's former mentor and partner Sawada (Played by yakuza film perennial Susumu Terajima of Gonin 2, Ichi the Killer, Sonatine, and Brother), and Mr. Tanuki, played by Ittoku Kishibe (Another Battle, Violent Cop), and his crew of fashion show rejects, all with odd mannerisms and “Royale with cheese” dialogue fit for a Quentin Tarantino movie. Among the nutty collection of Yakuza crew members we have Mr. Tanuki's neurotic and apprehensive driver Sorimachi, played by Ko Takasugi, the boss's psychotic brat son Mitsuru, played by Tsurumi Shingo (Dead or Alive), strongman Taniguchi, played by Yamada Shingoro, and a baseball bat wielding guy who seems to be suffering from multiple sclerosis name Inuzuka, played by Horibe Keisuke (Party 7), and a whole host of others.

We already know pretty much up front that this band of yakuza misfits is no match for Samehada. That being said, it’s also obvious that Samehada’s lack of a plan to get away with the stolen cash all but guarantees that they’ll catch up with him eventually. Thrown into the chase is Yoshiko’s perverted uncle and his twisted little buddy turned hitman, Yamada, played with disturbing levity by Tatsuya Gasyuin (Party 7), who complicates things for both sides.

The Violent Rundown.

On top of all the other fun, there is a lot of violence in the movie, all of which I dutifully recorded for you. About 17 shootings (including two off screen), two knifings (thrown or otherwise), around four off screen beatings, and a couple on screen beatings, including one with a baseball bat, and a head bashed with a stereo. The violence is more of the black comedy variety, and has no actual impact considering all of the actors are essentially playing over-the-top live action cartoon characters, which keeps it all fun and games in the end.  Suffice it to say, director Ishii doesn't let realism get in the way of the fun.

The Final Verdict.

The move itself looks good (although with the dark and grainy late 1990’s Japanese cinema look aside), with great costumes and decidedly non-urban Japanese landscapes. The movie also includes one of the best opening credits sequences in a yakuza film, and really sets the tone for what’s to come.  In fact, I can't imagine a person seeing the opening sequence and NOT wanting to immediately go out and see this movie:

Although at its core, this is clearly a “lovers on the run” flick, Samehada clearly isn’t running scared. He’s running because it’s fun. Asano Tadanobu seems to be having so much fun in fact, he doesn’t seem to be
acting so much as just playing along with what, all in all, seems to be an excuse to dress up in designer clothes, run around playing with guns, and have Tarantino-esque conversations about nothing. It’s all mindless fun, but it looks good, sounds good, and keeps things entertaining the entire trip. IMDB gives it 7/10, audience scores on Rotten Tomato give it 81%, and critics give it 25%, so this is one of those cases where the critics are just plain wrong. SSM&PHG is probably one of my favorite black comedy/action yakuza films, and with a great rock and roll soundtrack, greatly stylized costumes, and ridiculous, cartoonish violence, I highly recommend it.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Kamikaze Taxi (1995)

The phrase Kamikaze Taxi probably conjures an image of a taxi tearing down the road in a destructive suicide attack on its target - and much like the titles of a lot of 90's Yakuza films, it seems little more than a marginally applicable title meant to sound cool and violent (Like Blood or Wild Criminal, for example).  But during this hefty three hour movie, Kamikaze Taxi takes on a much deeper meaning, although it takes quite a while to get there.  It turns out that it wasn't just a flashy title after all, and Kamikaze Taxi actually isn't just a straight up action movie - It's just not really apparent until far into the film that there is a deeper meaning to the title, you get both the figurative and the literal mixed into the pot for this one.

The Plot.

Kamikaze Taxi is the tale of Minami Tatsuo (Takahashi Kazuya from The Ramen Girl), an orphaned, amoral and aimless Yakuza protege and newly minted pimp who works for Animaru, played by aged half-Japanese former rock legend Mickey Curtis (From Takashi Miike's Agitator and Yakuza Demon), who treads a fine line between bumbling Yakuza and hardened killer (as an aside, "Animaru" is a clever Japanese concoction that doubles for "animal" in English).  When Tatsuo mixes his whore-girlfriend up with the prostitution racket Animaru has going with slimy Japanese senator Domon (Naito Takatoshi as a blatant stereotype of the far right-wing pompous and ultra nationalistic nutcase Japanese politician), it results in her death at the hands (well, foot) of Animaru when she rages loudly about how the twisted perv Domon nearly beat her whore-friend Tama (Kataoka Reiko, Gonin 2, Onibi) to death.

Tatsuo is somewhat affected by the death of his whore-girlfriend, but he is more affected by Tama's description of the huge amount of cash that Domon has apparently stashed away in his house.  Tatsuo, seemingly losing his taste for the business decides to gather a few friends together to separate Domon from his very large stash of yen, and although they pull off the initial heist, Animaru and Domon's thugs inevitably catch up with them, and they lay waste to all involved except for Tatsuo, who is able to grab a gun and make an escape with the big bag of cash.

At this point Tatsuo meets up with taxi-driving Peruvian immigrant Kantake Kazumasa (played by ubiquitous actor Yakusho Koji (13 Assassins, Memoirs of a Geisha), and Kamikaze Taxi takes a turn for a road movie, with a bit of Tom Cruise's Collateral thrown in for good measure (although unlike Jaime Foxx's character, Kantake is a willing participant).  The rest of the movie is about the friendship that develops between the older and wiser immigrant Kantake, the numb and world weary Tama, and the brash and directionless Tatsuo, who decides that because he's dead anyway, he wants to take revenge on Domon and Animaru in a suicidal Kamikaze fashion - just don't be fooled, the Kamikaze in Kamikaze Taxi is a thread that runs deeper than this - Kantake's father was a Kamikaze pilot who didn't have the guts to die in battle, and after the war, he moved his family to Peru.

Noticeably (to me anyway), unlike most movies which attempt to set up an understandable justification for the protagonists desire for revenge, Tatsuo only marginally cared about his dead whore-girlfriend, and the responsibility for the deaths of his friends falls squarely on his shoulders for roping them into the heist in the first place.  I guess it's good enough that Animaru is a criminal, and Domon is a tremendously despicable human being...?

The Violent Rundown.

In the length-to-violence ratio, Kamikaze Taxi comes in pretty low.  A neck-stomp, some beatings, some off-screen stabbings and presumable torture, a few people hit by bullets here and there, a projectile filled with metal pachinko balls, and a couple executions round out the bloody action.  All in all this is primarily a crime adventure-drama, but also a feel good road movie for a large part of it, so the violence tends to be far between.

The Final Verdict.

Did I mention that this movie is LONG?  It weighs in at nearly three solid hours, and could really have used an editing job.  It could have comfortably been cut down to two hours (a long scene with a former self-help guru turned Charlie Chaplin impersonator comes to mind as something that could have justifiably gotten the axe, or possibly even the completely incongruous, random, and out of place personal interviews with characters interspersed throughout the film), but the movie doesn't suffer terribly for the length.  It did make me think that this is what a bad Shion Sono film would probably be like - very long and sometimes meandering, but without the meticulous attention to plot, story, and detail that Sono is notorious for.

Fortunately Kantake is a good balance to Tatsuo, and despite appearing to be the typically good natured but somewhat dumb foreigner stereotype commonly seen in many movies, Kantake develops into the strongest character, and really carries the film to the end.  Japanese movies often ignore the Hollywood convention, and Kamikaze Taxi is no different.  The "Happy Ending" isn't what you'd expect, and the strange detours taken (literally and figuratively) in the film confound Hollywood convention, but it's when you get what you don't expect that things get interesting.

Despite being in need of some skilled editing, the movie does succeed as a complete package, and the use of South-American inspired flute music (apparently composed by a Japanese composer) is a welcome change from the bad rock or annoying jazz soundtracks of most Yakuza films.

Saturday, December 31, 2011

2011 Yakuza Film Awards

With 2011 drawing to a close, we are going to revisit the Yakuza movies that were dutifully examined this year with the first annual Yakuza Film Award Show.  Five movies have been reviewed this year, and each, in their own way, had something to offer.  So we'll be highlighting those offerings by awarding the best of the best with  The Yakkie - a golden statuette of Takeuchi Riki.  Nothing says ridiculous Yakuza mayhem like Takeuchi Riki, so what would be more fitting than a golden statue in his honor to award the movies in contention this evening?

It took a lot of thought and debate from the Yakuza Film Academy, and after much debate, three stabbings, and a shooting, consensus was at last reached.  The categories were developed with much thought, and the most deserving winners will go home tonight with a scowling Yakkie to put on the mantle in a display of epic awesome that they have earned with blood, sweat, tears, and a back alley mortal combat death match.  The movies in contention for the epic golden statue are all of the ones that were reviewed in 2011.

So, without further ado, on with the show.  Tonight, we have a variety of categories that touch on all of the important things in Yakuza films, like death, destruction, and bravado.  Our first category is:

Biggest Show of Epic Badassery.

There was a fight to the death for this category, as after all badassery is the staple of the Yakuza film.  However, the creative self-mutilation in the name of preserving one's Yakuza honor displayed in Tokyo Mafia: Yakuza Wars (1995) clinched the win for Takeuchi Riki.  Sure, cutting off your own finger as an act of contrition already smacks of bad-ass, but Takeuchi Riki took it a step further - he bit off his own finger.  And in the eyes of the judges, that's just beyond bad-ass.  Well deserved, in my estimation.

Best Lunatic.

Most Yakuza films have crazy people. It comes with the territory.  But outright lunatics are fewer and farther between.  Had Takashi Miike's Like a Dragon been reviewed this year, Kishitani Goro would have taken home the gold with his portrayal of Majima.  But since he's not in the running, the Yakkie for Best Lunatic goes straight into the hands of Jo Akio for his portrayal of the nameless psychotic Chinese gangster-assassin in Blood.  Without any dialogue to speak of, this lunatic killer offs his victims by suffocating them with plastic bags, all the while with a wide-eyed frozen grin.  I'm not sure if it's creative brilliance or pure uninspired hackery, but it stood out, and that's what counts.

Most Derivative Yakuza Film.

1995's Score was a heist movie in more ways than one.  It stole liberally from Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, and, oddly enough, Jean Claude Van Damme's movie Hard Target.  And when I say stole, I don't mean it was inspired by, but that it literally took everything from costumes to concepts to plot points to actual scenes, and recreated them. Normally that kind of thing will get you sued, but in the case of Score, it scored it a golden statuette.  The movie was interesting enough, if for no other reason than to see the variety of ways it recycled old movie parts from Quentin Tarrantino and John Woo, and so the win is well deserved.  After all, every movie needs a gimmick, even if the gimmick in question is that is rips off entire plots and scenes from another movie.  It's a valid gimmick.

Film with the Most Random Characters.

Katsuhito Ishii's Party 7 was short on plot and purpose, but it did have an interesting cast of eclectic characters.  Everyone from the bumbling Yakuza, Miki, to his super hot ex-girlfriend to her strange and wimpy current boyfriend, to Captain Banana and Okita Soji, to everyone else - they each bring something to the table, even if it's just a little quirk or odd manner.  Miki is the presumed main character, but everyone gets equal play, and in a movie where the plot doesn't really matter, that's important.  And each character is so random and wildly different than the next, it helps keep an otherwise pointless movie interesting.

Most Creative Death Scene.

In standard Yakuza films (outside of some of Takashi Miike's more bizarre outings), deaths are pretty standard - bullet to the head, knife to the gut, etc., but in Takeshi Kitano's 2010 Yakuza outing, Outrage, creative uses of brutality become the standard.  You've probably seen the clips on YouTube of heads smashed with rocks, epic uses of rogue dentistry, gunshots and bomb blasts, but the one stand-out kill of Outrage (Spoiler Alert) is the death of Kippei Shiina's character Mizuno.  I'll limit the spoiler by saying it involves a car and a length of rope, and it falls into the realm of "more difficult than it's worth", sort of like the bad guy in a James Bond movie using a slow-moving lazer to eviscerate the hero who is tied to a table, when a bullet to the head would be much more expedient.  Either way, kudos to Kitano for coming up with it - this is why we watch Yakuza movies in the first place.

Most Violent Film.

And now for the Yakuza Film Rundown's version of Best Picture - the most violent film of 2011... and the award goes to Takeshi Kitano for Outrage. Outrage didn't have the biggest body count of the films reviewed in 2011 - that would probably go to Blood - however Outrage displayed some of the most visceral and disturbing violence of any movie reviewed this year.  Kitano was apparently making up for lost time with his latest flick, and that's why we love it - mean spirited gangsters killing each other off in betrayal after betrayal with uninhibited brutality, and without even the morbidly comforting pretext that it was justified; that's just how these guys are, and the win is well deserved.

That's it for the Yakuza Film Rundown awards for 2011, see you next year, where we'll be bringing you even more reviews of films from the Yakuza film genre.  And more violence.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Score (1995)

If you ever wondered what would have happened in Quentin Tarrantino's Reservoir Dogs if Pumpkin and Honey Bunny from Pulp Fiction showed up at the warehouse, well Score is your answer. A total rip off of Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs (and a plethora of others), Score is the story of a group of guys in cool suits with black ties and cool shades who rip off a jewelry store, and meet up at a warehouse. Sound familiar so far? Then they are stalked by two loony killers, T.J. and Sara, who think they are wild west gun slingers. Every plot point from Reservoir Dogs aside from Michael Madsen cutting off an ear while dancing to Steeler's Wheel's "Stuck in the Middle With You" is stolen and redone (although I wish this scene had been thrown in there as well). Yes, even the plot twist at the end came right out of Reservoir Dogs. If you liked Reservoir Dogs, or Quentin Tarrantino, and want to see a low budget and somewhat goofier remix of it, Score is it.

The Plot.
Score stars Ozawa Hitoshi (Wild Criminal and Yakuza Zombie) as Chance Deluise Kawahara (While the men in Reservoir Dogs are named after colors - Mr. White, Mr. Brown, and Mr. Orange, etc., Score has names like Tequilla, Chance, Right, and Cobra) who plays an expert bank robber who has been freed from a Texas jail by "The Colonel", to do "one last job" - to steal one million dollars in jewelry.  Now, this jewelry store is supposedly in San Francisco (a freezeframe of the car's GPS device confirms this), however, the movie was (painfully) obviously filmed in the Philippines - absolutely not the USA (and the Japanese Wikipedia page for this movie confirms it).  But this is super low budget, so what can you do?

When the jewelry heist goes terribly wrong, people get shot, etc., (how else could it have possibly gone down?) and the gang meets up at a warehouse in the desert somewhere outside of San Francisco, attracting the attention of two road killers (who miraculously happen to also be Japanese - again, this is supposed to be the California desert) named T.J. and Sara.  They've been killing their way across the American West, and when they find out their targets holed up in the abandoned factory have a cache of expensive jewelry, they decide to take it for themselves.  T.J. is played by Ozawa Hitoshi's younger brother Kazuyoshi (who played Yuki in the Tokyo Mafia series).  Ozawa Kazuyoshi is good as the psychotic killer T.J. (who incidentally thinks he's Doc Holliday).  I would say he's great, but this movie is B all the way, and there isn't much in the way of great acting anywhere to be found.  Although I will give credit to Miyuki Takano, who plays "Sara" (even if according to IMDB she's never done another movie) - I've said it before and I'll say it again, no one does crazy like a Japanese chick.

From this point, the movie becomes a cat-and-mouse game - T.J. and Sara vs. Chance, Right (a slimy and shifty character played by Mizukami Ryushi from Ring 0 and Takashi Miike's City of Lost Souls) and Tequilla (Tequilla being played by Ehara Shu from Junk and Yakuza Zombie).  Ehara Shu is as good as anyone in this movie, a solid B performance for a solid B movie.  I wish I could say there's more to the plot, but that's about the sum total of everything.  All you're left with is, who is gonna survive, and who is gonna get the jewelry?  As far as B movies go, this one isn't great, but isn't bad.  I'd say it's solid, with the added bonus of getting to watch for stolen scenes from other movies.  Another major influence on this movie (I should say a major target of cinematic theft) is Jean Claude Van Damme's 1993 film Hard Target.  And I have no idea why - such an odd choice to mix with everything stolen from Reservoir Dogs. Suffice it to say, various clips from Hard Target were reconstructed in this movie.  If you don't believe me, take a look at the trailer:

Just in case you still don't see it, here are a couple side by side shots so you can see what I'm getting at.

Still don't believe me? Compare their mullet hair.  Or their names - Chance Deluise Kawahara vs. Chance Boudreaux. And as another example of another movie, Pulp Fiction:

So, as you can see, there are a lot of scenes lifted from other movies, and a lot more than I've actually mentioned.  But that just adds to the charm of this B movie violent bonanza.  Speaking of violence...

The Violent Rundown.

There's a lot of shooting and a lot of fake blood tossed about in this one.  It's hard to count the shootings, because a lot of people are hit with barrages of bullets, but my guess is somewhere around 15.  The rest of the violence is pretty typical stuff, two guys shot by arrows (Ok, so not quite typical), two beatings or so, a broken finger, a head bashed by a rock, a boot to the head, and a good old fashioned stabbing.

The Final Verdict.

Well, I've mentioned the cinematic heists from other movies, but a wise man once said "Good artists copy, great artists steal" so who am I to fault this movie for lifting scenes from other films and mashing them up into a pretty good heist movie with enough Reservoir flavor to keep me entertained?  I will admit the mixing in of scenes from Hard Target seems pretty random, but I guess in 1995 John Woo and Van Damme were still big enough to warrant stealing from, and careers have been made by copying Tarrantino, so I'm willing to overlook it all.  If you like 80's action movies, you'll probably like this one - and if you like crappy 80's music, the credits roll with what sounds like a crappy 80's song by a Japanese band.  Like most Japanese movies filmed in the 90's, Score looks like it was filmed in the 80's.  Also like most Japanese movies filmed in the 90's, the lighting is horrible (I've mentioned this on the blog before).  This is no Tarrantino or Takeshi or Miike, but it's entertaining and interesting enough to recommend.  So there you go, it's "pretty good".  I like Ozawa Hitoshi, even though this wasn't his best work, and I think I'm starting to like Ehara Shu despite the fact that he starred in the (aptly named) crap-fest Junk.  And Ozawa Kazuyoshi is not bad either.  So toss it in the ole Netflix queue and prepare to be whelmed (unless there is another word for being neither over nor underwhelmed.)

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Party 7 (2000)

Although more a movie containing Yakuza than a traditional Yakuza movie, Party 7, Katsuhito Ishii's 2000 followup to his frenetic Sharkskin Man and Peach Hip Girl is possibly still worth a look - and the latter movie is exactly why I threw this one in the Netflix queue in the first place.  Despite the sometimes negative reviews of Sharkskin Man, I thought it was GREAT, and so I decided to track down director Ishii's next movie. Party 7 has seven main characters (hence the title), all introduced during a very cool, yet very long animated opening credit sequence (almost as cool as his intro for SM&PHG).  The characters are typical Ishii characters - quirky, colorful, and talkative.  If Sharkskin Man and Peach Hip Girl was a nod to Quentin Tarantino, then Party 7 is a nod to David Lynch - if he had directed a Quentin Tarantino-written script.  Quirky Tarrantino-esque extended dialogue about nothing in particular abounds, as do strange Lynchian characters - remember David Lynch's Twin Peaks? (Or Miike's Gozu?) That's the kind of characters you find here.

The Plot.

The plot of Party 7 is simple and straightforward. Low level and bumbling Yakuza Miki Shunichiro snatched $200 million from his syndicate, and hides out at the Hotel New Mexico, a strange isolated hotel filled with quirky employees.  Soon, one after another people from his past start showing up at his hotel room door, including his hot ex-girlfriend, her pathetic weakling boyfriend, his Yakuza brother, and an assassin sent to kill them all.  Meanwhile, everything happening in his room is being watched by Captain Banana, a professional peeping tom, and his new protege, Okita Soji - although not the Bakumatsu era Samurai sword master of the same name.  This Okita Soji is a sweatervest wearing peeping tom with a bad haircut, played by Asano Tadanobu, who is the complete polar opposite of his character Samehada from Sharkskin Man and Peach Hip Girl. All that's left is to see who gets the money, and what the heck is going on with the peeping toms in the adjacent secret room.

The Characters.

I'm sure you could make some sort of highbrow argument that each of the seven characters make up a separate Jungian archetype - heck, if I was writing a paper for college on this movie that's exactly what I'd do.  But suffice it to say, each of the seven characters is distinct in their own crazy way.  You have Okita Soji, mentioned above, played by Asano Tadanobu (Ichi the Killer, Sharkskin Man and Peach Hip Girl).  I suspect if one was to watch Sharkskin Man and Peach Hip Girl, and then Party 7, they probably wouldn't even realize it's the same actor, he's that different in this.  He's a nerdy creepy peeping tom who just lost his father (AKA Captain the Yellow, in a twist of Jinglish), and seems to be trying to work through his issues, but not very effectively.  Captain Banana, his father's old peeping buddy (played by the very recently deceased Harada Yoshio), tries to mentor Okita in the ways of peeping, and one of the many engaging plot points is figuring out if Soji will follow in his father's footsteps or not.  No, I'm not serious, I really didn't care all that much.

Miki Shunichiro, played by Nagase Masatoshi is essentially the main character, possibly splitting the job with Asano Tadanobu.  He's a bumbling Yakuza with a suitcase full of cash but no idea how to proceed, and seems to be living a comedy of errors. Mitsukoshi Kana, played by Kobayashi Akemi, is the smoking hot ex-girlfriend of Miki, and apple of Soji's peeping eye, or she quickly becomes so - she's a tough and pouty hot chick who tracked down Miki in his hotel room to collect on a debt.  She is quickly followed by her current boyfriend, a bowl-cut sporting skinny nerd by the name of Todohira, played by Okada Yoshinori, and Miki's Yakuza buddy Sonoda, played by Hirobe Keisuke (Also from the director's previous - and much better - film Sharkskin Man and Peach Hip Girl), who has been sent by the boss to recover the money stolen by Miki.  Lastly, we have Wakagashira, played by Gasyuin Tatsuya, who you will also remember as yet another alum from SSM&PHG (the odd hitman character named Yamada) - mainly because he's playing the same character. He's been tasked with killing everyone.  And that's the "seven" of Party 7. There are a handful of other characters, like the strange hotel staff, the travel agent who can't keep a secret, and Okita Soji's psychiatrist, played by Yakuza film great, Osugi Ren.

The Final Verdict.

Party 7 is over 2 hours long, but it really plays like a short film - probably because the entire movie takes place mainly in two rooms.  The characters are interesting, but the story isn't - exactly how much plot, drama, and twists can you throw into a movie filmed in two rooms?  In this case, not much. (BUT on the other hand, ARAGAMI, which was also filmed in a room or two, was awesome - so it can be done). Party 7 is pointless on its own, it is more like one act of a Tarrantino movie (albeit a very long act).  Is is quirky?  Yes.  But quirky David Lynchian characters with Tarrantino-esque dialogue a movie it does not make.  Now that I think about it, it might make for an interesting stage play, though.  If you like quirky movies, and you liked SSM&PHG, you might like this - stress on the might. Despite the length of the film, it doesn't feel that long, again probably because the sets or situation really never changes.  If it felt any longer, I probably would have been forced to shut it off.  The colorful characters are great, but in this case the sum of the parts is greater than the actual whole - good characters in a less good movie.

Realistically, although it's worth a look for those interested, I can't recommend it for just anyone who isn't into quirky movies and characters. Granted, the dialogue is pretty good, and can be outright funny, but people who expect a deep plot with twists and turns, and well, a meaningful plot most of all, should probably just plain skip this one. There are little glimpses here and there of greatness, but it just doesn't hold. And that is quite a disappointment after director Ishii's fast paced, colorful and crazy music video movie SSM&PHG.  It's better than the most B of B movies like Blood or the Tokyo Mafia series, but even Wild Criminal is a little more interesting - maybe if only because it's more conventional.  Party 7 is not for everyone, but film nerds and people who like movies with quirky characters should get a kick out of it.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Blood (1998)

Takeuchi Riki's 1998 (presumably- no make that very likely) straight to video flick Blood (Wolf's Blood in Japanese) is a B movie in the same vein as Wild Criminal - part Yakuza film and part crime drama.  Takeuchi's bread and butter is playing good guys who do bad things, and the character of Nakajo Takuya fits the bill.  He's a seasoned killer-for-hire who (in the stereotypical fashion of these types of movies) kills without a thought.  But no matter how bad ass Takeuchi plays things, he always brings enough humanity to his roles to show that no matter how tough the guy is, there is some good stowed away there somewhere.  Either that or he just plain wants to hold on to a little bit of the movie hero image.

The Plot.

In the case of Blood, Nakajo Takuya was a good guy with a good girl back in highschool, when he was attacked by some punks and his girlfriend was raped.  His best friend Kamiyama Masayuki (played somewhat blandly by Takachi Noboru, and who looks kinda like Kane Kosugi) saves the day by killing one of the punks with a knife (I'm suddenly having flashbacks to The Outsiders), and the others flee.  Takuya can't let his friend take the rap for killing the punk that was raping his girlfriend, so he turns himself in to the police instead, and goes to jail, where he changes his name to Kizaki and apparently became a cold-blooded killer.  His old buddy Masayuki, free and clear of the cops, marries Takuya's former girlfriend Yuki, and goes to medical school to become a doctor - which is fortunate for Takuya, since the next time they meet he's dying in an emergency room, only to be saved by his old friend.

It also turns out that the very crime boss that is trying to kill Takuya is also a patient of Masayuki's by the name of Ri, who happens to be dying from terminal bone cancer.  Unfortunately for Masayuki and his wife, when the crime boss (played by Hakuryu) finds out that Masayuki and Takuya are old friends, he decides to use this to his advantage, forcing Masayuki to kill Takuya in exchange for the life of his wife. 

Very little in this movie stands out.  Sure, the script isn't unintelligent or bad, but take a typical Takeuchi Riki straight to video movie, toss in a few stock concepts, sprinkle with an colorful character or two, shake well, and voila.

The Cast and Characters.

Most of the characters are bland, including Masayuki, and Takuya, is well, nearly every B movie character Takeuchi has ever played.  And Hakuryu plays the crime boss Ri as simply a serious guy - no over the top craziness that you'd see from Ozawa Hitoshi, for example.  My assumption is that Hakuryu downplays everything because this is a man who will be dead in six months from cancer, but it makes for a sort of uninteresting performance.  The issues Ri may be wrestling with aren't even really tackled in this movie, so Hakuryu isn't given much to work with anyway.  I know Hakuryu has been in many Yakuza films (although none actually come to mind) but this would be one of his less impressive performances.

One standout performance, mainly because it's so over the top is the pinheaded Chinese killer with a perma-grin that works for Ri.  Unfortunately I'm at a loss as to who plays him since I can't seem to find it anywhere, but it's one little thing that helps an otherwise dullish movie.  Another oddity would have to be the grandma assassin (as in a grandma who is an assassin, not one who kills grandmothers) - I'm not sure why the director chose to put in an old lady assassin, but again, another oddity to help distinguish this movie from others.

It bears mentioning that Sugata Shun also has a small cameo at the end.  It also bears mentioning that this would have been a better movie if he had a larger role.  As an aside, one actor who definitely was NOT in this movie was Aikawa Sho - even though until I fixed it, IMDB said he was, and quite a few other sites also said he was in it.  However, a close look at the DVD case of the American release of Blood shows someone who really does look suspiciously like him.  So maybe he's in the director's cut?  If anyone knows, let me know.

There are a few good violent scenes, including Takeuchi Riki taking out bad guys First Blood style, and an ending that I suppose wants to be cool, but doesn't quite pull it off.  It is vaguely similar to the ending of Yakuza Demon, however not nearly as well done.  Which takes us to the violence tally.

The Violent Rundown.

Blood was barely average for violence.  It does start out right in the shit with three executions (and one of the victims looks suspiciously like Rokkaku Seiji, who played the chubby Assassin in Takashi Miike's 13 Assassins), and follows with 12 shootings, 2 snapped necks, 6 stabbings, one partial rape, one slashing, 2 strangulations, and someone getting blown up.  Like I said, average.

The Final Verdict.

Blood really doesn't offer much more than an uninteresting story with a light dusting of a few interesting characters and a couple scenes of acceptable violence (the coolness meter registers a slight tick, nothing stunning by any means).  It is about on par with Tokyo Mafia: Yakuza Wars as far as quality goes, but without the slightly more interesting story and better cast.  Blood is a B movie in every way, and only could really appeal to three types of people - Yakuza film fans, Takeuchi Riki fans, and people who just have to see all Japanese movies. Blood is not terrible in the same way that Tokyo Mafia: Yakuza Wars isn't terrible.  It will satisfy people who are interested in the subject matter or some aspect of it, but probably won't do much for anyone else.  Personally, I didn't hate it, but enjoyed it least of all the movies I've reviewed so far, with the possible exception of Yakuza Zombie. I can barely rank it above Yakuza Zombie as a film, but with a gun in my face and my back to the wall forced to choose, I'll put it just above, mostly because Yakuza Zombie was so much more ridiculous. You can view the trailer for Blood here.