Saturday, July 10, 2010

Like a Dragon (2007)

Takashi Miike's 2007 film Like a Dragon (龍が如く) is definitely not a "traditional" Yakuza movie, but since it was based on a video game of the same name, that's understandable. It's a slicker, more flamboyant, and fantastical version of the Tokyo underworld than you'll find in the more typical Yakuza films. It's more along the lines of what you'd find in Takashi Miike's 2000 City of Lost Souls. The fights are over the top, and heck, the suits are over the top too, lots of alligator and snake skin, and some sweet jackets also show up throughout- the sort of thing that would only really fly in a host club in Tokyo during the bubble era.

The plot is pretty bent - there are a lot of subplots throughout - and in fact the plot isn't really apparent until the entire movie is over - a strategy or mistake on Miike's part? I have no idea. I actually find five or six distinct subplots in
Like a Dragon (well, 5 character-driven stories, and one event-driven story), so it's up in the air which one is the main plot at all. Some of the subplots don't even seem to have any business being in the movie - they don't quite tie together all that well, it's more like a few stories running concurrently, and some never really seem to meet. I had to watch the movie twice in order to sort it all out - but again, that's why I'm here; to untangle the threads.

Those silly Japanese and their movie trailers... This one clocks in at over six minutes - they have a lot to learn about the art of trailering a movie. At least in this trailer you can sort of gather plot points, unlike Miike's
Graveyard of Honor trailer, and it gives a good taste of the music - a mix of some good guitar riffs, and some sort of bluesy Jazz-Enka type mix that sounds like something Frank Sinatra would have sung (that's my best connection, there is probably someone more applicable, but anyway, it's some sort of blues-jazz thing - just watch the trailer).

The Plot.

In Like a Dragon, there is sort of an overarching plot, however for the most part, it's an eclectic mix of subplots with everyone pretty much doing their own thing. The one thing used to set the stage is the heat - it is the hottest day ever recorded in Tokyo, and it's just going to get hotter. The heat starts at 31.2C and works its way up to around 47C according to a thermometer I caught sight of later in the film - that translates to around 88F to 116F. Hot indeed.

The central core of the plot is that 100 billion yen (around 870 million US dollars according to the crappy
exchange rate I scoped yesterday at First Hawaiian Bank in Honolulu if you wanted to buy it with dollars - Endaka's a bitch) of the Tojo-Kai's money has been removed from the Tokyo bank branches that it had been housed in - some of the main subplot threads are tied to this, however others are tied to each other, and are not impacted by the missing funds at all. But it does put a damper on would be bank robbers Imanishi and Nakanishi's plans to rob one of the bank branches that had previously been holding a chunk of the Tojo-Kai's funds - it turns out that there is a little over 1000 yen in the bank after the Tojo-Kai's money was taken out - at current exchange rates, that would be about $8.70. Suffice it to say, the erstwhile robbers are not happy, and take everyone in the bank hostage.

And that's only one of the five or so subplots worming their way around in here.

As you can probably already start to gather, things start out a little convoluted, and it's only in the last 5 minutes of the movie that all the threads come together (sometimes tenuously, sometimes not at all), so I'll take you through each subplot one at a time.

  • Kiryu and Haruka.
In the fierce heat of Tokyo's Kamurocho, the main character, Kiryu, a badass Yakuza who just got out of jail, is helping a random little girl named Haruka, whom he must have just run into on the street, to find her mother. For someone who just did a stint in the slammer, Kiryu seems to be quite a nice guy - not that we're ever really given an indication of what he was actually in jail for - considering he's the good-guy hero of the story, he might have been in jail for tax evasion or unpaid parking tickets rather than extortion or murder like a more respectable Yakuza. But boy can he fight. Before the first 5 minutes are up, he's already beaten down over a dozen Yakuza attackers. And all without wrinkling his cool suit or dirtying his snakeskin boots.

Kiryu is played by Kitamura Kazuki, and I noticed two things: First, I'm used to him playing characters who think they are cooler than they actually are, rather than someone like Kiryu, who is a certified badass, and second, he's always looked so short in everything I've seen him in until Like a Dragon. When I saw him in Hitonatsu no Papa e, I could have sworn he wasn't much over 5'5". He looks like a giant in this movie, and after a quick internet search I found that he stands 5'9", and with the snakeskin boots he probably tops out at 5'11" (and he's blood type A, is 65 kilograms, and his favorite color is blue. Do we really need to know all this??). Kitamura really sold the strong, silent, unflappable type while still coming off as a nice guy in Dragon - the only other actor that comes to mind that probably would have been great would be Kato Masaya (from Agitator, Shinjuku Incident, Muscle Heat, and Brother), but I think he'd give Kiryu a harder edge than Kitamura, maybe harder than director Miike was looking for. Still, it would have been interesting.
  • Satoru and Yui.
The most disconnected plot thread of the entire movie has to be Yui (Saeko) and Satoru (Shioya Shun). Two teenage slackers with no real prospects or responsibilities aside from working at a convenience store, they become sort of a young and inept version of Bonnie and Clyde. Yui decides, after an opportunity to steal money from a cash register knocked open by the skull of one of Kiryu's would-be attackers in a store, to become a thief, and enlists the hesitant Satoru into her plan. That's pretty much their whole involvement in the movie. Why, Miike? Why?
  • Majima Goro.
Every movie needs a sadistic and insane (yet curiously likeable) bad guy to keep things interesting, and Majima is the man for the job. Actor Kishitani Goro (from the last Rundown, Miike's Graveyard of Honor) plays Majima way up as a flamboyant lunatic with a penchant for beating his subordinates with an aluminum baseball bat while rocking the Osaka dialect with a slow drawl rather than the breakneck verbal pace people from that area are known for. When he hears Kiryu is out of jail, he goes on a bit of a rampage through the Kamurocho streets hunting him down. Apparently whatever put Kiryu in jail 10 years before involved Majima, and he wants payback - although, considering it was Kiryu who ended up in jail, it isn't all that clear to me why he'd want payback for anything.

Much like Jack Nicholson in 1989's Batman, Kishitani Goro completely steals the show with his way over-the-top portrayal of the villain - although in Dragon, he's not even the main villain - he's sort of a corollary villain, and one of those somewhat unnecessary plot threads tangling up the big picture. Unnecessary as the character may be, Like a Dragon would be a completely different movie without him.
  • Park.
During all the mayhem a mysterious and silent man appears with a mysteriously wounded arm. We soon find out that he is a Korean hitman sent from Seoul to assassinate Japan's most powerful and evil Yakuza boss, Jinguu.

Pulling together the threads...

So this is where we stand - Someone has pulled the Tojo-Kai's cash out of the bank, leaving two bumbling would be bank robbers trapped in a bank with hostages but no money. Elsewhere a recently paroled Yakuza is helping a little girl find her mother, all the while being hunted down by a psychotic lunatic Yakuza with an unhealthy love of baseball. Meanwhile two kids decide to take up robbing convenience stores for extra cash, and a hitman from Korea who has recently arrived in Japan is preparing to assassinate Japan's ultimate crime-boss. I also have to mention Aikawa Sho, veteran Yakuza movie actor, in a cameo role as a police officer involved in keeping an eye on the bank hostage situation. This is the ball just as it starts rolling forward.

As things move along, the threads start to come together, although, like I mentioned above, it takes until the last five minutes of the movie to see where all of the threads were leading. However, there is so much extra story, I'm forced to wonder why Miike threw it all in there - interesting yet unnecessary characters abound. Having never played the game I can only guess that many of these same subplots show up in there as well. That being said, it does make for a more intellectually challenging movie, and gives a reason to watch again - you almost have to, to see the connections you miss the first time through. Does this make it complex or convoluted? Not sure, but the end result is a movie that is fairly interesting, with a few WTF moments, and I'm sure anyone who has played the games will enjoy it.

Speaking of WTF moments...

Biggest WTF Moment.

When Miike is playing it close to the vest, he usually reserves his biggest WTF moments for the end of the film (Dead or Alive, Graveyard of Honor), and even though Dragon is more cartoony and over the top than his more subdued films, he wraps it up with a nice WTF moment taken straight from a video game, involving Kiryu and an energy drink.

A sidenote on Kitamura's Hair.

On the extras DVD from Animeigo's release of Graveyard of Honor, Miike mentioned in an interview that Kishitani Goro was so gung-ho about playing the role of Ishimatsu as realistically as possible, he styled his hair in the traditional Yakuza "punch-perm". Miike also mentioned that many actors refuse to do this for fear that it will make them too scary or unappealing to potential female or younger viewers, and that a scary image might make it more difficult to pull in other, lighter roles in the future. (After seeing Japanese newscasters on the national news in Japan talk seriously about Kimura Takuya's hair when I was in Japan a few years ago, I can say with authority that, yes, people in Japan do seem to be hair-obsessed, and otherwise obsessed with looks, clothing, and fashion - shockingly moreso than in the USA). The reason I bring this up is because I happened upon
an interview with Kitamura on YouTube where he specifically states that although the role called for a particular ("all back") hairstyle, he went for a slightly modified version that allowed his hair more freedom of movement (i.e. bangs that fall out of place) so as to not appear too "Yakuza" to women and children - his words. A goddamn copout is what I call it.


In a movie with so many over the top scenes, it's hard to pick out highlights, however, any scene involving Majima is pretty much a film highlight by default. In particular, Majima and his gang on a rampage in Kamurocho looking for Kiryu - all to a jazz vocal soundtrack. People are beaten with bats, punched, kicked, thrown, and blasted with shotguns - one giant cartoon brawl!

The Violent Rundown.

I tried to keep track of the violence. I really did. But there were too many brawls, beatings, assaults, and fights to count. I did come up with 10 shootings though, and no drug use, rapes, dismemberments, or women getting beat up.


The cinematography in
Dragon was much more conventional than Graveyard of Honor, although there were still occasional scenes where a stationary camera was used. It turns out that, after talking to a friend of mine who majored in film study, that the stationary camera style was pioneered by Ozu Yasujiro, and is more common in Japanese cinema than Western cinema.

The Final Verdict.

Like a Dragon is a fair entry into the Yakuza genre, but isn't a traditional Yakuza flick in the sense that it's based on a video game and even has some video game inspired scenes and lots of one-on-twenty type cartoony violence that is just plain fun to watch rather than a lesson in brutality. Although entertaining enough, and interesting enough to keep my attention the entire movie, I'll put it below Graveyard of Honor. I think this could have been done more seriously and still come off as fun - again, I think to myself, what if Kato Masaya had played Kiryu? Kiryu would be a little tougher looking, a little less nice, and a little more badass. But it can't be denied that Kitamura fits the part that the tone of the film demands. All in all, Like a Dragon is more fun than the conventional, but because it goes against convention, I have to put it a little lower on my list of films. Definitely a solid entry, though, and unlike nearly all movies based on video games, this is a solid movie, and worthy of my eyeballs - not to mention much more the speed of someone looking for a comic, violent romp through Tokyo rather than a serious and morose examination of morality and humanity that the more typical Yakuza film demands. If it sounds up your alley, why don't you pick yourself up a copy?

That's it for this edition of the Yakuza Film Rundown, and I hope you enjoyed it. In the meantime, please vote on the right side of this blog on the film you want to be the subject of the next Rundown.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Miike's Graveyard of Honor - The AnimEigo Release

I recently received the AnimEigo release of Takashi Miike's Graveyard of Honor, the subject of the last Rundown - and boy am I happy!

The main disk contains the full movie with removable subtitles, and even allows you to choose the color of the subs - yellow or white (I'm sure this has been done before, but I don't ever remembering seeing it, so I'm already impressed right out of the gate) - and I prefer white - yellow just looks cheap to me, but the option to switch it is very cool regardless. The translation is thorough and excellent (better than the "grey market" version floating around - the grey market subs are a little more general and less detailed than the AnimEigo release. Although,
hey, if you understand Japanese, it's not really an issue), and in addition to the subs are occasional "culture notes" that give the occasional explanation of dialogue or other information on-screen.

Aside from the subtitle menu and the obligatory "scene selection" menu, you also get a translation of the movie credits.

The movie itself is a clean transfer, comparable to the original Japanese version, although not really super high definition, it matches the quality of the original Japanese version. The only thing really missing is a DVD commentary, which would have probably been the icing on the cake.

When I get my hands on a Japanese movie released in the USA and find subtitles burned into the transfer, and the whole disk looks thrown together with no extras, or god forbid with a dubbed English track and no Japanese option, I'm pretty much horrified, so all in all, the main disk already has pretty much all I could ask for in a Japanese movie release. This makes the extras disk all that much more of a bonus.

The extras contain a boatload of stuff to keep you occupied for a while, including copious notes on the setting and culture, a thorough biography of Director Miike, and a biography of the "real" Ishimatsu Rikuo - Ishikawa Rikio. It also throws in a few trailers of other movies, a picture gallery, and for people interested in the film making and acting process, the interview footage with Kishitani, Arimori, and Miike, as well as the "Making Of" featurette. You gain insight into Kishitani Goro's mindset and approach to playing
Ishimatsu, as well as Miike's directorial style, and this adds to the overall appreciation of the film. With the added insight gained from the interviews, I sort of wanted to watch the film again - which would make it the 4th time in a month - but I've got to sit through another showing of Like a Dragon for the next Yakuza Film Rundown, so I'll set this aside for a rainy day sometime in the future.

For anyone who wants to look deeper into Takashi Miike's brutal tale of Ishimatsu, the extras is a must have addition to the collection. The release is more thorough than one could hope for, and is on par with Criterion Collection's various releases (which are always top of the line), and so I can recommend it with only one reservation -
like I mentioned above, I just really wish Miike had sat down and did a commentary for this movie like he has with some of his others - that would have made the whole package complete. Aside from the lack of a commentary track, I really can't think of anything that is missing, except maybe an interview with the cinematographer, however I think in Miike's case, he basically IS the cinematographer, so again, it makes me think his commentary would have been great to have.

If you're up for a crazy time, you can get your paws on Graveyard of Honor at the Yakuza Film Store, as well as at the AnimEigo website.