Saturday, December 18, 2010

2010 Yakuza Film Wrap Up

It's time to wrap up 2010 with the best and worst of the Yakuza films reviewed this year.  Six films have been reviewed this year, and here is the list:

6. Yakuza Zombie.  A bumbling low-level Yakuza who is double crossed and killed is reanimated by the spirit of a vengeful Yakuza.  It wasn't an outright obvious comedy, but it was pretty preposterous, so I'm assuming it's a comedy, but you just can't tell;  that worked against it - it's too ridiculous to be a completely serious movie, but there is very little straight comedy, so it's hard to figure what to make of it.  A solid cast, a goofy plot and low budget (as in, I couldn't tell if it was made for video or made for network TV), Yakuza Zombie pulls up the rear for the Rundown's reviewed films.

5. Another Lonely Hitman.  Not the worst I've seen this year, but the painfully slow pace really hobbled this one for me.  Short on action, long on non-action - it's trying to be a hipster art film when it's just a Yakuza film.  I don't really know if the Yakuza genre lends itself to artsy character study, but it didn't really do it for me - in this case, it didn't put itself in one genre or the other strongly enough, so you're sort of left with a Yakuza film that has long scenes of stage-setting and character study.  Because it's one of the bridges between the old school and new school of Yakuza films, it's worth a look, but don't get your hopes up too much.

4. Wild CriminalWild Criminal straddles the line between crime drama (like Gonin) and Yakuza film - no stereotypical scenes of Yakuza in their Yakuza office sitting around smoking and yelling at eachother across a table, this is mostly the outer reaches - the Yakuza-run clubs and casinos.  As usual both Ozawa Hitoshi and Riki Takeuchi deliver the goods, and there is a good twist at the end that I feel like I should have seen coming, but didn't, so kudos to the director or scriptwriter there.  Basically this is a standard Yakuza movie with a crime-drama bent, and probably easier for the average movie buff to digest because there aren't as many cultural quirks to confuse the viewer not familiar with Japan.

3. Like a Dragon.  Takashi Miike does his thing again with a Yakuza movie based on a video game, and although this is normally a recipe for disaster, Miike pulls it off almost brilliantly (note: almost), with the help of a bad ass Kitamura Kazuki, and the absolutely over-the-top Kishitani Goro.  Kishitani is the biggest show stealing bad guy since Jack Nicholson in the original Batman, and maybe even more so.  This one has respectable production value, although it looks like nearly all of it was filmed on a soundstage, but that doesn't take away from anything - what does is the ridiculously convoluted plot.  I had to watch it three times to get it all straight - I suppose if you've played the videogame it already makes sense, but for the rest of you, you can read the Yakuza Film Rundown review, where I break it all down.

2. Shinjuku Incident.  I'm sure this has been described as "Scarface in Tokyo", and that's right - Shinjuku Incident is a near epic.  Having seen Jackie Chan in so many goofy roles I was blown away - maybe that's my fault for not seeing any of his serious stuff before (and I'm sure neither has any other average Joe, so fuck off), but Jackie was brilliant, as was the entire Chinese cast.  Surprisingly Masaya Kato brought very little energy to the role, and after seeing him in movies like Brother, Blood Heat, and Agitator, I expected a lot more, because I know he can deliver - so who gets the blame? The director? Masaya himself?  Not sure, but it was passable but not above and beyond like I would have normally expected.  I was also a little disappointed that Jackie Chan wasn't more of a bad guy, in the end he held on to his good guy image.  That aside, Shinjuku Incident was a great movie, and I watched it three or four times in the space of three weeks while writing the original review - it was that good.  Rent or buy, do whatever you want, just see it.

1. Graveyard of HonorGraveyard of Honor, directed by Takashi Miike, deserves the number one spot - it's brutal, violent, disturbing, and damn near perfect.  I first saw it in Japan in 2004, and watched it three times before returning it to the rental place.  Kishitani Goro owns the role of Ishimatsu in a terrifying display of what should be an award winning example of method acting.  Not only is he completely believable as a brutal psychopathic Yakuza, and composes the nuances of the near-emotionless demon perfectly, but he becomes Ishimatsu.

The rest of the cast can't be sold short, either - Miki Ryosuke is a great supporting actor, and Arimori Narimi is perfect as Ishimatsu's pathetic and abused lover.  If you only see one Yakuza movie in the next 12 months, it should be Graveyard of Honor - It is a grand display of Takashi Miike and Kishitani Goro's skills as filmmaker and actor, respectively.  Graveyard of Honor has so many underlying themes and nuances, it takes multiple viewings to take them all in.

Some probably see it as little more than a showcase for violence, but in the big picture, there is so much more, so get it on Netflix or buy it now!

That's the wrap up for 2010, see you next year!

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Wild Criminal (1999)

The subject of this Yakuza Film Rundown is Wild Criminal.  Released in 1999, and presumably straight-to-video, Wild Criminal falls into the low-budget exploitation category that contains movies like Sunny Gets Blue and Zero Woman.  But, hey, no one does low budget straight-to-video Yakuza exploitation like Takeuchi Riki, and in this Yakuza Film Rundown, he does it again in Wild Criminal. Granted, he gives up most of his screen time as a secondary or supporting lead to Ozawa Hitoshi (From the last Rundown, Yakuza Zombie, as well as Dead or Alive, and Gozu), but it's still billed as a Takeuchi film.  The reality is, he has less screen time than any other actor - the top billing really should have gone to Ozawa, who plays a mean-spirited and despicable bully of a Yakuza named Suwa.  After watching Ozawa in this movie, I understand a little better why the Yakuza are so impressed with this actor (per the Japanese Wikipedia article) - Ozawa owns the part of Suwa, bringing a crazy and abusive presence to life on the big screen in a brilliant display of method acting - the random shoving, slapping, and abuse of his co-stars looks so natural and unrehearsed that I wouldn't be surprised if he was making it up as he went along.  He's an angry ball of energy in constant motion who seems to be tweaked on something, and is completely unlikeable in every way imaginable.  He's definitely a psychopath, but a different breed from Ishimatsu Rikuo in Miike's Graveyard of Honor.  Where Rikuo is an ice cold emotionless psychopath, Suwa is an explosive and angry bully who beats women and minions with aplomb, but is a coward at heart, and I'll again give Ozawa credit for making Suwa so utterly and completely scummy.  It's a performance that just has to be appreciated.  Also holding a major role is Sugata Shun (Ichi the Killer, Kill Bill, The Last Samurai, and Graveyard of Honor), a Yakuza film veteran and personal favorite of mine, who plays crooked police detective Tadokoro.

Regardless of my opinions on who should get top billing, and besides the fact that Riki Takeuchi does get top billing, the heroes (or in this case heroines) of the story are Yuki and Tomoyo, played by Nomoto Miho and Nakamura Aya, respectively.

 Yuki and Tomoyo are polar opposites in personality, but two sides of the same coin.  Tomoyo is the stereotype of the weak Japanese female who has to rely on men for everything (even a ride, since she doesn't know how to drive), and pretty much trades her body for her safety, or at least her life.  Yuki, on the other hand, isn't necessarily a bad ass bitch, but someone who's been hardened by life and refuses to rely on anyone.  By all rights they should probably be repulsed by each other, but they end up strangely attracted, probably finding something in the other that they lack in themselves.  This pairing of opposites doesn't fuel the movie, and I don't think there is much of a preachy moral about finding strength in difference either.  It's just a background element of two ladies who team up to ultimately kick some ass.

Goofy synthesized elevator jazz aside, the above trailer is put together in the Japanese tradition of not even giving you an inkling of the plot or characters - just random scenes.  I've said it before, and I'll say it again - the Japanese can't do trailers.  Apparently it's an art that is beyond them. Which is ironic since the Japanese usually take something established and make it better. If anyone has any insight, I'd appreciate it.  General trailer crapiness aside, the blonde chick is Yuki, the brunette is Tomoyo, and the perpetually angry guy slappin' around bitches is Suwa.  Takeuchi Riki makes an appearance in the trailer as well, because a trailer without Riki is hardly a trailer worth seeing.

The Plot.

Wild Criminal opens with Udo (Takeuchi Riki) meeting some shady individuals for a trade.  Turns out he scammed his yakuza group out of a considerable sum (about 4 million US dollars worth) of bearer stock certificates (so presumably he's trying to trade them for cash).  Thing is, these criminal swaps never go as planned, and Udo kills the two men in a scene of gunfiring badassery, only to find out they were also planning on double-crossing him, leaving him still with no cold hard cash.  His girl Tomoyo is there as a witness, however, unbeknown to him, there is a second witness, Yuki, who had a short time earlier been raped, beaten, and left in the trunk of an old car (after all, rape is a staple of the Yakuza genre). Tomoyo stumbles across her while the swap is taking place, and closes the trunk probably to keep her from being shot. That's the first meeting of Tomoyo and Yuki, but it won't be the last.

A month later, Udo is long gone, and Tomoyo has now become the property of his former yakuza gang member, Suwa, to be slapped, spit on, or abused to his heart's content - after all, as far as Suwa knows, she was a willing accomplice and knows where Udo is hiding out.  And, like any good accomplice, Tomoyo claims stupid, which probably keeps her alive.

It's at Suwa's club where Tomoyo stumbles on Yuki who is employed there as a blackjack dealer.  Tomoyo quickly attaches to herself to Yuki in a manner that can be best described as muriyari. They become a begrudging and mismatched odd couple, who eventually hatch a plot to rip Suwa off for a few million dollars.  That's about the extent of it - it's a fairly straightforward crime drama, and what results is a pretty intelligent plot, some great Tarantinoesque (or Takeshi Kitanoesque) violence, and what should be a cliche twist ending which actually caught me by surprise.

A Note About Takeuchi Riki.

Just like how Harrison Ford always has to play the good guy, Takeuchi Riki has made a career out of being a badass.   Takeuchi Riki's rider probably reads something like "IF you want Takeuchi Riki in your movie, the following parameters must be met: 1. Must scowl in at least three scenes. 2. Must kill at least 5 people. 3. Must ride a motorcycle in at least one scene. 4. Must carry, if not shoot, a pump action double-barreled shotgun. 5. Sunglasses, leather trenchcoat, and unlimited cigarettes must be supplied.  6. If he is to be killed, it is to be the most epic death scene ever put to film."

So essentially my image of Takeuchi Riki has been that he is an ultimate badass who leaves spent shotgun shells and testosterone footprints wherever he treads. And that's badassery in the Steven Seagal in "Hard to Kill" sense of the word.  That was, until I started scouring Youtube for Takeuchi Riki videos, and after seeing things like his music videos, commercials, variety show appearances, and interviews, my image of him changed drastically.  He actually seems like a somewhat dorky guy who may or may not take himself too seriously.  He definitely doesn't come across as the big screen badass that we all know and love.  Which made me realize, sure, he spends most of his time in B-movies, but if such a non-badass can play such a convincing badass onscreen, he must actually be a good, if not great, actor.  Picture Edward Norton, who comes across as such a badass in movies where he plays a badass, but such an unassuming nerd during interviews.  Thus, mathematically speaking, if Edward Norton is a great actor, then Takeuchi Riki must also be a great actor - end of story.  So someone go steal William Hurt's oscar and put it in the more deserving hands of Takeuchi Riki.

The Violent Rundown.

If nothing else, Wild Criminal has shootings in abundance - six - and these aren't shootouts, just good old-fashioned face-to-face executions.  There is also one up-close headshot to add to the list.  Suwa also does a number on the female element, which includes punching, kicking, slapping, shoving, and spitting, and when combined with the rest of the beatings (including beating a corpse), there are about ten beatings administered.  Takashi Miike seems to be famous for having violence against women in his movies, but director HIDE has even more in this one.  Other than that, we're looking at one or two rapes, depending on your definition, as well as one good fight.  All in all to be expected.


Wild Criminal was filmed in the standard Yakuza B-movie exploitation.  A minimum of camera tricks, and all of the standard camera angles.  Although I did notice that Ozawa Hitoshi did vomit directly on the camera ala Another Lonely Hitman.  There were a few camera highlights - camera shots over the shoulder of the shooter, and a few interesting angles when people had guns in their face.  One thing of note: Apparently the Lighting Technician Guild of Japan was on strike through most of the 1990's - this film, and a lot of other ones filmed around the same time, are VERY poorly lit.  Such a strange contrast from the Japanese epics of the fifties and sixties which were beautifully and masterfully lit (Think Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai, for example). Fortunately as we start the 21st century, someone decided to turn the lights back on.

The Final Verdict.

Although Wild Criminal is truly a B-movie exploitation, it straddles the line between Yakuza film and crime drama effectively, and even has a possibly expected, but still satisfying twist at the end.  It plays out much more like a Takeshi Kitano film than an over the top Takashi Miike film, but the measured pace really works here.  And for anyone who can appreciate good acting, Ozawa Hitoshi as Suwa can't be missed.  As for Takeuchi Riki, well, he's Takeuchi Riki, and delivers exactly what you'd expect, and nothing more or less.  Wild Criminal is worth a look for anyone who likes crime drama and colorful characters, just don't go in looking for an epic. It's a B-movie, but a solid film nonetheless. I put it just above Another Lonely Hitman due to more action and a faster pace, but below Like a Dragon, mainly for the lower production value.  You can find a little more info on IMDB (which I spend the last half hour adding info to - so when you read this, it still might not be updated).  Although it isn't available on Netflix, you can find a copy at the Yakuza Film Store, powered by