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 Criminal. Wild 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.
Graveyard of Honor. Graveyard 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!