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.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Tokyo Mafia: Yakuza Wars (1995)

Takeuchi Riki, the undisputed world heavyweight champion of V-Cinema stars in the four-part epic (well, not really epic - it's no Dune) Tokyo Mafia.  The first movie in the four part series is Tokyo Mafia: Yakuza Wars, which tells the tale of an ex-Yakuza member, Yabuki Ginya (played of course by Takeuchi) who builds his own syndicate from the ground up, first just to make a buck, but by the end of the movie, his goals become more lofty: to take over all of Kabukicho in Tokyo! (Cue dramatic music here). Kabukicho, of course being the setting of many a Yakuza film.  I haven't been to Kabukicho since 2004, but it would be an understatement to say that it had its share of strange and creepy people lurking about.

The Plot.

Ginya Yabuki is a successful criminal on the fringes of Kabukicho, dealing in whale meat and flash memory chips (apparently hot technology back in '95) with a small group of six comrades (explained later as more of a secret society than an actual Yakuza group).  But it wasn't always like this.  Yabuki used to be a member of the Yamaryu crime syndicate.  However, by cozying up to the boss he earned himself a major beat down from the 2nd in command of the Yamaryu group, Iwagami (Played by Yakuza film veteran Osugi Ren, from Sonatine, Shinjuku Triad Society, and can be seen snorting a 15 foot line of coke in Dead or Alive). After getting his face bashed in and an ashtray to the head, Yabuki turns the tables on the overzealous Iwagami by pulling a gun and shooting him in the leg.  He bites off his pinky in a spectacular show of badass atonement for his actions, and resigns from the syndicate, followed by his well meaning but not so bright lackey, Yuki, played by Ozawa Kazuyoshi (That's right, the younger brother of always awesome Ozawa Hitoshi from Yakuza Zombie and Wild Criminal).

Nowadays, Yabuki is content to make his cabbage in deals with the various criminal organizations around Tokyo, including the Chinese mafia (who have a habit of cutting off limbs of people who oppose them), and spreading the cash around the guys in his little group - including some white dude named "Smith" (who doesn't seem to speak any Japanese and never really says anything beyond  "OK Boss", but who I also swear I've seen in the same role in other Yakuza films).  But, as the money rolls in his small cadre starts to grow, and his old Yakuza connections start to get interested in Yabuki's goings-ons.  His old friend Sho Saimon helps broker a deal between Yabuki's group and the Yakuza.  But quickly the various Yakuza groups want a bigger piece of the pie, and in the words of Yabuki, "Can 70 men stand against 3,000?"

The Characters.

When Takeuchi Riki is handed a script, he seems to take his slide-rule that extends from "good-natured" to "badass", slides it in one direction or the other, and that's how he plays it - some in the biz would call that "limited range".  I prefer "consistent".  In this case, the Rik-O-Meter was cranked mostly over to the "good natured" side. Takeuchi was still badass enough to bite off his own pinkie finger, but even that show of badassery pales in comparison to many of his more over the top roles, for example, Dead or Alive or Yakuza Demon.  All in all, Takeuchi is just doin' his thing.

Already mentioned above, we have "Yuki" played by Ozawa Kazuyoshi, who is loyal to a fault to Yabuki, but also not the sharpest pencil in the box.  At first I actually thought I was looking at a young Ozawa Hitoshi, but a quick check of the DVD case, and then a foray into google introduced me to Kazuyoshi. Either way, he wasn't really given much to work with, so I wasn't able to really rank him as an actor.  But after Wild Criminal, I've come to idolize his brother Hitoshi, so I'm still willing to give him a chance.

Also mentioned already was Osugi Ren, who plays Iwagami, the shifty and conniving 2nd in command of the Yamaryu syndicate.  Typical of enemy Yakuza  bosses in Yakuza films, he has more ambitions than brains, and Osugi plays him with an extra dose of exasperation.  Sho Saimon, Yabuki's oldest friend, is played by Imai Masayuki, and really comes off as just a really nice guy - even though he's a Yakuza you don't really sense and ounce of bad in this guy, which (spoiler alert!) actually gets me interested in how the eventual confrontation between Yabuki and Saimon goes down in part 3.

The other characters that round out the cast include Ryoko, Yabuki's younger sister who is supposedly fluent in English, Chinese, and (obviously) Japanese, but in reality her English sucks chilled monkey balls - I guess the Japanese audience wasn't expected to pick up on this (and she apparently doesn't rank enough of an actress to get her name on the DVD case either).  We also have Moriwaki, played by Yamamoto Shohei, who is the head of the Teito-kai,which is the organization that controls most of the Yakuza groups, including Iwagami's Yamaryu gang.  Moriwaki can best be described as your creepy uncle who was never married, and has a fetish for young men and whale meat.  Or, let me put it this way - all of the homoerotic scenes in this movie involve Moriwaki.  One strangely NOT homoerotic subtitle did catch my eye though:

The Violent Rundown.

Oh yes, Tokyo Mafia: Yakuza Wars delivers a full plate of B-movie violence, including 5 shootings, 5 dismemberments, including Yabuki's bad-ass finger bite kejime, at least 2 brawls, at least 4 beatings, blunt force trauma, bone snapping, face slashing, and an eyeball rupture or two thrown in for good measure.

The Final Verdict.

Yakuza Wars is so straight-to-video that the DVD transfer looks like it was done from an old VHS tape, and the soundtrack is the typical goofy synthesizer jazz track that I hear a lot from these hardcore B Yakuza movies.  But, it is what it is, a total B movie, and Takeuchi Riki fans will be happy with the result.  Probably in the context of all four movies (which I haven't seen yet) I'll be able to better judge the film, but on its own, it's not terrible and it is entertaining, but that's assuming you're already a fan of the genre. I can't imagine Tokyo Mafia creating any converts, but if you like this kind of thing, I think you'll be down with me when I say, it ain't terrible.  I had to wrestle a bit with where to place it, since it's really no worse or better than Wild Criminal, but that movie has more violence, more hot chicks, and Ozawa Hitoshi, so I'm dropping it down just behind Wild Criminal.  Not sure what it says about the movie when the best thing I can say about it is that it's not terrible, but I've said it before and I'll say it again - it is what it is what it is.  Enjoy!

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Outrage (2010)

After a decade or so break from the Yakuza genre, Kitano "Beat" Takeshi is at last back at it again with Outrage - and with a vengeance.  I've never really been a "fan" of Kitano, but also never really not liked any of his movies; I've always been sort of ambivalent, probably brought on by everyone else worshiping him back in the late 90's when he started getting big in the West (My anti-hipster bent, I suppose).  Kitano's last Yakuza film, Brother, was great, and Outrage is even better.  I fell for it within the first five minutes, and was hooked until the end - granted, I had to watch it three times to sort everything out, but I guess you could say the fact that I was able to sit through it three full times and still be entertained is an impressive feat for any movie.

Outrage has game on many levels - it's a political thriller following the ins and outs of Yakuza politics of revenge and atonement between bosses, brothers, and cohorts (at least Kitano's vision of it).  It's also a solid crime drama; as the drama unfolds, the factions take sides, and when the bullets start flying, you can't help but get caught up in who's going to come out on top, and even cheer for Kitano's group of bad guys.  It's also a procedural drama - The way CSI shows you the police procedures of solving a crime, Outrage shows you the procedures of gang war within this fictional Yakuza group.  Interesting stuff.

I've gotten so used to Takashi Miike's over the top Yakuza films, and the over the top exploitation Yakuza films starring the likes of Takeuchi Riki, that Takeshi's Outrage comes across as a serious and straight drama - no cartoony violence or outrageous characters here.  And although I've read here and there opinions that some of the characters suffer from a lack of character development, the acting is more than solid enough to make up for it.  Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs is a more than apt comparison - both movies are an event, not a character study, but even still the characters are as real as any that have hit the silver screen.

Organizational Chart.

This movie is one in which it really helps to know who works for who, and where everyone sits in the hierarchy.  Fortunately for you, I put together the following organizational chart:

Click for full size

 I would say this chart covers the good guys, but like the movie poster says, 全員悪人 (They're all bad men). On the other side, you have the Murase syndicate, led by Murase played by Ishibashi Renji (Yakuza Demon, Gozu), who is trying to associate himself with the Sanoukai.  The movie follows the antagonizing, retribution, plotting, and revenge that wreaks havoc from the bottom up between these two groups, and when it's all over, you're left wondering if it was a series of random events or a very specific and complex plot that is everyone's undoing.  There are good arguments for either side, but I leave it up to the viewer to make that decision when the credits roll.  Giving any more details about the plot would be doing you the viewer a disservice (which is why I'm skipping my standard Rundown format of giving a detailed plot outline), there is a lot going on and a lot to follow, but the journey is worth it, and there is a lot of mental popcorn to chew over once it's over. Which is why I recommend a second viewing.

Cast and Characters.

As for the characters, there are some really stand-out performances (vis a vis the Yakuza genre - this isn't Shakespeare, even if it tends toward the Shakespearean).  Shiina Kippei gets mad props as the badass VP of the Otomo Syndicate, Mizuno.  After an uninspired portrayal of John Rain in the movie adaptation of Barry Eisler's book Rainfall, I really didn't expect much, but fortunately he blew away my doubts.  Shiina's Mizuno is dark, violent, and brutal, but not without a dark sense of humor, with a likable personality.  As a side note, I had thought that this type of character didn't exist in American cinema, and normally, it doesn't.  However after seeing Public Enemies starring Johnny Depp as John Dillinger, I've finally found an American movie that mirrors the characters in Japanese Yakuza films.  Dillinger is brutal and dangerous, and yet at the same time charming and personable, and reinforces the legendary image of honor among thieves. These characters, so rare in modern American films, could gut a man with a knife, and then have a beer with friends an hour later as if nothing happened; no guilt, no thought, and no sleep lost.  If you want to see an English version of a traditional Yakuza film, Public Enemies is the movie that has characters that could have transferred directly and unchanged over from a Yakuza film.  I've read that the Yakuza were inspired in clothing and action by the old American gangster films, and since Public Enemies is rife with Yakuza-like characters, I can believe it.

"Beat" Takeshi Kitano, on the other hand, plays Otomo - the same character he always plays - a laconic, world-weary and resigned Yakuza boss. Really nothing new here. If you've seen a Kitano Yakuza film before, you've seen this character. The only real difference here is that he's just a cog in the Yakuza machine, really not a maverick or outsider, he's just part of the hierarchy.

Renji Ishibashi plays the role that seems to be his typecast - the seemingly perpetually befuddled mob boss - in this case as Murase.  He's a bit of an old-school Yakuza that just can't keep up with the ins and outs of the modern Yakuza world, and seems just a little too trusting of the word and motivations of others, much to the detriment of his teeth (in the best and most disturbing dental drill scene I've come across).

All the actors, even the ones who weren't given much to work with, did an exemplary job, which really makes this an A-list movie.  Generally speaking, production value tends to be an issue with Japanese movies (read: not enough). But fortunately in the case of Outrage, everything from the quality of the acting, to the cars, suits, and locations, to the digital quality of the film itself, is all top notch.  None of the dark and grainy scenes that plague most modern Yakuza films - everything is beautifully lit, the picture and colors are sharp, and the stereo sound is crystal clear.  The only caveat is that I'm watching it on a Japanese region DVD on a Japanese DVD player on a 42 inch HDTV.  Regardless, you won't find this kind of image quality in any of Miike's Yakuza films of the past decade.  The camera work was smooth, and really fit the movie. It fit so well in fact, I didn't even notice it, it doesn't get in the way of the movie, and no camera tricks or creative angles were used to try to enhance the movie. It fit very comfortably in the background, so to speak.

 The Violent Rundown.

One thing that does stand out in Outrage is the brutality.  Characters are slashed, shot, beat, punched, and whacked with blunt objects with that happens-everyday bland attitude that is the hallmark of the Yakuza genre.  Surprisingly enough, rape, another hallmark of the Yakuza genre, is missing (but not missed).  This is just a bunch of professional bad guys killing other professional bad guys. As always, my trusty notepad at the ready, I recorded an impressive collection of brutality: Eight beatings, 2 scenes of self-immolation (and the visceral sound of box-cutter on bone is enough to set your teeth on edge), two blunt force head traumas, a facial slashing, 20 shootings, a dismemberment, a spectacularly painful scene of grievous dental trauma via dental drill, massive tongue trauma, chopsticks jammed through an ear, and the hands down winner of best death in a Yakuza film for this year: a spectacular death involving a rope and a car that has to be seen to be believed.  All in all some great, and impressively realistic and brutal violence - nothing is stylized, it is what it is - a fun time for all.

The Final Verdict.

Despite the fact that internet reviews of Outrage seem to be pretty polarized between "great" and "sucks", I can't find fault with it.  It seems that either people who didn't like it find it too violent, or are disappointed that it seems to lack the art-house angsty existentialism of Kitano's older Yakuza movies from the 90's.  But I found it to be a pure drama with nothing stylized or over the top, and rock solid overall.  Kitano seems to run a tight ship, there is no fat in this movie, it's a straight, brutal, and direct drama, and that lack of any of the crazy gonzo Miike effects or over the top characters really sets this one apart.  The theme throughout is that there is no honor among thieves;  everyone is opportunistic, and everyone is out for number one.  Even if Otomo and his crew seem to be the protagonists, they all take turns in the reprehensible acts department. There is no hero or anti-hero. Everyone truly is bad, and no one can really be trusted - Think Reservoir Dogs without Mr. White or Mr. Orange.  It's a movie that is more of an experience than a story, and yes, you need to experience it.  It's not available yet outside of Japan as far as I know, but I assume the grey market will probably have it - and when it hits Blu-Ray in the USA, that will be my cue to buy a Blu-Ray player.

I've been thinking for days how to compare this to the other movies I've reviewed.  This is the only straight drama aside from Takashi Miike's Graveyard of Honor that I've reviewed so far, and they both stand out on the top of my list.  I have to put this just above Graveyard of Honor for style, production value, and the cast of characters (after all, Kishitani Goro carried the entire movie himself, whereas Outrage has a great cast of characters, and Graveyard of Honor was a B movie at heart, even if it was an A movie).  So, as of today, Outrage gets the number one spot in the list of movies reviewed on this blog, and it has something for everyone - violence, intelligent dialogue, plot, and a sense of humor.