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.