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!

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