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.)