You know within the first few seconds of Yakuza: Like a Dragon that you’re watching a Takashi Miike movie. That is, if you’ve seen his movies before, you’ll recognize all his amusing little hallmarks here: the dazzling, fast-moving cinematography, the stable of actors he draws on regularly (e.g., Sho Aikawa), the bizarre off-center humor that blooms in every scene like weeds coming out of concrete. They’re all on parade in a movie based on a videogame franchise that felt like it was itself a Takashi Miike movie—no small feat since many of Miike’s movies already feel like they’re video games. What’s the term for this? Circular one-upsmanship?
No, I haven’t played the video game, although my friend Eric has more than made up for me in that department. Although from everything I can gather, Yakuza has little enough to do with the game that it won’t matter—it draws on the game more for situational inspiration than as an attempt to make it a live-action walkthrough. Fine by me, since it is possible to be faithful to a fault: I don’t think Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children appealed to anyone but fans of the game, and I’m not sure it was designed to do anything but that in the first place.
Miike is and probably always will be the go-to guy for movies like this, partly because he’s made so many of them that there’s very little in this material that would throw him off. If anything, it’s the other way ‘round. He throws us headfirst into the story, lets us figure it out on our own, and bends the material as far as he can before it outright snaps. Hence the scene where freshly-released-from-prison Tojo gangster clan head Kiryu Kazuma delivers a beat-down on a bunch of rival thugs in the middle of a discount store. Miike uses every cinematic shorthand imaginable to tell us this guy eats, sleeps and poops cool: after clobbering the bad guys, he poses with blue fire streaming from his fists like the winning fighter in a round of Tekken. Ha, ha.
Kazuma’s story doesn’t revolve around proving he’s king of the back alleys; instead, he’s helping a little girl named Haruka find her mother. Haruka’s the sort of feisty little creature whom you know, just from looking at the way she stands protectively between Kazuma and her dog, that she is the only living being on God’s green earth who can stare Kazuma back down (or, as it turns out, work his cellphone). The filmmakers have fun with the way kids in movies like this are immune to mayhem: when she pops up during a gunfight, even Kazuma’s A-number-1 rival declares a temporary cessation of hostilities so she can get to safety.
Kazuma and Haruka form only two threads in a larger tapestry, though, which is a big part of the reason why the movie feels overloaded instead of light on its feet. There’s Kazuma’s rivals, who’re convinced he has something to do with 10 billion yen of their money going missing. There’s the two masked gunmen who stick the bank up (Miike regular Kenichi Endo among them), and we see how they spend more time arguing with each other and bitching about the air condition being out than they did actually robbing anyone. There’s the cops (Aikawa among them), who either goggle in bewilderment at the robbery in progress from the sweltering heat of a nearby shop they’re commandeered as their command post, or who stroll nonchalantly into the middle of the mess and stick their chins out. There’s a girlfriend and boyfriend, who become inspired to go on a crime spree after Kazuma’s beat-down allows them to swipe cash from an open register, and who cross paths with the weapons dealer who might have armed the wrong people. All this takes place on a hot summer night, one so humid the cast members seem to be sticking to each other.
All of these things pull together in a way that seems less inspired by the game (which was mainly Kazuma’s story) and more as a sort of storytelling dare, where Miike challenged himself to see if he could indeed make all these things take place in the same plot. To that end the story’s window dressing anyway, a corkboard onto which the director can pin various outlandish visuals or goofy character quirks. Consider Majima, the eyepatch-wearing gang leader who’s Kiryu’s most immediate rival, and who loves baseball so much he has his own gold-plated bat and holds court in a batting cage with his own “I’m in / I’ll be right back” shingle hanging on the door. Even funnier is one of his underground sources, a gun dealer who is a) quite literally underground and b) a masochist whom Majima “pays” for information by slamming his fingers and toes in locker doors. Majima’s fight with Kiryu, too, is played for laughs: after he misses a blow, he strides across the room, punches all his henchmen for succor, then returns to the exact spot he was standing and picks up where he left off.
There hasn’t been a bad-looking Miike movie yet, and Yakuza is no exception, photographed in gaudy digital nighttime colors. It’s mostly an arena in which Miike has fun with the clichés of the genre, making them orders of magnitude even more absurd than they were to begin with. But after a certain point there’s only so much to be wrung out of the material, the last half-hour or so turns into a real drag (too many of the same story beats get repeated), and I longed for the Miike movies where excess and restraint actually operated in harmony, not at each other’s expense.
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