Synopsis: All Kageyama (Hayato Ichihara) ever wanted to be was a yakuza. It was the epitome of manhood for him, to be among the gangs who extorted cash and services from citizens in exchange for protections. When he managed to find his way under the wing of the seemingly invincible Kamiura (), Kageyama thought he had it made. However, when some strangers showed up in town with a murderous vendetta on their minds, Kamiura discovered an uncomfortable truth about his favored boss. Kamiura is a vampire, and upon his destruction, Kamiura passes his curse/gift on to his favored man Kageyama. Now, the young yakuza is caught up in an increasingly weird world of fantasy and reality, stocked with killer yakuza, vampires, a kappa goblin, and the most pissed of frog ever committed to film. The result is Takashi Miike’s beyond-gonzo film YAKUZA APOCALYPSE (2015).
What. The. Hell. Did. I. Just. See.
These are the seven words that will enter the mind of a viewer of this film and they will recur at regular intervals throughout the 1 hour, 55 minute running time. When it’s over, either there will be a smile on the face as some favorite funny moments and gory as hell scenes, or there will be a disapproving frown at the “lack of logic” in the piece. I fall firmly in the former camp, since I appreciate a movie’s insane creativity and mayhem. No one accomplishes this like Miike in full on WTF mode, and YAKUZA APOCALYPSE does this with style, visceral glee, and undeniable energy.
Yes, Trista and I have returned to the seemingly endless wellspring of Miike movies for a little something different, and with YAKUZA APOCALYPSE we certainly found that. The synopsis sounded fun, the trailer was a hoot, so we decided to give the movie a go. We had no idea what we were in for, and I for one am pleased with what we got.
It could have been just another yakuza gangster picture. In the US, the gangster picture has a long and storied history in cinema. The genre is established through plenty of pictures dating back to black-and-white greats such as SCARFACE (1932). Even the one off hit comedies appearing since then (such as 1999’s ANALYZE THIS) tend to treat the subject with respect. Some of the sterling examples of modern American gangster pictures include Martin Scorsese’s GOODFELLAS (1990), which envisions generations of crime families doing their dirty deeds and taking care of business, as well as the granddaddy of them all: Francis Ford Coppola’s THE GODFATHER (1972), a film that set the bar pretty high during the glorious Hollywood days of the 1970s. Brian dePalma’s SCARFACE (1983) is the odd man out, a rampaging picture that builds to a truly grand guignol shootout and serves as an exercise in the 1980s excesses for better and for worse. Like the dePalma picture, Miike’s movie has nothing respectable to say about the yakuza despite narration near the beginning of the picture that pays homage to GOODFELLAS. Instead of being a respectful gangster flick in the vein of Coppola’s masterpiece, YAKUZA APOCALYPSE has decided to throw all the movies I mentioned above into a single blender, added in doses of fantasy, comedy, satire, and horror before hitting puree.
The film is a return to the sorts of crazy films Miike made perhaps twenty years ago. The creativity to the proceedings is unparalleled. This is evident in the opening flashback scenes of an unstoppable yakuza wading through an absurd number of enemies with a flashing sword, receiving damaging blow after damaging blow but continuing to fight as though driven by nothing less than half a dozen demons, only to reveal his vampiric nature after the fighting is done when he bites the neck of a woman who loves him. It’s there in the finale, when a frog-mascot (the sort that might appear at a store opening or sporting event) as big as a kaiju descends upon the city for final vengeance only to face the next generation of weird monster-yakuza defenders. Needless to say, the movie covers a lot of terrain. We have guns and swords galore, odd costume choices, the very real attempt (perhaps madness induced) to grow civilians from the ground like plants, a spreading chaos of the put upon civilians turning into a vampire yakuza army, to a big showdown between the movie’s ultimate badasses, which is pretty much two men sharing an unspoken agreement that they will punch each other in the face until one of them drops . . . There’s even a vampire hunter dressed in Jacobian era finery wielding a magic gun and who speaks only English and is yet understood by everyone and understands everyone. There’s an Indoensian guy who looks like a geeky tourist, but who knows some serious kung fu. There’s a chubby otaku (nerd) boy who becomes a vampire badass with an ax to grind (as well as an actual ax to split yakuza skulls with). What I have mentioned only scrapes the surface of the film’s strange but compelling visuals.
The movie is all about one-upmanship and raised stakes. The velocity starts fast and it only ratchets up with each scene. Little to no time is wasted on silent moments or calmness. Even a typically sedate sequence such as the experienced mentor teaching Kageyama the basics of his powers (yakuza taste terrible, citizens taste wonderful, try not to kill anyone) is not lingered upon. Information is delivered with visuals that are made funny by how serious everyone is taking them, and the film zips along from one carnage set piece to the next. Though the description cartoonish (or would that be anime-like?) comes to mind when trying to encapsulate this picture’s sometimes zany antics, I do not intend that as a pejorative. This is a bizarre, adult cartoon that manages to find humor and zeal in the least likely of places. Think Ralph Bakshi’s best works. Especially since so many of the characters do not see this as a joke. The movie offers no winks to the audience. Instead, it just has taken-to-11 levels of craziness carrying on with everyone treating it as absolutely normal, which only shows off how silly people can be.
It is in its serious approach to ludicrous topics where YAKUZA APOCALYPSE ultimately succeeds. This is a questionable level of success for some viewers, I am sure. Not everyone is comfortable letting a mad storyline yank them in unexpected directions—after all, a yank is like a tug with extreme levels of violence. Therefore, not every audience member is going to appreciate the balls out insanity of this flick. It is firmly targeted at cult classic status instead of mainstream success, and I am certain the cult that has sprung up around it will scream its praises loud and clear. I should know, I seem to be among their throng . . .
If you want a laugh, if you want to shake your head with disbelief not only at what you just saw but also with what you are seeing currently, then YAKUZA APOCALYPSE is recommended watching. If you want something with more . . . traditional logical sense along with its mayhem? Well, look to Miike’s other pictures. Perhaps BLADE OF THE IMMORTAL (2017) or 13 ASSASSINS (2010) would be more your thing. This is a fiery meteor of a flick blazing away as it enters atmosphere on a b-line trajectory for your home town, ready to explode on impact. I for one am glad movies like this still get made with this much passion.
Next week, we will jump back to a more domestic scene and take a look at one of the oft overlooked monster flicks in New Line’s catalog: CRITTERS (1986). Yes. CRITTERS. The rolling balls of furry death from another world laying siege to a small town and slaking their appetites on human flesh. Will this be the first of a 4-part retrospective on the subject? Maaaaaaybe. In fact, quite possibly. CRITTERS is available in DVD and streaming copies. Not Blu-Ray though. That makes this a sad, sad day for Blu-Ray . . .