Dir. Takashi Miike, Japan, 2015, 125 mins
Japanese genre auteur Takeshi Miike has directed some pretty bizarre films in his prolific career, but his latest, the comedy gangster vampire movie Yakuza Apocalypse, has got to be his most barking mad work to date: it makes Zebraman look like a documentary. A martial arts enforcer in a giant green frog suit and a mafia knitting circle are just two of the more kooky pleasures of this increasingly unhinged romp, which mixes surreal humour with loud, bone-crushing fight sequences.
It would be wrong to look too hard for seriousness in a film like Yakuza Apocalypse.
Asian fanboys and Miike groupies will rise to the bait as ever, but Yakuza Apocalypse – the most purely enjoyable of the director’s films for years – will also have some traction among eclectic general cinemagoers looking to save on drugs by taking a film instead. Often laugh-out-loud funny, even (or rather especially) as the silliness escalates in the final half hour, this is a cult cineaste’s treat which rampages gleefully through a china shop of genre conventions. Only killjoys who demand narrative coherence will fail to respond - and there were few of those in the audience at the film’s Cannes Quinzaine debut, where is was given a rousing reception.
Opening in classic Miike action mode with a raid on a rival gang led by seemingly bulletproof yakuza boss Kamiura (Franky), the film adopts the point of view (and occasionally the voice-over narration) of Kamiura’s faithful lieutenant Kageyama – played by ruggedly handsome Hayato Ichihara, a kind of Japanese Tom Hardy – who is ragged by his fellow mobsters because he can’t get a tattoo due to his sensitive skin. Kamiura’s miraculous survival secret is revealed only when he is decapitated in an ambush by two mysterious avengers: he’s a vampire, his severed head announces, before feasting on his lieutenant’s jugular.
A workaday genre duo would have been content to run through the yakuza/vampire permutations, but that’s not the style of Miike and his screenwriter Yamaguchi, who worked as assistant director on Zebraman 2. Vampire conventions (like the one about not going out during the day) are blithely ignored. In fact, as Kageyama’s thirst leads to an unfortunate multiplication of vampires among non-yakuza ‘civilians’ (whose blood, we are told, is far more nutritious than that of the mobsters), we move into hybrid zombie/vampire territory, with murderous fanged hordes roaming in packs looking for fresh blood. Some Spaghetti Western imagery, musical whistles and guitar licks, are thrown in here and there for good measure.
Indonesian action star Yayan Ruhian from The Raid is pitched into the mix on the flimsiest of narrative excuses: accompanied by a coffin-toting Puritan who talks only in heavily accented English, his character Kyoken is there to enforce the yakuza clan’s return to an international crime syndicate they exited from some time previously. After dispatching boss Kamiura, he becomes neo-vampire Kageyama’s chief nemesis.
What storyline there is plays second fiddle in Yakuza Apocalypse to a succession of set pieces featuring characters and devices that seem dreamed up by a committee of primary school kids. A beaked ‘kappa goblin’ warrior in a cellarful of knitting mobland prisoners and a dripping water sound emanating from the head of a female yakuza boss whose left ear soon begins to hose all and sundry with an unexplained milky substance are just two of the more out-there items.
But all pale into insignificance when the giant frog warrior arrives – literally, a man in a big green nylon frogsuit, the kind that might greet kids at a supermarket or theme park. Glorying in the sort of low-fi special effects that would look cheap even in a Roger Corman movie, Miike’s hallucinogenic new cinematic vision careers towards its final vampire yakuza, monster frog and long-haired Indonesian enforcer showdown in a crescendo of body blows and blood showers.
If there’s a serious theme hiding behind all this enjoyable, only occasionally wearing nonsense, it’s the fragility of the vampiric yakuza clans in a recessionary Japan that no longer falls for their schtick: like Tinkerbell, they risk extinction because ‘civilians’ simply no longer believe in them. But it would be wrong to look too hard for seriousness in a film like Yakuza Apocalypse.
Production companies: OLM Inc in association with Django Film, Nikkatsu Chofu Studio, Backup Films
Producers: Shinjiro Nishimura, Shinichiro Masuda, Misako Saka
Screenplay: Yoshitaka Yamaguchi
Cinematography: Hajime Kanda
Editor: Kenji Yamashita
Production designer: Akira Sakamoto
Music: Koji Endo
Main cast: Hayato Ichihara, Yayan Ruhian, Riko Narumi, Lily Franky, Reiko Takashima