Pornostar (1998) by Toshiaki Toyoda

An aimless drifter finds himself recruited into a violent gang struggle in this crime drama. We never learn much about the protagonist Arano (Koji Chihara), who wanders the streets of Tokyo clutching a sports bag. When he is confronted by gang leader Kamijo (Onimaru) he shows little reaction to his aggressive threats. When he later turns up at their headquarters having murdered two other gangsters, Kamijo decides rather than killing him, as they were instructed to do, to use him in their negotiations with drug-dealers and their turf-war with rival Yakuza boss Matsunaga (Tetta Sugimoto). However, Kamijo soon discovers that he is unable to control Arano’s violent outbursts and hatred for all yakuza, threatening their business and their lives.

Writer-director Toshiaki Toyoda creates a unique crime drama from the perspective of a mysterious outsider who strolls carelessly into the violent underworld of thugs, drugs and punks. We have familiar scenes of mobsters dealing with their boss; attempting to sell acid; or wondering how they are going to carry out their orders to murder the head of another crime family. But in each situation things are complicated by Arano’s nihilistic and unpredictable world view. We never discover why he hates the Yakuza so fiercely, although any number of reasons would be easy to imagine. Likewise, he remains an enigma with regards to his past and also what he carries around in his bag. It is a crime thriller that seems to be cracked wide open with the inclusion of this singular individual. The direction moves from stylised sequences to more mundane everyday moments, and the score similarly appears at moments of high drama while being entirely absent at other moments. This creates a tonal dissonance between the ‘real’ world and the stylised violence of the yakuza film in which the protagonist finds himself.

“Pornostar” delights in the mystery of its central character. The contents of the bag that he carries remain unknown throughout, lending themselves to even a metaphysical interpretation. Arano remains somewhat distant from us as the audience and we are never sure exactly what he is thinking, or what he might do next; his reasoning for joining the gangsters is similarly left unexplained. We do see him stand up to an adult bullying children, which may suggest some motivation for his actions. Likewise, his hatred of the yakuza is suggestive of some past history with them. His only concern seems to be what will be written on his epitaph, a question he asks several times throughout the film. Perhaps he is intended to be a blank slate, buffetted by those around him, lacking any will of his own. His tragedy seems to be that he is unable to walk his own path, rather forced into the violent society we see around him. The sequence early in the film when we see him appear through a crowd of people at a crosswalk is the perfect metaphor for this theme of attempting to establish a sense of individuality in a society.

Hell Dogs (2022) by Masato Harada

Goro Idezaki (Junichi Okada) is working his first shift as a patrol officer when five people are gunned down in an armed robbery. Believing he was to blame he sets out to kill the members of the Chinese gang responsible. He is later picked up by the chief of the undercover crime squad and asked to infiltrate the Toshokai yakuza group. Under the name of Kanetaka he pairs with another yakuza hitman called Muroka (Kentaro Sakaguchi). The two are assigned to protect the new head of the family, Toake (Miyavi). As he gets closer to bringing down the group, Kentaro must ensure that his cover is not blown.

Based on a comic book by Akio Fukamachi and directed by Masato Harada, who also wrote the script, “Hell Dogs” is a stylish crime thriller with flashes of nihilistic violence. The story will be familiar to fans of the genre, with an undercover cop; various double-crosses; sexual liaisons that threaten to undermine the operation; and gangster in sharp suits. The array of characters creates a sense of realism, with bosses and capos, enforcers, the mob wife, the police chief, the love interest, an assassin, call girls, and more enlivening the world, although due to the constrictions of film many are little more than plot drivers. The central relationship between Kanetaka and Muroka is well-done, although there is never any real sense that Kanetaka has conflicted loyalties, which seems like a missed opportunity to create some tension. Several side characters, in particular Noriko (Shinobu Otake) suffer from this lack of time, with their backstories largely brushed over. That being said the star-studded cast is firing on all cylinders, bringing these archetypes to life with charisma to spare. The action sequences are well-done, leaving no doubt about the brutality of these criminal regimes, though they occasionally tip into the ludicrous, such as when two people miss each other several times from point-blank range. These moments occur often enough to be considered the film’s ironic humour, or a sideways comment on genre conventions, as when a character comments on never having seen a female assassin before.

Idezaki’s redemption arc sets him on a hero’s path, journeying through hell to make amends for his past mistakes. Although he is not personally to blame for the initial crime, his determination to set things rights displays a lex talionis sense of justice. A question arises as to whether Idezaki is driven by a sense of justice, or something darker, hate, drive to dominate, or pure aggression. Bosses on both sides of the criminal divide point Idezaki at a target, which begs the question of how different they are and whether Idezaki’s life is guided more by luck than free will. This comparison is brought up again, when Muroka relates Idezaki’s story, not knowing who he is, suggesting that ideas of honour, loyalty and justice are mirrored in the police and the yakuza. One side story that is given short shrift is that of Muroka’s ex-girlfriend, who has begun a survivors group for people who have lost loved ones to gang violence. It is one of several curious ideas thrown into the mix, another being the various undercover agents who are revealed throughout and the police force’s negligence in taking care of them. A complex crime thriller with enough interesting characters to breathe life into the well-worn story of a cop going undercover in the yakuza.

The Violence Action (2022) by Toichiro Ruto

An undercover assassin is tasked with taking on a dangerous Yakuza syndicate in this comic-book crime caper. Kei (Kanna Hashimoto) works as an killer-for-hire, with dual cover as a University student and call-girl working out of a ramen shop. This compilation of Japanese pop-culture action cinema tropes extends is completed with a wacky side-kick with a bullet-proof wig (Takashi Okamura), a love-lorn fellow student who traipses after her; over-the-top gangsters led by a dad-joke loving boss; a villain possessed of supernatural martial prowess; Kei’s fellow assassin, the sniper Daria (Yuri Ota); love hotels; warehouse fights; gangland shootings; and a handsome, morally dubious love-interest.

“The Violence Action” is based on the comic book by Shin Sawada and Renji Asai. The film adaptation, written and directed by Toichiro Ruto, co-writte by Itaru Era, suffers from two major issues. One is the tonal inconsistency, shifting gears from slapstick comic action (bullet-proof wigs; aerobatic gunfights) to ultra-violent scenes (albeit with CG blood) including people being shot with a nail-gun. The puerile humour twinned with the mature tone is reflective of a trend in pop-culture of infantilisation; merging entertainment for kids and adults. Children’s films become more violent, while adult films are stripped of emotional depth. This results in what we have with “The Violent Action”, a film that never seems sure of what it is doing, other than throwing as many elements from other enjoyable films into the pot and giving it a stir. The issue with this is that you are consistently reminded of better films. The second failing of the film is in its headache-inducing editing, with hyperactive cuts that are unnecessary, giving it a music-video style that adds nothing to the drama. Unfortunately, these cuts are often use to disguise a lack of technical ability in the cinematography, the rapid cuts perhaps seen as the lesser of two evils by the director. The film suffers by comparison to “Baby Assassins” (2021), which managed to establish some degree of character for its protagonists and pulled off the comic-action vibe much better.

It is hard to know if the film is aiming for a B-movie feel, many elements would suggest this, but even if it were it still fails to create significantly outrageous set-pieces that would allow it to pass in the genre of more wacky action films. There is such a confusion of plot lines (an assassin questioning her choices; a leadership struggle within the Yakuza; a man double-crossing the mob; a love-sick teenage boy lusting after a dangerous girl; the sniper with a dark past; the hospitalized friend and dreams of revenge), all of which have been done before, and none of which are given enough time here to become the main focus. “The Violence Action” is akin to flipping through a series of action movie trailers, getting a brief impression of each one, but no consistent plot or memorable characters.

Yakuza Apocalypse (2015) by Takashi Miike

Yakuza, vampires and martial arts collide in this wacky action comedy from Takeshi Miike. Kageyama (Hayato Ichihara) is a young gang member whose sensitive skin and inability to get a tattoo sets him apart from his fellow mobsters. He is however fiercely loyal to the boss (played by Lily Franky). When the boss, who happens to be a vampire, is killed, he manages to confer his powers on Kageyama with his dying breath. Kageyama then sets out to get revenge on the group who killed him, including traitor Aratetsu (Kiyohiko Shibukawa), mysterious English-speaking vampire hunter (Ryushin Tei), a martial artist (Yayan Ruhian), and a kappa (a mythical water creature). Kageyama is aided by Hogan (Denden), a bartender who knows the vampire secret, and a swelling army of new bloodsucking demons created by Kageyama. He also hopes to protect a young woman named Kyoko (Riko Narumi) who he has feelings for.

“Yakuza Apocalypse”, directed by Takashi Miike from a screenplay by Yoshitaka Yamaguchi, is a bizarre action-comedy that attempts to juggle several distinct elements. Whether you are a fan of martial arts films, violent exploitation cinema, surrealist humour, or modern takes on the vampire mythos, there is something for you to enjoy here, though the plot and editing can be a disjointed at times. It seems to jump from scene to scene in a frenetic way, often failing to set up key emotional threads such as Kageyama and Kyoko’s relationship, or background on who characters are or their motivations. For the most part you can ignore this, and simply enjoy the excellent direction, fight choreography and blend of childish comedy and gory action. However, the discrepancy in tone does a disservice to some elements that could have worked better either as a more straightforward fantasy yakuza film or out-and-out comedy. It often comes across as a collection of inventively violent moments, such as a man having his head twisted off, or inexplicable characters such as a frog-costumed pugilist (Masanori Mimoto) and a disturbing kappa, that seem to be from completely separate films.

The film’s comparison of vampires and yakuza, both bloodsucking parasites leeching off hard-working citizens is entertaining and the splicing of the two genres works well, allowing for the unholy union of these gruesome mythologies that have built up both around gangsters and nosferatu. When it works the satire is excellent, but all too often it misses the mark by attempting to balance the relationship between Kageyama and Kyoko, or even Kageyama and the boss, with the absurdist metaphor of the main plot. While there are a lot of enjoyable moments, over the top comedy and brutal, rollicking action sequences, “Yakuza Apocalypse” seems wayward and unfocussed, with an interesting satire buried under an abundance of eccentric characters and non sequitur.

Another Lonely Hitman (1995) by Rokuro Mochizuki

Following a brutal hit on a rival mob boss, Yakuza hitman Takashi Tachibana (Ryo Ishibashi) is released from a ten year prison sentence. He is welcomed back to his former group to work with a fresh-faced new associate named Yuji (Kazuhiko Kanayama), who looks up to the older man for his role in taking out the top of the Hokushin Family. Tachibana is rewarded with a prositute named Yuki (Asami Sawaki), whom he forms an attachment too. As the group begin to get involved in drugs and a gang war with another faction, Tachibana begins to question his life and whether or not he would be happier leaving to be with Yuki.

“Another Lonely Hitman”, based on the novel by Yukio Yamanouchi and directed by Rokuro Mochizuki, is a gangster film that focusses on the aftermath of such a bloody lifestyle. From the brutal opening assassination, complete with blood and brains leaking out of the victims head, we cut to Tachibana’s post-jail attempts at redemption and rediscovery of who he is. From here the film follows two threads: the first of Tachibana’s blossoming relationship with Yuki, whose joie de vivre stands in stark contrast to the grim, remorseful Tachibana; and the second of Tachibana’s gang becoming embroiled in another turf war with a rival faction. The romantic drama and crime thriller plots run in parallel and provide plenty of action and emotion. Ryo Ishibashi gives a great central performance as the former hitman who is beginning to question his choices; while Asami Sawaki’s Yuki is entertaining as a lively, carefree call girl. Their relationship is the heart of the film and you really root for them to make it out of the world of drugs and violence that typify the yakuza lifestyle. The soundtrack by Kazutoki Umezu features a mix of sultry brass and ominous piano, again highlighting the dualistic nature of the story, striving for beauty in an ugly world.

The film’s character-driven drama, as Tachibana tries to make a choice between returning to his previous life of drugs and murder; or striking out on a new path, provides some great moments as his two world (of love and hate) collide. The yakuza are shown as shallow, incompetent, avaricious and short-tempered, with a sub-plot involving Tachibana’s superior Mizohashi (Toshiyuki Kitami) attempting to create a golf resort with a local politician. While Tachibana seems calm and collected, the other yakuza are childlike in their sadistic aggression. It is shown that Tachibana took heroin before performing his hit for the gang, the suggestion perhaps being that he required that lack of self-restraint to carry it out. The drug becomes emblematic of the filthy world of crime, while he dreams of a pure existence and escape with Yuki. Another symbolic element to the film is Tachibana’s impotence with Yuki, that seemingly ends when he makes his decision to break with the yakuza. Again, it suggests he is unable to enjoy genuine pleasure while trapped in the make-believe hardman world of the criminal gang. We also have a running visual metaphor of fish and ocean life that Tachibana watches in his hotel room. Later Yuki is forced to make a jigsaw of an ocean scene. As the two make their escape attempt at the end of the film, it is no coincidence then that it is by a harbour; with the open sea promising freedom from the tawdry iniquities of human society. An emotionally charged Yakuza film about crime and redemption, with strong central performances from Ishibashi and Sawaki.