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.

Tokyo Dragon Chef (2020) by Yoshihiro Nishimura

Two former Yakuza start a new life opening a ramen restaurant in this lighthearted musical comedy about the joy of food. Recently released from jail, Tatsu (Yoshiyuki Yamaguchi) is met at the gate by his former associate Ryu (Yasukaze Motomiya), who tells him their crime family was wiped out by a mysterious figure with a ‘third eye’ named Gizuma. Ryu is now working in a mobile drinks stand and suggests the two of them start a Chinese restaurant. Old rivalries soon resurface when fellow Yakuza, the Ozawa brothers Kazu (Kazuyoshi Ozawa) and Jin (Hitoshi Ozawa) start their own ramen stand over the street. The two restaurants, one helped by ramen-loving schoolgirl Kokoro (Rinne Yoshida) and fortune teller Rio; the other by extraterrestrial-like insatiable YouTuber Mimi (Saiko Yatsuhashi), find common cause when the Yakuza-hating Gizuma appears on the scene intending to destroy both.

“Tokyo Dragon Chef” is a divergence from writer-director Yoshihiro Nishimura’s previous films, foregoing the gory obscenity that he is best known for (in films such as “Tokyo Gore Police” and “Meatball Machine”). Here we have a fun premise, with these charismatic gangsters-made-good, that provides for plenty of laughs in the ageing Yakuza getting riled up over ramen dishes, using their rough personas to succeed in this somewhat less violent industry. The cast are enjoyable and clearly having a lot of fun with their over-the-top credibility-stretching characters. The pop soundtrack, with music by Kotaro Nakagawa, keeps things upbeat and there are some enjoyable musical numbers that give the film a whimsical feel. The Tokyo of the film is one where the line between fantasy and reality is blurred, with rather far-fetched backstories, and characters who are straight from the pages of a cartoon or comic book. A lot of the comedy is character based, helped by the superb performances from the whole cast, with the Yakuza’s tough-guy images juxtaposed against their new roles as ramen chefs and waiters, or Mimi’s bizarre behaviour scoffing down bowl after bowl of ramen. The numerous shots of food, preparation and eating, will make you salivate with the delicious looking platters.

The film’s comedy is underscored by a heart-warming message about the power of food and the hope of redemption. The former Yakuza find a new passion in ramen, putting their energies into creating the best dishes, their conflicts now being resolved peacefully with noodles rather than knives. Both Tatsu and Kazu are given brief backstories about their childhood memories of their mothers, closely tied to gastronomic reminiscences, that give us an insight into the calming power of food. There is also a commentary on social media influencers and the way such communication can bring people together. In contrast to the sense of friendship and community engendered by the ramen restaurants, uniting people through love of food and company, Gizuma appears is a young man entirely fixated on the pursuit of wealth. The wearing of masks shaped as a single-eye perhaps speaks to this narrow-sighted approach to life, one that values money over fun and friendship. A slight yet enjoyable film and an interesting entry in Nishimura’s filmography.

Yakuza and the Family (2020) by Michihito Fujii

A poignant story of a young man’s involvement in a crime family told over two decades. In 1999, Kenji Yamamoto (Go Ayano) attends the funeral of his father, who died through drug abuse. Shortly after he finds a surrogate parent in the figure of Hiroshi Shibazaki (Hiroshi Tachi), who recruits him into his yakuza organization. 6 years later Kenji has risen to be one of the most respected members of the gang, and a personal favourite of the boss. He falls for a club hostess named Yuka (Machiko Ono) and looks out for the son of a murdered yakuza member, Tsubasa. Following a lengthy jail sentence for murder, Ken returns to the outside world in 2019 to find things much changed for those around him, discovering that Tsubasa (Hayato Isomura) has become tangentially involved in the same world as his father.

Writer-Director Michihito Fujii creates a stylish crime thriller in “Yakuza and the Family”, an emotional character-driven drama punctuated by flashes of violence. Languid shots of sunsets and cityscapes give way to creative handheld camerawork as we are plunged into the viscerally brutal realities of gang life. The sleek visuals of Keisuke Imamura’s cinematography don’t overpower the drama, but allow the story to slip in and out of the romanticised aesthetic of the Yakuza genre. Taro Iwashiro’s score also compliments the story perfectly, capturing the harsh exterior and underlying fragility of the characters. The large and impressive cast give a captivating ensemble performance. Go Ayano’s “Ken” is a deeply vulnerable and conflicted character, circumstance having driven him into a life of crime. There is a childlike aspect to him to, most obvious in his faltering relationship with Machiko Ono’s Yuka. Ono gives a powerful performance as Yuka, dragged into the orbit of the yakuza largely against her will, defined by her relationships with Ken and her daughter, but with a strong sense of self preservation and steely resolve. Ryutaro Ninomiya (director of “Sweating the Small Stuff”) also features in a small yet important role as Ohara. Hayato Isomura, as the older Tsubasa, is one of the most sympathetic characters, as we see him falling into the same trap as Ken while searching for a father figure.

“Yakuza and the Family” is a film about the paternal and fraternal bonds of organized crime families, but also about the need of young men for father figures. Both Ken and Tsubasa both appear as drifting, directionless, characters, lacking a role model or figure to turn to for support or comfort. Their search for acceptance, perhaps even love, drives them to the overemphasis of their masculine aggression and pride, Ken through becoming a vicious Yakuza member, and Tsubasa becoming a fighter. The yakuza are often referred to as a ‘family’, but we see here that it is a twisted, house-of-mirrors version of family, providing the members with only a poor simulacrum of a genuine parent-child relationship. The film ends on a bittersweet note, highlighting both the dark side of crime, yet also the importance of kindness and charity and the impact it can have on others. A superb character-driven Yakuza drama with an excellent cast that is well worth a watch.

Smoking (2018)

An unlikely group of assassins work together to give various petty gangsters their come-uppance in this blackly comic crime series. Sabe (Ryo Ishibashi), Hifumin (Kaito Yoshimura), Goro (Tomomi Maruyama) and Haccho (Nobuaki Kaneko) are four homeless individuals who provide a service to those with the money to pay; namely killing gangsters and other ne’er-do-wells. Their gimmick is that Sabe, who has some medical training, flays the tattoos off their victims backs, delivering them as grisly proof that they have eliminated their target. As the series progresses we learn that Sabe was formerly employed by a shady organization known as The Cleaner, who also specialised in underworld killings. The other three members of his team, the mute teen Hirofumin, intelligent and kind; the heavyweight prize-fighter Goro, whose terrifying proportions strike fear in their victims; and the sharply dressed Haccho, each have their own tragic backstory that brought them together one by one to form this team known as “Smoking”.

The story is based on a manga by Iwaki Hiroshi and its origins show in the colourful characters and outrageous set-ups for each episode. The four leads are almost heroic archetypes, a sort of super team all bringing their unique skills to the mix. The series is twelve episodes, each under a half an hour, in which they are usually presented with a new job to undertake. As the series progresses we learn more about each character, and the over-arching story of The Cleaner and Sabe’s past bring some unity to the story as they are all drawn into a violent showdown with this gang. There is plenty to enjoy in “Smoking” if you don’t take things too seriously. The set-ups are ridiculous, taking real world criminal activity and exaggerating it into something more fantastical. Examples of this include a gang that has an entire hospital full of elderly people who they have hooked on drugs; or an underground martial arts betting ring, where the fighters are also pumped full of narcotics before beating each other to death. The idea of peeling off the tattoos of each victim is a unique touch, showing that our protagonists are just as brutal as the irredeemable gangsters they take down. The four leads are perfect in their roles. Ryo Ishibashi (Suicide Club, Audition) lends an air of credibility to the outlandish story. Kaito Yoshimura (Love and Other Cults) does a good job as the largely silent and sympathetic Hifumin. Tomomi Maruyama and Nobuaki Kaneko are no stranger to television dramas and do a great job with the roles of Haccho and Goro, offering much of the comedy in their bickering and both excelling when their stories take a dark and tragic turn.

“Smoking” occasionally suffers from certain limitations of television drama and budget constraints. The pacing is uneven at times; perhaps unsurprising since each episode has to be wrapped up in such a short time. This could perhaps have been helped by running some of the stories over multiple episodes. It certainly helps build tension later in the series when we begin to get recurring characters and the semblance of an over-arching plot. Often there will be little discussion of what their plan is, which makes things seem matter-of-course and again does little to provide a sense of threat. Often the characters will put themselves in dangerous situations that draws their intelligence into question. These are clearly televisual shortcuts to ramp up a sense of danger, or bring all the required characters together in a particular place, but again it undermines any real sense of threat. This is not always the case and there are episodes that work very well in the short episodic format, such as the MMA betting ring episode. The direction and look of the show can also be hit and miss, with stylish shots and moments reminiscent of heroic crime dramas followed by very mundane scenes of the characters in their makeshift home, or out on the streets. It excels when it strives for a manga aesthetic and this is definitely something that could have been more prominent. The series is clearly set in a hyper-stylised version of reality, so trips itself up in going for a more believable look at times.

Crime thrillers usually follow either the cops or the criminals, whereas “Smoking” follows a group who are somewhere on the border between good and evil. On the surface their actions are horrific, killing and skinning their victims, but they are doing it for the greater good by ridding the city of violent gangsters. As Sabe flays his victims he usually delivers a short speech about peeling away their skin to reveal the monster within. It is a show that asks us to question our understanding of crime and society. The tattoos that mark these individuals are a sign of their criminality, but their sins cannot be so easily stripped away as their flesh. As things progress our natural sympathy with the protagonists is strengthened as we learn about what brought them together, each having had dealings with some criminal element. The central premise, of a group who are paid to kill gangsters, suggests an interesting irony in how we deal with crime in society. By doing this work, dealing out this punishment, that may be deemed good or even necessary, they are lowering themselves into the mud along with their victims, becoming the very monsters they are trying to eliminate. “Smoking” is well worth a watch for fans of crime dramas, with an excellent cast and a story that is fast-paced and packed with melodrama.