By: Anthony Francis
“Let discipline shape your spirit and mind… allow this principle to guide you in your journey. Nothing must stand between you and your sword.”
The Yakuza was born from two separate groups of outcasts that existed during the Tokugowa Shogunate (1603 – 1868). The “Takiya”, wandering peddlers who traveled from village to village selling goods at markets, and the “Bakuto”, wandering gamblers who took to the highways, fleecing unsuspecting marks with dice and card games. The Bakuto adorned themselves with colorful tattoos all over their bodies, which led to the custom of full body tattooing for the modern yakuza gangsters.
In modern societies, Yakuza gangs identify as either tekiya or bakuto, retaining the customs used by the ancient clans. In modern Yakuza warfare, the gangsters let the old ways guide their actions.
To quote David Mamet, “Here endeth the lesson.”
Films about the Yakuza have always been a favorite of mine. So many great thrillers and action films have been built around the legendary criminal clan.
Director Seijun Suzuki did a series of well-respected ultra-stylized Yakuza films in the mid and late Sixties that included the classics “Tokyo Drifter” and “Branded to Kill”.
Kinji Fukasaku made more than a few respected films about the syndicate with 1975’s “Graveyard of Honor” being considered one of the finest of the genre.
Paul and Leonard Schrader scripted the exciting Sidney Pollack directed thriller “The Yakuza” starring Robert Mitchum, from 1974.
Akira Kurosawa’s first collaboration with Toshiro Mifune, 1948’s “Drunken Angel” was the first film to deal with post-war Yakuza and even Takeshi Miike threw his surrealist style into the ring with his cult hit “Ichi the Killer”.
And lest we forget, Takeshi Kitano’s excellent “Outrage” trilogy exists as three of the absolute best Yakuza films to date.
Now comes “Yakuza Princess” a stylish and highly exciting thriller directed to the hilt by Vincente Amorin.
Set in Sao Paul, Brazil (which holds the world’s largest Japanese population outside of Japan) this is a tale of bloody revenge and generational honor.
Akemi (singer/actress MASUMI) is an orphan who uncovers a secret that she is the heiress to one half of a Yakuza clan. An amnesiac stranger (Jonathan Rhys Meyers showing some serious Martial Arts chops!) enters her life believing the treacherous katana sword he is carrying holds the key to the mystery of his identity and to both of their fates.
With relentless Yakuza killer Takeshi (an excellent Tsuyoshi Ihara) on their trail, Akemi and her new ally must go to war with the mobsters who want her dead.
Allegiances shift and not everything is at it seems in this truly clever and extremely well-written film.
The screenplay (by Tubaldini Shelling, Kimo Lee, Fernando Toste, and director Amorim) is based on the graphic novel “Samurai Shiro” from Danilo Beyruth. It is a fantastic script that features intense characters and a sharply focused mystery that always keeps the interest level high.
The action scenes give this film an extra fire. Director Amorim crafts these moments with care, making each one count as they explode with violent confrontations
MASUMI shows great skill in her combat scenes. Her sword and fight training gives her character a believable and dangerous edge. The actress looks right at home as an action film star.
Each action-drenched moment has purpose, and all are artfully edited and choreographed. The Yakuza are a violent organization and the fight scenes in this film reflect the brutality of their world and all who exist within it.
The hand-to-hand fight sequences are bruising excitement and when the swords clash, the blood flies and limbs leave their respective bodies.
We get an early rooftop chase that is quite thrilling and features the type of real stunt work that is sorely lacking in many of today’s films. As I have said before and will continue to say over and over again, Asian stunt teams are the most creative in the world.
There are homages to some of the Yakuza films that have come before and maybe a little tip of the hat to Bruce Lee’s character from “Enter the Dragon” that comes in the form of two would be assassins.
Director Armorim does a fantastic job bringing everything together with a confident fluidity and paints a darkly beautiful vision thanks to the artful visual design from cinematographer Gustavo Hadba.
Everything in this film works and works extremely well. There isn’t a false note nor unnecessary beat from beginning to end.
This is first class, Asian-tinged, sword and Martial Arts fighting bad-assery and one of the most exciting and entertaining films of the year. Do not miss it!