Critic Max Weinstein attacks Takashi Miike’s latest brain-melter YAKUZA APOCALYPSE.
There was a time when being a man meant being a Yakuza, says Kageyama (Hayato Ichihara) in the opening moments of YAKUZA APOCALYPSE. Is this statement an indictment of that time? Or nostalgic for it?
DirectorTakashi Miike, one of the most prolific filmmakers in the world today (guy makes roughly two movies a year), doesnt provide many answers to those questions, nor does he care much about them at all. YAKUZA APOCALYPSE is the antithesis of the patient, restrained minimalism Miike wields in such all-time genre classics as AUDITION (1999) and VISITOR Q (2001). Its a turned-to-11 grab bag that moves in and out of fantasy, reality, existentialism, nihilism, horror, western, gangster, melodrama, and depraved comedy with all the hyperbolic flair of a DRAGONBALL Z marathon on Red Bull. From the outset, Miike feels like hes easing into his own regional spin on the organized crime anthropology of GOODFELLAS (the films narrator fetishizes the near-presidential charisma of his towns local mob boss), but that resemblance is soon eclipsed by a barrage of images and events that are incoherent at worst, manically inspired at best.
If the set-up of YAKUZA APOCALYPSE is a Robin Hood fable, in which the aforementioned yakuza boss, Kamiura (Lily Franky), protects his towns locals and grants loans to small businesses to ward off encroaching big corporations, its payoff is a revelation that eschews naturalism: Kamiura, we learn, is a vampire. Miike introduces his criminal underworld as one rife with masochistic, borderline homoerotic endurance tests for would-be members. How long can you withstand a noodle chef smashing your feet to a pulp? Is your skin tough enough for the yakuzas back-tattooing rite of passage? Can you stomach a glass of blood without throwing it up?
Despite his admitted (and quite literally) thin skin, Kageyama wants a piece of all this hyper-masculine action and becomes Kamiuras protege of sorts, acquiring new and improved street smarts and just before Kamiura dies by way of a Linda Blair-esque, 360 degree decapitation a set of fangs to call his own in the process. This unorthodox coming-of-age grooms Kageyama for the battle of a life-and-afterlife-time, as a lone, English-speaking witchfinder/gunslinger (Yayan Ruhian of THE RAID: REDEMPTION and its sequel) rides into his town, hellbent on claiming it for he and his motley crew of heavies. Miike liberally sprinkles characters of all stripes to populate this Spaghetti Western-inflected showdown, from Kappa Goblins to a man in a demonically possessed, felt frog costume, incurring a series of kinetic martial arts sequences choreographed by Ruhian.
Have you ever had so much caffeine in one day that you write down about a thousand great ideas or goals and yet, by the days end, groan at the realization youve neither fleshed out nor accomplished any of them? Well, Miikes turf war from another dimension plays out much like a metaphor for that push-and-pull between elation and frustration. Even if holding up Yakuza Apocalypse to Miikes earlier, so-called slow-burn films is an exercise in futility, its still stretching to place it on a par with the masterfully meditative qualities of his elaborately staged, high-octane, disciplined samurai epics, 13 ASSASINA (2010) and HARA-KIRI: DEATH OF A SAMURAI (2011). The film exists almost as an orphanage for the children of Miikes imagination who lack parental guidance.
For all its flights of dark fantastical fancy, YAKUZA APOCALYPSE is nonetheless a film that flexes its wits to remind you, at least, that it is after all a film. When a Kappa Goblin first enters yakuza headquarters, for instance, he tells the alarmed gangsters: Save your lame reactions. For sure, Im a Kappa Goblin. Gander all you want at my Kappa-ness. Whats up? (This is as much Miikes address to his audience as it is the Goblins to his enemies). The persistent problem with these considerably funny breaks, though, is that YAKUZA APOCALYPSEs vampire mythos (which, in one scene, is even spelled out for viewers on a classroom chalkboard), along with other creatures backstories, is deployed to curate the unrelenting pace of the films action, rather than given room to breathe with a separate narrative thread. Rules are written and explained faster than you can digest them, so much so that any pre-existing interest in following them for the movies sake is rendered moot.
All of this is not to say that the undeniably brilliant Miike has lost it. Even when YAKUZA APOCALYOPSEs erratic attention span is more fatiguing than it is challenging (which is the case throughout the majority of its running time), its near-compulsively watchable. Moments of surrealist grotesquery spill over into tongue-in-cheek sardonicism much like Miikes landmark 2001 Yakuza film, ICHI THE KILLER Moments in which expressions swell with mad gusto and dialogue is delivered in ALL CAPS!!! mix in the oddly novel flavor of the directors 2012 novel filmic adaptation of the Capcom video game, ACE ATTORNEY. And the symbolist mythology of some of his most colorful, albeit incomprehensible characters shows that Miike hasnt forgotten the lessons that his hallucinatory cult gem, GOZU (2003), taught him about the power of iconic images to hold an audiences gaze.
Thats the thing about YAKUZA APOCALYPSE: its a film of moments, a tree from which some savory cherries might be picked by avid cinephiles and Miike devotees, but one which ultimately doesnt look as good as the others Miike has grown when viewed as a whole. (As prolificacy often breeds lopsidedness, such is par for the course when youve directed over 90 productions by the age of 55). And while its not Beat Takeshi-level crime drama, watching a guy in a frog costume bludgeon gangsters to death in total silence is hilarious, to a point.
Still, the question remains: what point is that, exactly? So long as Miike churns out new films with this degree of delirium, perhaps the best and most reassuring takeaway from YAKUZA APOCALYPSE is that, despite the Apocalypse of its title, this hit-and-miss experiment is far from Miikes end.