I’m not really sure if I need to render a judgement on Yakuza Apocalypse, the weird new romp from Japanese auteur Takashi Miike. Just hearing his name is enough to get me on board with seeing a film. Not because it will be good – it might or it might not – but because it will be insanely creative. And you gotta respect anyone who loves film so much they reject Hollywood’s ponderous and super-expensive approach to filmmaking in favor of Miike’s near-superhuman prolificness. So my guess is, if you know who Miike is, you already know if you’re gonna see this.
At any rate, Yakuza Apocalypse is middling Miike. It’s well shot and features the director’s standard command of visual storytelling: There’s a cool moment where Kageyama (Hayato Ichihara), a mid-level enforcer in the Yakuza and the film’s protagonist, has just gotten his ass handed to him in a fight. So an older member of the gang drags Kageyama into a warehouse and drops him on the floor to give him a good talking to. Given the position of the camera, Kageyama is behind some storage bins, so the older Yakuza literally finds himself talking to an unresponsive inanimate object. Eventually, Kageyama pulls himself together and starts listening, at which point we see him rise into the frame.
The script, by Yoshitaka Yamaguchi, is textbook Miike bizarreness: Kageyama’s boss is Kyoken (Yayan Ruhian), who runs the Yakuza in a small Japanese town, and appears to be relatively well-liked by the townsfolk. But everything is not as it seems: Kyoken, it turns out, is a vampire. He’s opposed on principle to feeding on “civilians,” a norm he extends to the entirety of the Yakuza’s behavior, and one that influences Kageyama deeply.
But the vampires have enemies, and a rival gang soon arrives in the town, intent on taking Kyoken out. Their main vampire hunter dresses like a New England puritan and speaks English for some strange reason. Another member of the rival gang is an underworld demon – i.e. a dude with stringy hair and a beak. The gang’s leader is a mysterious figure who terrifies the other characters, but who turns out to be a guy in a giant green frog suit. That said, he’s ferociously violent and a consummate martial artist, and is accompanied by a musical theme straight out of an Ennio Morricone score for a spaghetti western. (This all just scratches the surface of the film’s weirdness.)
Kyoken is betrayed by members of his own Yakuza, and the vampire hunter takes him out. But before he dies, Kyoken bites Kageyama, passing on his powers. The rest of Yakuza Apocalypse follows Kageyama as his powers awaken and he sets out on a quest to avenge his boss, while the other factions in the town battle it out for dominion.
The breezy way Yakuza Apocalypse accepts its own hyperreality at face value, without trying to explain anything, is both a bit discombobulating and endearing. There’s a neat thematic undercurrent, where Miike and Yamaguchi allow the way people talk about “vampires” and “Yakuza” to bleed into each other, until the terms become two different references to the same thing. It becomes a metaphorical moral critique of the Yakuza, and undermines the conceit – held by Kageyama and Kyoken – that the gangsters are a benevolent force in the town. Once he becomes a vampire, Kageyama finds that his newfound-need for blood is sometimes beyond his control, and he initially bites a few civilians before he regains enough self-control to live by his ethical precepts. By that point, he’s already infected some of the townspeople with vampirism, which quickly spreads through the populace, until a shuffling army of zombie-like bloodsuckers is yet another faction to contend with in the plot.
The film is actually relatively mild on the blood and violence for Miike – which means it’s still pretty damn bloody and violent compared to most cinema. The action and martial arts are well-staged and fun, though there are no stand-out sequences. The plot is not the best: It’s a bit plodding and ponderous, with lots of cross-cutting between various subplots. While Kageyama is ostensibly the protagonist, this is more of an ensemble cast affair. And the weirdness is sometimes so out-of-left-field that it gets distracting.
The film’s saving grace, not surprisingly, is Miike’s delight in the act of filmmaking itself. He has an unrivaled ability to see every moment as a standalone opportunity for some new creative flourish, rocketing between different tones with glee. Most filmmakers would just plow through those same moments with a utilitarian determination. For all the violence and blood, Yakuza Apocalypse has an almost-childlike creativity: The way the pupils of the frog-suit villain suddenly contract and go red – complete with a dramatic camera zoom – whenever he’s pissed; outlandish musical choices like the baritone vocal droning that accompanies the realization that Kyoken is a vampire; and the vampire hunter’s weird fantasy-cum-scifi weapons.
All the actors and actresses are game, and Ichihara does a good job serving as the film’s straight man, plus its emotional center of failing-but-earnest nobility. Yakuza Apocalypse can be frustrating, and it isn’t a rip-roaring accomplishment on the same level of Miike’s 13 Assassins. But I was definitely intrigued and entertained.