With the nearing release of Yakuza 4 in the West I’ve been hurrying to complete Yakuza 3 (despite the deplorable removal of my beautiful mahjong), and so I thought it time to rewatch the two live-action Yakuza films that were produced. Today: the Follow Up.
Sometime in 2007 I became aware of this feature-length film based on the first Yakuza game. I wanted to buy it, but all the DVDs I saw didn’t have any English subtitles. It had been pirated though and put online, complete with fan-made English subtitles. So after several days of downloading I put the two together and burned myself a custom DVD – as a neat bonus I included the prequel film on the disc.
Unfortunately the subtitles had been made by someone who clearly hadn’t been listening to what characters were saying – the most outlandish example being in a store, when Kazuma is asked a question by the owner. The subtitles say: “Your store sucks.” When in actual fact he said: “Dog food.” Not in Japanese, he actually used the words dog and food in English, which only proved how pathetic the fansub was. I declared the film to be crap and stopped watching at around the halfway mark because it didn’t make any sense. While individual sentences were logical in isolation, there was no context to any of them – characters whose dialogue was setting up later scenes were reduced to spouting nonsense with no relevance to anything else. It was surreal and unpleasant, since the film is quite complicated anyway.
Last week though I saw that it had undergone official subtitling and had been available in the US for some time, unrated and cheaply published. It cost $20 to be shipped to Europe and in preparation for Yakuza 4, I was keen to see what it was actually like.
If there was a film-applicable term for kusoge (awfully good?) then Yakuza: Like a Dragon would carry it proudly. It’s 110 minutes of visually splendorous violence and lunacy, only barely coherent and so overdone that the original storyline from the game (which it’s based on) only just manages to be heard. It’s an example of excess and, while it fails as a film for the uninitiated, as a game-to-film adaptation for those who know the source material it’s a strange kind of awesome.
The basic premise of: Kazuma gets out of jail, looks after small girl, fights one-eyed freak Majima, finds girl’s mom who dies, and then kills his best friend Nishki, is still there, but it weaves in several other storylines which ultimately steal the audience’s attention. Throughout the film we also view the following.
A pair of incompetent bank robbers in colourful knitted ski-masks on the hottest day of the year attempt to rob a bank which has no money and then their air-conditioning breaks down. A pair of delinquent teens go on a robbing spree, first with a knife and later with a gun. A Korean mafia assassin visits town to kill an important politician. Majima is bored and is determined to fuck shit up for everyone. All of the above is interwoven with great complexity and is so focused on, that by the time Kazuma finds Haruka’s mom, who turns out to be Yumi, and then fights Nishki in Millennium Tower, you’re wondering who the hell these new characters are and why they’re even here.
Kazuma’s character is never fleshed out, apart from two sections of dialogue where Detective Date asks when he got our of prison (it’s never explained why he was in), and later on, when it’s mentioned that Kazuma, Nishki and Yumi were all at the same orphanage. Or course Yumi and Nishki’s screen time is about five minutes combined at the end, making the exposition pointless. In fact Kazuma’s role in the story is almost redundant, and if anything is more like a Maguffin for Majima’s rampage through Tokyo looking for him. And here’s the thing, Kazuma is meant to be the lead in the Yakuza film, but all the supporting characters prove more interesting than him – from the silent assassin who makes great cocktails to the hardcore masochist who sells guns – they’re all more interesting and better developed.
The crowning character, and main allure of the film, is Majima Goro. He was insane in the games to begin with, but here he’s elevated to what must be one of the most outlandish, flamboyant, deranged villains in film history. Despite his brutality and irredeemable personality, you can’t help but like him by virtue of how alive he appears (and how difficult he is to kill). Majima gets all the cool lines, while Kazuma is simply shunted from scene to scene, overshadowed by everything else. He’s also far too young looking to be playing someone who spent 10 years in prison.
The other major draw for the film is the well-choreographed fight sequences backed by some pretty awesome heavy metal music. If Yakuza the Prologue was tasteful, subtle and subdued, then Like a Dragon is the absolute opposite. Violence is frequent, gratuitous, and so over-the-top it takes on a fantasy element. When Kazuma isn’t bursting into blue flame you’ll see character’s heads used as baseball-bat sponges, a dozen shotguns destroying a bar replete with wine bottles, and bizarre CG sequences which need to be seen to be believed. It’s a cartoon become live, which is perhaps why it’s such a good game-to-film adaptation despite being a terrible film. Games are not even remotely like films, contrary to what a million shrill voices try to bleat, which is why adaptations often suck. Games are fantastical creations traditionally not bound by any kind of rules or logic, even if they appear to have a realistic setting. A film trying to replicate a game should therefore be void of traditional film-making logic.
I suppose a final highlight is that Nagoshi-san himself, the creator of Ryu ga Gotoku, makes a cameo as Jingu the politician flying around in helicopter – and ends up shot in the had (pictured). He doesn’t say anything and ends up being killed. Twice. Which isn’t really a spoiler – you’ll know why afterwards.
In a way, Like a Dragon is very similar to Miike’s other film, Ichi the Killer, containing flamboyantly dressed yakuza members, acts of extreme cruelty, masochists, depravity, surrealism and plenty of colour on screen. I can’t say I particularly enjoyed Ichi the Killer, but as a standalone film it was more coherent and functional than Like a Dragon – which I actually enjoyed more by virtue of its association with one of my favourite game series. Confusing and akin to reliving a fever dream, Like a Dragon will prove impenetrable for anyone unaware of the Yakuza games. But if you can find it cheap, and like the Yakuza games, it has a strange allure to it.
Our rating: 3 stars out of 4 (but only if you’re aware of the source material)