Gangsters vs Vampires

yakuza-apocalypseIn a Japan flailing through the recession, mob boss Kamiura (Lily Franky) faces surprise competition from a bunch of new arrivals, including a water demon and a violent anime fan. Dying from his wounds, Kamiura bites his lieutenant Kageyama (Hayato Ichihara), passing on his vampire powers (yes, forgot to mention that) in a turf war that soon escalates into a Yakuza Apocalypse.

The enemy calls in “The Modern Monster” – a martial artist in a ridiculous frog costume, who steals the whole movie – and battle ensues, played for laughs but not scrimping on the athleticism and acrobatics. It’s aided in this by the presence of Yayan Ruhian of The Force Awakens in the role of Kyoken (“Mad Dog”, same name as his character in The Raid), but also by off-screen efforts by an insane cameraman who seems to want to wade into the middle of all the fight scenes.

Time to test your geek credentials, since any Japanese movie buff reading the above synopsis is sure to say: “This sounds like a Takashi Miike film.” And indeed it is, with all the hallmarks of this most notorious and beloved director, from a visceral, kitchen-sink-inclusive plot to the gory stand-offs and the social commentary. These yakuza (gangsters) are literal blood-suckers, draining the vitality from small-town Japan, while clinging to a ridiculously po-faced and archaic honour system like something out of a kung fu movie.

yakuza-apocalypse 2Organised crime has been an integral part of the Japanese movie world for a century, both on and off-screen. Isolde Standish, in A New History of Japanese Cinema, has no qualms about pointing out that one well-known studio was actually founded by gangsters, and there are many blood-curdling stories about the poaching and nobbling of stars, the abuses of hopefuls on a many a casting couch, and the super powers of mob accountants in burying money in supposed box office flops, or generating “hits” by intimidation and threats

It should come as no surprise that there should be an entire sub-genre of films in which such mobsters are the heroes, depicted as the last guardians of the samurai ethic by a movie machine that is literally terrified of the real-life versions. And this only makes director Takashi Miike’s satire all the more biting and brave, as he depicts yakuza protagonists as woefully stupid, belligerent poseurs, knifing each other over who gets to call himself the king of a particular street corner

Some of Miike’s snootier champions object to the popular image of him as a crazy scatter-gun creative, but even they have to admit that a man who has sometimes managed to notch up four or five movies in a single year can’t produce good work all the time. Legendarily, Miike just loves to work. He is addicted to making movies, and rarely stops long enough to read his worst reviews. There is a certain irony that the very accessibility, insanity and prolixity of Miike’s early work made him a darling of schlocky horror magazines and hungry young media academics. While some award-winning, worthy Japanese movies struggled to find foreign distributors, Miike’s B-movies and gross-outs often found themselves bundled in package deals or nestling somewhere in a bargain bin. This had the odd effect of putting him on the radar of a bunch of film students scouring Blockbuster Video for something to write about, and turning him into a much-discussed auteur

And while there are some truly awful films on his resumé, he has managed to pack several lifetimes of movie-making experience into his career, including some real gems. Every now and then, he creates a work of enduring appeal, like the grotesque stalker drama Audition or the horror musical The Happiness of the Katakuris. He also managed to make what is, to my mind, one of the best Japanese movies of the last decade, the gritty, intense samurai drama Thirteen Assassins

Miike loves to divide the critics, and Yakuza Apocalypse is no exception, lauded by The Daily Telegraph for its “demented brilliance,” but damned by The Hollywood Reporter as “numbingly idiotic.” Knowing Miike, he’ll want to put both reviews on the poster.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Modern Japan: All That Matters.This article first appeared in Geeky Monkey #5, 2016.

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