Fantastic Fest 2015 Review: YAKUZA APOCALYPSE Plays Like Miike's Greatest Hits

Editor, U.S. ; Dallas, Texas (@HatefulJosh)
Fantastic Fest 2015 Review: YAKUZA APOCALYPSE Plays Like Miike's Greatest Hits
Putting Miike Takashi at the helm of a yakuza action film that features a vampire crime boss and a man in a giant felt frog costume seems like a no-brainer. 

This is the kind of whacked out gonzo imagery that we've come to expect from Miike Takashi after nearly two decades in the international spotlight. Very few directors can boast of the wildly varying film styles and genres that he has in his kitty; with Yakuza Apocalypse, Miike throws them all into one big bag and shakes it up, hoping that the audience will greedily gobble the glorious genre-blending goodness.

The film begins simply enough, Kagehara dreams of becoming a yakuza and is taken under the wing of benevolent crime boss Kamiura. While Kamiura is attempting to groom his impossibly earnest protégé for bigger things, they encounter trouble in the guise of a goofily dressed antagonist speaking stilted English and asking if Kamiura is coming to rejoin "the sindicate". Who and what this sindicate may be is never really explained, but we get the idea that Kamiura left these evildoers behind to run his small gang and make his town a safe place. His former colleagues don't like this and are out for blood, their enforcer is a long haired martial arts assassin played by Yuyan Ruhian (The Raid: Redemption's Mad Dog).

When Kamiura is taken out of the picture it's up to Kagehara to take revenge for his fallen leader, but just when he thinks he can begin, Kagehara discovers that his boss was not only kind and benevolent, he was also a vampire. What this has to do with the plot is unclear at this point, but the revelation, and Kagehara's transformation into one of the walking undead sets in motion some truly outrageous plot turns and setpieces.

The film moves from yakuza action thriller to horror fantasy and back again numerous times. To attempt a detailed synopsis of the film would not so much spoil the antics as it would read like a laundry list of wacky situations meant to juxtapose with one another. The film certainly does have a heart, and there's even a tiny bit of an emotional core with Kagehara, who never abandons his desire to do what's right, even if it means doing a little wrong on the way there. The problems I have are more with the film's lack of commitment to any of its numerous relatable moments.

Full disclosure here, I am a Miike fanatic, and oftentimes find myself playing the role of Miike apologist. As such, I found myself just last night engaging in a conversation with other very well-versed film fans regarding the overall merits of Miike's oeuvre. As an inconoclast, there are few who can match Miike for his history of creating and adapting material in ways that are unexpected, shocking, and fresh. However, even I have found myself occasionally wondering where the line between innovation and self-imitation is with his work. Yakuza Apocalypse is a perfect case study.

For those familiar with Miike's work, in spite of the film's fantastical and seemingly outrageous premise, there's not really much that is new in Yakuza Apocalypse. The yakuza film genre has been reinvented numerous times, most recently with the works of Kitano Takeshi in the '90s and with Miike's own works during that decade and into the first part of the 21st century.

The concept of supernatural yakuza sounds like something out of a comic book, but with Miike's touch, it does become more palatable that it might with most filmmakers. The issue is that Miike has already done one of the greatest yakuza films of the last 25 years in his abstract deconstruction, Gozu. Gozu goes where this film fears to tread, which may not be an issue for people unfamiliar with Miike, but I can't count myself among them, so I end up comparing them even if I don't want to. Admittedly, Yakuza Apocalypse and Gozu tell two very different stories, but even in terms of construction and tone, Gozu is far more consistent and effective in creating emotion from nonsense.

Yakuza Apocalypse is terribly uneven in tone and I frequently had a hard time trying to place the film's intentions. We are constantly being winked at from the screen, at least once literally, and given moments that break legitimate tension with cheap sight gags. I have no issue with genre-bending films, and even though that toy with tone as a way of keeping their audience off balance intrigue me, but in this case the film feels cheeky in a way that just didn't appeal to me.

Don't get me wrong, I had a great time watching Yakuza Apocalypse, but when I'm asked to put on my critical hat, I have to think about what really happened on screen. There is plenty of typically Miike nonsense to enjoy, there are more than a few fevered and bloody yakuza fight sequences, there's a kung fu master/world's most dangerous terrorist in a felt frog costume, there's even a low-rent kappa crime lord, a retired yakuza knitting circle, and a manual decapitation. However, Miike has trouble putting it all together into one coherent whole. I feel like I'd have a better experience going through Gozu, Dead or Alive 2: The Birds, and something like The Great Yokai War again to see what Miike can really do when he's not attempting to cram all of the best parts of those films into one film.

Did I enjoy watching Yakuza Apocalypse? Most definitely. Is it a great movie? Not really. Is it one of Miike's best? Hardly. However, they don't all have to break new ground, sometimes they can just make you smile. Yakuza Apocalypse made me smile - in spite of my mostly academic reservations - so take that warning with you when you give it a chance.

Yakuza Apocalypse

  • Takashi Miike
  • Yoshitaka Yamaguchi (screenplay)
  • Yayan Ruhian
  • Lily Franky
  • Yuki Sakurai
  • Pierre Taki
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fantastic fest 2015JapanMiike TakashiTakashi MiikeYoshitaka YamaguchiYayan RuhianLily FrankyYuki SakuraiPierre TakiActionComedyHorror

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