Sunday, February 21, 2010

Tokyo Mafia 1 - Yakuza Wars (1995)

Three years ago, Ginya Yabuki (Riki Takeuchi) had a falling out with Isagami (the inevitable Ren Osugi), the number two of the yakuza group he was a member in. Being roughed up by your superior for no good reason is one thing for someone like Yabuki, but then being mistreated with an ashtray obviously quite another, so his natural reaction (besides mugging, grunting and eye-bulging, of course) was to shoot Isagami in the leg, crippling the man forever.

As an honourable man, Yabuki followed his act at once with biting off his own little finger to atone and went into exile in Hong Kong.

Three years later, the former yakuza returns to Kabuki Cho with his own gang, the Tokyo Mafia. While small in numbers, Yabuki's contacts with the triads and the decentralisation of his organization give him a leg up when doing business in a part of Tokyo that is fought over by groups who are theoretically united under the banner of the Teitokai and two triad gangs.

The Tokyo Mafia isn't interested in the usual drugs, gambling and prostitution affairs of their peers anyway. Instead, the group makes its money by smuggling whale meat and committing high tech crimes.

Thanks to the diplomatic help of Yabuki's former yakuza brother Sho Saimon (Masayuki Imai) and quite a bit of money, the gangster manages to buy himself a peaceful working environment - for a time at least.

Alas, Isagami still hates his guts and some of the yakuza don't understand why they should let Yabuki have any business at all, if they could just take it away from him. It only needs one hasty attack on the life of the Teitokai leader by one of Yabuki's underlings to turn the situation into an all out war our hero neither wants nor thinks he can win.

Seiichi Shirai's Tokyo Mafia is probably more typical of the dozens of V Cinema (that's Japanese for direct to DVD movies) films adorable over-actor Riki Takeuchi starred in than those we usually get to see outside of Japan.

This is a case of a classical piece of middle-of-the-road exploitation filmmaking. It's cheap, it's confusing and it's very far from what many people understand under "art". Most of the film consists of grim men talking gangster politics which are look more complicated than they actually are, a bit of intense manlove thrown in for good measure, and a few bouts of ridiculous violence very much in love with hacking off innocent body parts.

Neither the plot nor the characterisation is all that interesting, but it's impossible to be too hard on a film that contains the utterly awesome/ridiculous scene in which an insanely mugging, grunting and screaming Riki Takeuchi bites off his own finger, like Elvis on a really bad day. It is one of the few moments where the film really dares to let loose, but it's enough for me to make it worth my time. There's also a conceptually very fun moment where Riki and two of his gang members - dressed for no good reason in army fatigues - "visit" a yakuza boss via helicopter for a nice little chat, commando style. It is as gleefully silly a scene as one could wish for, and probably just came to pass because someone in the production department managed to get a helicopter for an hour or two. One of the iron rules of exploitation cinema has always been and will always be that you shall not let a good helicopter go to waste.

I'm also quite partial to the whale meat smuggling idea that really drives the utter amorality of even our supposed hero in the film home. Still, it's not too difficult to root for Yabuki and his gang of international crooks, since he and his guy and girls are among the few people with a sense of personal loyalty - and therefore humanity - in the film. And, you know, Riki Takeuchi is turning on the intensity even in a film as routine as this one.

It's just too bad that Shirai's direction is a little on the conservative side, especially compared to the visuals someone like Takashi Miike or even "just" someone like Atsushi Muroga produce on an equally small budget. On the plus side, Shirai isn't actively undermining his own film.

I should also add that this is truly the first part of a serial and just stops right in the middle of what little plot it has. Since all four parts of Tokyo Mafia are sold together, that shouldn't be much of a problem, though.

If the sequel has more moments of insanity, I'll be perfectly happy.


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