Friday, May 7, 2010

Tokyo Mafia 3: Battle For Shinjuku (1996)

(This is supposed to be a prequel taking place before the first Tokyo Mafia film, but doesn't work too well with the continuity established in the first two films. After some confusion, I just decided to roll with it.)

After hiding away for three years in Thailand, ex-yakuza Ginza Yabuki (Riki Takeuchi!) returns to Tokyo. This comes as quite a surprise to some, because Yabuki is supposed to be dead. His former gang brother Saimon (Masayuki Imai) had been ordered to kill him, but wasn't able to go through with the highly un-chivalrous deed. Now, the returned Yabuki has decided to take vengeance on the corrupt Yakuza society of the Teitokai.

While he was away, Saimon has become the de-facto boss of his group whose nominal leader drools senilely away in his wheelchair. The Teitokai are working closely with non-Japanese gangsters, leading to the usual racist claptrap long-suffering Yakuza V-cinema viewers expect.

Yabuki doesn't like this too much, and plans to attack the Teitokai's secret bank, steal all their money and use it to buy the trust of the group's foreign allies. To achieve his goal, Yabuki puts together a team of random losers: an honourable old friend and now family man who will only do this one last job for him (uh-oh), a big guy who doesn't talk much, a seventeen year old trainee hitwoman with nowhere to go and a very sleazy private eye with a heart of gold. Whatever could go wrong?

If you are able to ignore the fact that the third Tokyo Mafia film and its predecessors don't combine into a shared narrative world that makes much sense character-wise or worldbuilding-wise, you'll probably discover that Battle for Shinjuku is a much more accomplished film than its two predecessors. I'd probably care more for the continuity problems if the first two films had been more memorable, but since they weren't, I see no reason not to just ignore their existence from now on, which is the technique the film itself prefers, too.

It not being in continuity with the other films does not mean that Battle isn't built of clichés nearly every yakuza film post-Battles-Without-Honour-and-Humanity has adopted, quite the opposite. We are absolutely in the realm of snarling no-good men hiding behind a hypocritical code of honour that doesn't hinder them from being quite monstrous human beings at all, a realm where the few people who actually believe in that code are damned from the start, know that they are, and still can't help themselves, and everything else that comes with the territory.

But Battle takes these well-examined tropes and puts them together into a well-done piece of V-cinema that just knows what to do with them, as I wish more genre movies would be able to. There's also a finely developed sense of irony on display. The most chivalrous (in a yakuza sense) character is Yabuki, the guy who openly calls the code of the yakuza bullshit, while those touting it the loudest are the ones ignoring it for the slightest reasons.

New series director Takeshi Miyasaka just is a lot better at his art than his predecessor Seiichi Shirai. Where Shirai pointed and shot, Miyasaka composes shots and transitions like a real grown-up filmmaker. This - and the fact that the film has more than one action scene to break up the talking - leads to a film with a lively rhythm and a dramatic pull its predecessors mostly lacked.

The acting is also fine enough - everyone's favourite yakuza actor Riki is not in ultra scenery-chewing mood, and mostly works through cool snarling, but he is far from the bored William Shatner imitation he becomes in his less entertaining films. The star of the show this time is Masayuki Imai, though. Imai is very convincing as man caught between the political realities of his yakuza life and his belief in the traditional ninkyo values. He gives the classic dichotomy between duty and honour more dignity than it probably warrants. Everyone else manages to put a bit of personality into roles that aren't too original.

All this might sound as if I am damning with faint praise, but I did enjoy Tokyo Mafia 3 quite a bit, even though it is "only" a very competently done yakuza movie with a handful of good ideas that doesn't add anything to its genre I haven't seen before.

I'm sometimes condemning films for being "merely competent", in this case however, competence is all that is needed to make for a fine little film.


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