Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Yakuza Demon (2003)

The smallish Yakuza group of the Date has taken on more than they can handle when they trespass onto the turf of the considerably larger Tendo group. One things leads to another, and the Tendo start attacking some of the Date's lower tier of members in retaliation.

The leaders of the Date think that it will all work out like it usually does in their business - both sides killing off some footsoldiers and then making up again with slightly redrawn borders between their territories.

Times like this are also a very fine opportunity to milk one's underlings dry "to finance the war". One of these underlings is Muto (Koichi Iwaki), himself the leader of a small sub-"family" of the Date group, consisting only of himself, Seichi (Riki Takeuchi) and Yoshi (Hideki Sone). Their little family unit once was completed by Muto's bar-owning girlfriend (Yoko Natsuki), but she left them a short time ago, wanting her man to go legit.

Trouble is, Muto hasn't the money his superiors want from him. With not much of a way out, Muto promises to assassinate a higher-up member of the Tendo to keep up his reputation. Seichi is dismayed at the thought of his father-by-choice going to jail for fifteen years (that's the typical muder sentence in modern day yakuza films) or dying in a futile effort to kill someone, and gets Muto jailed for two years for some smaller crime. He also delivers the money they want to his bosses, money that he has stolen directly from the war chest of the Tendo group. Of course, that's not enough for them to make up for Muto's supposed cowardice of landing himself in jail, so Seichi makes up for it the only way he knows and kills the highest boss of the Tendo (the Emperor of the Universe, Tetsuro Tanba).

Which obviously leads only to a further escalation of the conflict into an all-out war the Date never wanted and most certainly will not be able to win. It won't be long until the Date group is going to expell Seichi to somehow finagle out of their little war.

Yakuza Demon is supposed to be one of Takashi Miikes weaker films, but I don't think it weak at all, unless one only appreciates Miike's films when they're trying to be as mad as possible.

This one's a very different sort of film, a classicist Yakuza film that replaces most of Miike's typical absurdism with classic, stoic gangster film existentialism. Yakuza Demon is mostly a film about love and family as seen through the eyes of people who are nearly completely unable to express their feelings through anything else than violence or the seething anger and frustration Riki Takeuchi is so good at showing through his glare.

It is also a very slow film, with many static camera set-ups that often position the viewer as an audience sitting one or two tables away from the characters. Miike consciously ignores many possibilities for kinetic violence. This time around he's more interested in watching his characters when they are not spilling anyone's guts (and noodle soup) on the floor. In many aspects, it is much more painful to watch the characters never directly express anything they feel than watch them kill and die (although there will be more than enough dying before the film is over).

As much as I like Miike's madder outings, Yakuza Demon is something very special, akin to Kinji Fukasku's Graveyard of Honor and similar classics of the jitsuroku eiga or the bleakest, saddest film noir you could imagine.


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