Between 1998 and 2001, Takashi Miike’s prolific nature gained him worldwide notoriety with a seemingly endless run of V-cinema. Audition, Ichi the Killer, Dead or Alive, (the) Black Triad trilogy and the Happiness of the Katakuri’s gained him legions of fans across the world. Even if he isn’t quite as productive as he used to be, he still manages to release a few films each year. The vital difference between then and now, however, is the nature of the produce. His work has been more approachable to a mainstream audience, making films based on video games and manga titles like Ace Attorney & Terra Formars. With the UK release of Yakuza Apocalypse, Takashi Miike is scratching an old itch.
Kageyama (Hayato Ichihara) looks up to the local Yakuza boss, as do many other townspeople – the boss, Lily Franky (Genyo Kamiura), looks after his town like a Father would their child. Upon joining the clan, Kageyama climbs the ranks to a trusted position by the boss’s side, on the path to being the sort of man he aspires to be. Then Yayan Ruhian (The Raid) turns up dressed akin to geeky stereotypes of years gone by joined by a Cronenbergian gun-wielding, Jacobean ruff wearing anachronistic hoodlum; the arrival of which signals the brutal murder of the boss. With Kageyama in the vicinity he learns of Lily Franky’s true nature by having his former boss’ detached head sink its teeth into his neck – turns out he wasn’t just a Yakuza but a Yakuza vampire and he is to serve as the new vehicle for this otherworldly bloodlust.
Miike, through Yamaguchi’s script, dashes off into a gloriously surreal sunset invoking the stop animated oddness of Katakuri’s, Kaiju cinema and more on the way. As unashamed as the director is with his eccentricities, there is one core value – Kageyama’s coming of age. Part of this requires understanding the way of the Yakuza vampire with their rules and regulations; one of which is civilian blood is delicious but dining on it isn’t allowed whereas Yakuza blood both smells and tastes disgusting but is okay. Even with Denden’s advice, the result becomes catastrophic for the town with the entire civilian body being turned. As ridiculous as the town becomes with everyone demonstrating uncharacteristic and downright hilarious aggression, there is a point to be made. Miike’s characters ask themselves what their value is as Yakuza when there are no civilians. This presents existentialism and self-awareness that’s supremely rare within the genre.
As absurd as Yakuza Apocalypse has been thus far, the big picture has barely been revealed. Even with a scene as odd as a transformation that sees a meek child physically tearing the hair from their head to reveal a tight Yakuza cut and a berserker with vengeance in mind, the realms of proportional possibility are still within touching distance. When the ‘world’s most dangerous terrorist’ in a frog outfit and the Kappa (Youkai) appear, any normalcy has long been left in the dust. Miike is having fun sending up the most quintessentially Japanese genre that simply needs to be seen to be believed. A bit much at two hours, all the same, the goalposts are in such a constant state of flux that the film never stops still for long enough to become boring. As admirable as this approach to filmmaking can be, such overkill will always overwhelm the unprepared – maybe even the prepared too.
The oddest part of the whole film is the ending, a finale that has caused some consternation. As previously mentioned Miike and his eager cast and crew have evoked the likes of Godzilla, Ray Harryhausen, The Shaw Brothers and his own early work, yet after all that it heads back to the humble Yakuza film. Avoiding spoilers, the film ends with Hayato Ichihara and Yayan Ruhian in a fight – nothing choreographed like before, just two men punching each other in the face as hard as possible to see who is the tougher. A scene that while understandably anticlimactic it may be the purest expression of the Japanese gangster film this century, all housed within a brand of weirdness that is constantly proffering something that you’ve never seen before.
In many ways, Yakuza Apocalypse can be likened to last year’s Tokyo Tribe. Both are indefinably idiosyncratic and openly embrace their weird wiles – unconcerned whether it wins them fans. This is as punk as cinema gets. With films like this, the work of Alejandro Jodorowsky or even Guy Maddin it’s not a matter of processing its place within conventional cinema – you just have to strap yourself in and be ready for wherever the path takes you.