There is an extremity to death and violence in a Takashi Miike movie that few other filmmakers ever try to muster. His propensity for grotesquely exaggerated sound effects and hard-hitting fits of carnage make filmic violence visceral again, in a way so few movies manage in an era where, around the globe, large-scale destruction has supplanted old-fashioned fist-to-face brutality as the dominant cinematic language of destruction. But Miike doesn’t stop at the big setpieces. Every punch is bone-shattering, every kick a loud concussion that leaves you wincing. And no matter how outlandish his films get, even in the case of a thoroughly outlandish film like Yakuza Apocalypse, the violence hurts.
Yakuza Apocalypse is the kind of stab at a gangland actioner that only the prolific Japanese genre provocateur/auteur could muster, in that it lives in a singularly weird corner of its own willing invention. Few Miike films enter into the truly elite level of his endless canon (this is his 11th feature-length film in the past five years, with two more on the way), and Yakuza hardly breathes the same rarefied air as Audition or 13 Assassins, but there’s still a kicky enjoyment to be taken away from a film that occupies itself with vampirism, goblins, and a King of Frogs that may or may not be a spiritual companion to Godzilla.
But let’s back up. Yakuza Apocalypse begins with the brutal death of the Yakuza boss Kamiura (Lily Franky) at the hands of a mysterious stranger. For years Kamiura has served as a no less violent but more benevolent kind of Yakuza boss, respected by his community even as he shakes them down for protection tithes. But when that mysterious, coffin-toting stranger (in the style of Django, because there isn’t an allusion to older generations of exploitation cinema that Miike won’t playfully toss out) rolls into town and quickly, brutally dispatches Kamiura, the fragile ecosystem of the Yakuza territory is thrown into upheaval.
Enter Kageyama (Hayato Ichihara). A young upstart in the organization, desperate to be anointed full-fledged Yakuza despite having such a thin skin that he can’t even bring himself to get the organization’s flagship full-back tattoos (it’s one of the film’s many attempts at humor that work nowhere near as well as its outlandish battles), Kageyama bears witness to Kamiura’s death. And then Kamiura’s severed head returns long enough to bite Kageyama on the neck, rendering the young man a Yakuza vampire, a far more serious threat than any mortal man. Where Kamiura repressed his powers for the good of the community, Kageyama demands blood both for vengeance and for nourishment.
Soon the vampire population begins to increase, and from there Yakuza Apocalypse becomes a gang warfare story as filtered through the lens of a Power Rangers episode. Kageyama’s affliction is just the beginning, after all; there’s the matter of all those undisciplined vampires, as well as Kyoku (Riko Narumi), a young woman rescued by the Yakuza whose affection for Kageyama causes increasing complications. But that’s the plot stuff, and this review has already spent more time concerned with it than Miike seems to be.
As always, the director is most in his element when it comes time for bodies to be broken and/or turned strange, and Yakuza Apocalypse likewise turns strange indeed. For all the film’s ill-placed jabs at the cowardice of gangsters when faced with real evil (particularly a subplot involving a milk-headed Yakuza captain that makes little sense and eventually goes nowhere), the best jokes in what’s ostensibly Miike’s horror-comedy are visual. Since the majority of them work in large part because of the sheer batshit disorientation with which they come and go, we’ll avoid giving away too much of the larger game here. Just remember the name Frog King; you won’t be able to stop talking about it when Yakuza Apocalypse is over.
The film is scattershot, to say the least; the momentum of its action setpieces is so infectious that it’s hard to maintain interest in much else. Again, Miike seems about as interested in his own intra-gang infighting as most viewers will be. But in a movie where a rage-fueled warrior can fry an egg with his hand and The Raid’s Yayan Ruhian shows up as yet another stranger, capable of warp-speed punches and other mysterious acts of violence, it’s not wholly detrimental. The pleasure of Yakuza Apocalypse lies within one’s ability to sit back and allow Miike to drive, straight into the further recesses of his singularly warped mind.
(And a quick postscript: the trailer is below, as is the case with all of our reviews here at CoS Film. But it gives a majority of the film’s strangest turns away, so do with that knowledge what you will.)