This is a reprint of our review from the 2015 Cannes Film Festival.
It is a Tuesday afternoon and Takashi Miike is in a blue funk due to not having made a film in over a week. He stares out glumly at the Japanese scene of Japan outside which probably features Mt Fuji, sweet bean paste and/or cherry blossom trees. Screenwriter Yoshitaka Yamaguchi sits and doodles on a pad. Beneath the window, two five year olds play a game of make-believe. Snatches of their conversation float up to the pensive Miike. “…and he’s, like RAAAHR!” “…and then the vampire’s all zhhhhhum, zhhhhum!” “…and then the Frog Monster comes back to life except now it gives you the Death Stare, and you can’t move and…” The men exchange glances. Yamaguchi starts to transcribe, slowly at first and then more feverishly as vampires meet gangsters, assassins dressed as tourists team up with Van Helsings dressed like Flemish painters, suicidal teenagers confront hospital patients and duck-billed tortoise men torture shackled prisoners. Loyalties shift. Blood splatters. Apocalypse beckons. Kapow, kapow! That night, Miike turns on his Batsignal and the following morning is joined on set by every actor in Japan, wearing a Tokyo Halloween’s worth of costumes. This will be “Yakuza Apocalypse,” the guiltiest, gonzoest pleasure that this or any Cannes has had to offer. It’s YAKUZAPALOOZA.
Taking place in that part of your imagination that ruled your storytelling capacity before narrative logic, realism, and cause/effect psychology came along, the film is an insane headrush of the most disposable, nonsensical, whacked-out genre bliss you’re likely to have. In fact while several rows of Cannes critics spent a lot of the running time between snorts of laughter stealing sidelong glances at each other in a “don’t tell on me, my editor thinks I’m at the Jia Zhang-ke movie” kind of way, it oddly earns its slot on the Croisette just for going for broke on so many levels. It may be a hugely tacky, cartoony balloon pit of a film, but when every single element is dialled up to eleven and you can’t go thirty seconds without another three-way face-off between OTT, OMG and WTF, it starts to achieve a maximalist artistry that almost feels avant-garde. At least that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
It features a plot that has to be seen to be disbelieved. An ambitious young Yakuza, Kageyama (the astonishingly handsome Hayato Ichihara), becomes the trusted henchman of beloved Yakuza Boss Kamiura, who may be a gangster but is a hero-worshipped Robin Hood around town. He is also, as revealed early on when a few ne’er do wells empty entire clips into him and run him through with swords, a vampire, and therefore seemingly unkillable, unless of course by decapitation, which here is achieved via the unusual method of twisting the head clean off the body. When his dead boss’s disembodied head bites him, Kageyama, now a vampire, takes on some of his strength—which he will need all of if he is to seek revenge and justice and establish himself as the new boss. Oh, and save the world from the coming apocalypse, which will manifest in the daftest way imaginable this side of the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man. But meantime, the town goes to hell as vampirism spreads throughout the Yakuza and civilian communities, and assassins and fighters with dark, incomprehensible motives start showing up from all over, including a diminutive martial artist disguised as a lost tourist (Yayan Ruhian, aka Mad Dog from “The Raid“), who knows the guy with the beak and the turtle shell back who oversees a dungeon of prisoners who spend their time … knitting. And I haven’t even got to the Big Bad yet.
Outside of all the other nonsense, Something Else is on its way. “It’s coming!” gasp several characters in response to sudden earthquakes and/or their own dread foreboding. But so much happens that you might think you’ve missed the specific “it” they were referring to, until it arrives and you’re like “Oh no, right, that’s it.” When it comes, the herald of the Apocalypse is a kung-fu frog in a rather tatty green plush mascot suit with an oversized head such as you might see at a football match or holding a sign outside a furniture warehouse. Do not underestimate him, though. He’s got an Evil Eye and some serious moves, the “piece of shit scallywag” (the subtitles are pretty hilarious throughout.)
To be fair, there is a very light brush of commentary to all the madness too: the Yakuza (some of whom are also literal vampires) are overtly shown to be bleeding the townspeople dry, figuratively when not literally. So much so that civilians start to become a precious resource, and in one of the weirdest asides, the interim boss, who has developed some sort of condition where a white liquid spurts grotesquely from her ear at will, sets up a greenhouse where, in stop motion and fake backdrop splendor, she is attempting to “grow” civilians from seed. And there is a gentle critique of passivity and acceptance to the narrative too, as there’s nothing Miike seems to enjoy more than turning a meek, sadsack character into an axe-wielding maniac, be it for an ever so brief burst of gory glory.
But “Yakuza Apocalypse” is not here to be smart about social issues. Basically it’s “1001 Fights” a long, long string of beatdowns and face-offs, sometimes involving our hero Kageyama, and sometimes simply being side brawls that break out kinda like in old Westerns when two guys far removed from the saloon scuffle start throwing chairs at each other just for the hell of it. Some are more inventively staged than others, but this is Miike, so it’s quantity over quality, until the Frog Monster arrives, from which point everything is gold. And the climactic battle, between Kageyama and Yayan Ruhian’s character, is one for the ages —after all the guns and grenades and sight-gag dynamite , it ends in two perfectly matched partners, trading exactly timed hammer blows on each other simultaneously, until finally one falls down. Who that will be is never in doubt but it’s impressive that after all the mayhem, Miike can still find something bone crunchingly, bloodily brilliant to do with two guys duking it out in a laneway.
It is overlong, at 125 minutes —Miike could easily lose any random 20 minutes from the middle and a) it would be much snappier and b) no one would notice. But other than that and two brief instances of sexual violence that strike a needlessly sour note the film is a pure blast of pop pleasure. This bucking bronco will be just too much, too loud, too violent, too messy, too dumb for some, but I’m proud to be dumb enough to have enjoyed the hell out of feeling five years old again, and like nothing that can be imagined cannot come true. [A-]