The legal drinking age in most countries around the globe is 18 years old; Brazil is among those nations. Japan, however, makes their young people wait until they turn 20 for the right to booze it up. Yet, in nonsensical fashion, when Akemi (singer-songwriter Masumi), the Japanese-born, Brazilian-raised heroine of Vicente Amorim’s “Yakuza Princess,” toasts in front of her late grandfather’s portrait, she follows American regulation and celebrates finally turning 21 as a major milestone. Such a seemingly trivial detail is indicative of the astounding incoherence and misguided international ambitions of this subpar action saga.
Gruesome dismemberment at a family party opens the film, adapted from the graphic novel “Samurai Shiro” by Danilo Beyruth. That incident in Osaka two decades prior landed Akemi and her grandfather in Sao Paolo — text on screen explains the South American city hosts the largest Japanese community outside of the island state. But while having Brazilian creators at the helm, the country serves as an inconsequential backdrop that could have easily been substituted by any other urban center.
Mostly unexplored in cinema, this cultural link between Brazil and Japan had potential to stand out as distinctive assets, but Amorim and co-writers render out its significance for a generic plot. Skillful in combat, Akemi can more than defend herself, and we are made aware of her abilities early on during a brawl with predatory men at a bar. Unbeknownst to her, the years of training will soon be put to the test. The Japanese mob, or yakuza, learned she survived the massacre and wish to amend their mistake.
Elsewhere in town, a nameless white American male (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), who can’t remember his past but carries a feared and coveted Muramasa katana, finds his way to her. Back east, high-ranking gangster Takeshi (Tsuyoshi Ihara) also plans to track her down. Their roads convene in a well-executed fight and chase sequence at the protagonist’s apartment complex. Hands are chopped off and rooftops are walked on with sufficient visual energy to maintain our attention but not to earn our amazement. Proficient at best, one could say.
Thanks to cinematographer Gustavo Hadba, “Yakuza Princess” unfurls in a stylish neon-lit reality where each static frame is industriously designed to spy on the characters from behind windows and doors. The alluring effect of those elegant shots matches the intensity and brightness of the lights that coat the picture. But there’s only so much good will such a dazzling but overused aesthetic mandate can get you when the set pieces are sparse, the pumping of exposition relentless, and the music tritely mysterious.
By the time we receive some moderately lit scenes to rest our eyes on, the world of the story has expanded into an isolated community where former Japanese blade warriors retire. Akemi stills ignores what ties her to the scarred American dude, but somewhat trusts him after he saved her life. Rhys Meyers’ tough man performance merits little contemplation. In Akemi’s search for answers about the brutal legacy she’s part of and the introduction of more one-note bad guys, questions of “who did it and why” stop feeling relevant. A mélange of names, vendettas, and spiritual concepts crowds the narrative.
As an intellectually empty piece of genre cinema, “Yakuza Princess” can’t even sit alongside movies that offer similarly obtuse ideas but that gain some favor through impressive spectacle. There are only a handful of scuffles here, none that warrant consideration for the annals of creative blocking, stunt execution, or shocking depictions of amputations by sword.
In turn Masumi’s acting blends into the background with a character so barebones in its emotional construction it almost feels absurd to pry for something deeper in this review. Making the lead in such a (quite literally) cutthroat universe a woman doesn’t inherently qualify it as compelling or revelatory. She can’t carve out an intricate sculpture from a hollow tree grounded on thin air.
Now, here’s a major defect. Akemi has presumably lived in Brazil since childhood, but there are no efforts to have Masumi say a single phrase in Portuguese. The blatant reluctance only increases its notoriety. Instead, she conveniently speaks English with everyone around her, including other Japanese-born people. To make the haphazard use of language in this film all the more confusing, the revelation drops halfway through that she actually does speak fluent Japanese.
But even after this information surfaces, the forced inclusion of English-language dialogue persists with Takeshi, whom we’ve seen speaking Japanese before, and turns it into a nagging reminder of either weird incompetence or deliberately unsound decisions in the writing. Against better judgment, Amorim sticks to a desire or perhaps a prerequisite from those with the cash to make this palatable for Western, subtitle-averse audiences.
Near the end of the line, Takeshi makes a disparaging comment about Brazil, insinuating Akemi belongs in the land of the rising sun. But the statement fails to resonate or ignite an identity crisis in here because there’s never an indication of how she feels about either her adoptive home or the place where she was born. Without any perceptible intention to address that crucial, but overlooked, aspect of the protagonist, one can’t but wonder if the motivation was simply to replicate elements from other yakuza-themed productions. But even homage requires a studied vision.
If “Kill Bill,” a film that feels suspiciously referenced here, is Quentin Tarantino’s knitted quilt made up of a selection of tropes and stylistic choices borrowed from outstanding Japanese titles from decades past, then “Yakuza Princes” is the tarnished, discolored, and disposable fabric that would result from submerging that creation in corrosive bleach.
Magnet Releasing will release “Yakuza Princess” in theaters and on demand on Friday, September 3.
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