Thoughtful reviews, the Boulder film scene

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— Zoe Saldana, Star Trek

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Let’s start with a spoiler alert. I read a carefully worded description of this film in the catalog for the Toronto Film Festival. They did not give away any of the visual surprises, and I won’t either. I recommend you steer clear of other sites and reviews (including IMDB) for the full impact of Yakuza Apocalypse.

Luis Buñuel, in Un Chien Andalou, smashed movie tropes by taking familiar, well-worn images and then strongly associating them with something shocking, something you couldn’t unsee, thus ruining the trope forever. Clouds sliding in front of the moon will always evoke... well, if you’ve seen Un Chien Andalou, you won’t forget.

It seems like Japanese director Takashi Miike is attempting the same thing for Yakuza movie tropes.

For example, when the camera whip-zooms in on a martial artist’s fierce gaze, I’ll think of a TV-show gag from Futurama. And the next time I see a shirtless martial artist taking a stance, arm outstretched, inviting his foe with a quick “come here” wag of the fingers... I will chuckle and think of ... amphibians.

Yakuza Vampires

Civilian vampires get their chance to overpower the yakuza
Civilian vampires get their chance to overpower the yakuza

A mere plot summary cannot do justice to Yakuza Apocalypse, but for the sake of convention I’ll give it a try. Keep in mind I’m leaving out a lot of relevant details.

A bloody opening fight scene tells us that Yakuza Apocalypse is going to introduce vampires into the yakuza genre. So far so good.

Our yakuza boss is popular in his neighborhood for his largesse toward the civilians, but he’s not our protagonist. Director Takashi Miike instead chooses instead a young, ambitious bodyguard named Kagayama (Hayato Ichihara).

Vampire hunters arrive to kill the boss, and Kagayama fails to protect him. Before he dies, however, the boss manages to turn Kagayama into a vampire.

As a vampire, Kagayama is careless about biting civilians, and he accidentally turns several of them into vampires as well. They in turn are also careless, and so on. Soon the only people not vampires are the yakuza, who, the movie has established, taste bad to vampires.

Spirit World

I haven’t described the vampire hunters yet, and I’m tempted not to. But just for a taste (so to speak) I’ll say that one of them reminded me of Napoleon Dynamite, with his awful hair, awkward clothing, and a dorky backpack.

And I haven’t mentioned the arrival of the spirit world creatures yet, either. The stinking goblin shows up first in the knitting dungeon — did I mention the dungeon where prisoners who knit yet? And then there are the amphibians, about which I won’t say more.

Only someone like Miike could get away with making and releasing a film like this.

And How Was It?

If you like your movies linear and sensible, you can stop now. But for the rest of us, the question remains: is Yakuza Apocalypse is any good?

It was full of surprises, which is refreshing. It is also absurd and funny, two qualities I like.

At the same time, Yakuza Apocalypse is a mess and a jumble. With unexplained phenomena, sudden shifts in plot and tone... It can be frustrating (and surely it intends to be).

Parts of it reminded me of the films of Stephen Chow (Kung Fu Hustle). Not all of the humor in a Chow film translates in America. And while Yakuza Apocalypse can also feel pretty exotic, I don’t think you can chalk it up to cultural or linguistic images. I imagine Yakuza Apocalypse would feel inexplicably foreign even in its home country.

For some of us, that sounds pretty appealing.