Judge Dan Mancini is afraid of Riki Takeuchi's Wayne Newton-like hair? Very afraid.
"Yakuza isn't about how many men you've got."—Seiji
One gets the feeling watching a Takashi Miike flick that the director might achieve greatness if he just focused on quality instead of quantity. Movies like Ichi: The Killer and Gozu have been praised by critics because of their style, though they're relatively void of substance. That Miike can put beautiful, horrifying, mesmerizing images on the screen isn't in doubt. But to what end? The visual assault in Miike flicks is often so relentless it nearly blinds one to the fact that, observed more closely, they're somehow incomplete, like rough drafts. In a sense, that's probably what they are. How fully-realized can a filmmaker's work be when he's cranking out three or so pictures a year? One could posit that Miike is a director in the mold of Seijun Suzuki, turning genre drivel into arthouse chic. But necessity was the mother of Suzuki's invention—he could either make program pictures or nothing at all—while Miike's critical and commercial success has ensured that his choice of material and the pace at which he makes films is mostly self-determined. There's an artistic nobility to opting for the fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants restraints of a micro-budget, but Miike's work suffers from its sheer volume. Viewed as a whole, his oeuvre is impressive in its size, scope, and diversity, but aside from a few exceptions, individual films fail to impress. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
Yakuza Demon (Kikoku) is a case study in Miike's strengths and weaknesses. The idea of the film is fascinating, the execution under-developed. It's the story of a tough yakuza named Seiji (Riki Takeuchi, Dead or Alive), who's part of a weak family comprised of only two other members, boss Muto (Koichi Iwaki, Family) and fellow thug Yoshifumi (Hideki Sone, Gozu). The trio finds itself caught in a turf war between larger gangs the Date Family and the Tendo Group when the Dates demand Muto assassinate a Tendo lieutenant as repayment of a debt. To protect his boss, Seiji gets Muto thrown in the safe confines of the local prison. He takes on the assassination duty himself, but is determined a Tendo lieutenant isn't worthy of his wrath—he'll go after the big boss himself (Tetsuro Tamba, You Only Live Twice). When he and Yoshifume bungle the home invasion, the Tendos send their top assassin, Masamichi Tokisada, after the duo. Seiji and Yoshifume hole up to formulate a plan of action, but matters are complicated by Seiji's secret crush on Muto's semi-estranged and pregnant wife Sachie.
The single innovation Yakuza Demon brings to the yakuza genre is its gang of three. Seiji's miniscule, sad-sack family stands outside Japanese gangster film conventions, which tend to follow criminals at the top of the hierarchy. It infuses the picture with a unique, melancholy tone but still manages to be less than fully-realized thematically. Riki Takeuchi's made a career of playing hard-assed yakuza, and that's exactly what he delivers here, but Seiji is a mad dog, hell bent on vengeance for reasons left mostly a mystery to the viewer. It's possible Miike intended Yakuza Demon to be a somber meditation on loyalty. Betrayal, after all, is a centerpiece of the genre and the primary means by which thugs advance through the ranks, gaining power and influence. Perhaps the Muto family is so small because its three members are too loyal to one another. This would imbue Muto's, Yoshi's, and particularly Seiji's actions with a tragic nobility, except Miike never connects the dots. What we're left with is a half-formed exercise in tone. Seiji's romantic feelings for Sachie, for example, are ridiculously ill-conceived. It feels tacked onto the third act, as though Seiji's loyalty to his boss runs so deep he wasn't consciously aware of the attraction until the old man was pushing up daisies. In truth, Miike probably invented it once he realized the last 20 minutes of the picture, when Seiji is parted from his cohorts, loses emotional immediacy. Properly developed, the sub-plot could have been used to reinforce the theme of loyalty and its tragic consequences in the upside-down world of gangsters, but it's as if Miike was too rushed to think things through.
Despite its faults, Yakuza Demon does offer loads of satisfying melancholy, a few good shoot-outs, and Miike's typically excellent use of the camera. Its imagery is nowhere near as aggressively surreal as many of his other films, but the handheld camera work and clever framing are a pleasure. The look is raw in the style of one of Miike's biggest influences, Kinji Fukusaku (Battles Without Honor and Humanity, Battle Royale). A low-budget, run-and-gun, straight-to-video feature shot with digital cameras, the movie is proof positive of the aesthetic potential of digital entertainment produced for the small screen—if only television shows were shot with such a compositional eye. The DVD's 1.78:1 anamorphically enhanced transfer is occasionally soft, but otherwise free of artifacts. Colors are accurate, if less impressive than those rendered on 35mm film. The Japanese stereo audio track is sufficient but unimpressive. Gunfights are infrequent and relatively restrained, so the lack of a 5.1 track isn't a huge handicap but the flat two-channel mix seems out of step with the director's stylish visuals.
In addition to the feature, the disc houses brief biographies of Miike, Takeuchi, Iwaki, Sone, and Tamba; a gallery of six production stills; and an informative essay by Tom Mes, author of Agitator: The Cinema of Takashi Miike.
Yakuza Demon is a well-shot little picture that tries to twist the crime genre, but misses the mark because its individual elements don't quite congeal into a unified whole. Unfortunately, I can't recommend it to anyone except the most ardent fans of either Miike or yakuza flicks in general.
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