Stars: Yayan Ruhian, Rirî Furankî, Hayato Ichihara, Mio Yûki, Pierre Taki, Denden, Tetsu Watanabe, Yoshiyuki Morishita, Riko Narumi, Reiko Takashima, Lily Frankie, Masanori Mimoto, Shô Aoyagi, Manzô Shinra, Kiyohiko Shibukawa | Written by Yoshitaka Yamaguchi | Directed by Takashi Miike
When considering the work of a director who often makes up to six or seven films a year, you might be forgiven for assuming that most of these would be low-key, simple productions focusing on small sets of characters. Not so in the case of Takashi Miike, the filmmaker behind such eyebrow-raising fare as the ultraviolent Ichi The Killer, zombie musical comedy The Happiness of the Katakuris and contemplative drama The Bird People in China. Never one to shirk an ambitious project for the sake of an easy life, Miike’s latest film sees him on world-ending form with Yakuza Apocalypse.
Kageyama is a low-level Yakuza thug bullied by his fellow gangsters for refusing to get tattoos because of his sensitive skin. Nevertheless, his loyalty to gang boss Kaimura is rewarded (or punished) when the elder Yakuza bites his underling shortly before being killed by assassins, thus giving Kageyama the same vampiric powers Kaimura possessed.
Kageyama is both devastated and surprised, vowing to avenge his master while also coming to terms with his newfound bloodlust. His attraction to a rape victim his gang saved from the hands of her attacker is played uncomfortably straight, suggesting that if he weren’t a member of the undead Kageyama would happily romance her before she’s even out of hospital. Mercifully, this subplot is swept aside by the grander, sillier narrative of Yakuza Apocalypse, which sees the lead dealing with his frustration by biting members of the public who become gangster vampires and begin biting people themselves, having never been taught the restraint and care Kaimura took to ensure a vampire epidemic never occurred.
The problem with being a Yakuza vampire, you see, is that the blood of criminals tastes terrible. Upright citizens, on the other hand? Delicious! Yakuza Apocalypse‘s commitment to its bonkers mythology is admirable, as is its respect for even the most ancillary characters. Miike has always tried to represent the fringes of society in his films, and here, perhaps, is his first film populated almost entirely by fringe characters.
In a not-so-subtle jab at Japanese gang culture, the vampires of Yakuza Apocalypse are more or less gruff, lazy clones of one another. Whether shirking their duties, playing cards or spoiling for a fight with anyone who’ll bother, the supposition that Yakuza is less a symbol of status than it is a collective attempt to seem cool is amusing, especially when the mathematic implications of a vampire epidemic in Kageyama’s town mean that the town is overrun with the good for nothing thugs. With no ‘civilians’ to bully or rob, the living Yakuza are impotent and desperate, going so far as attempting to grow fresh citizens in their greenhouse.
This madness is played utterly straight, as is the appearance of several human-creature hybrids that form an international group of vampire assassins who want to put a stop to Kageyama’s proliferation of vampirism. A fight between the hero a vampire dressed in a ratty felt frog costume is a knock-down-drag-out martial arts battle that climaxes long after it reasonably ought to in unexpected (but inevitable, given the title) ways, and it’s hard not to feel a little tired by the relentless whimsy of Yakuza Apocalypse by the third ‘final’ fight sequence.
Hats off to the commitment displayed by all involved, of course; it takes a lot of hard work to make something this silly look and sound this professional. But as the film draws to its histrionic close, you can’t help but wonder what it was all for. Too interested in the idea of aggressive conformity to just be a cartoonish comedy and much too ludicrous to truly be taken seriously, Miike’s film is a curious hybrid that may end up best enjoyed split into YouTube clips. Come to think of it, removing all context from Yakuza Apocalypse is probably the best way to enjoy it.
Yakuza Apocalypse is released in the UK on January 6th.