Stars: Kenji Shimada, Glenn Maynard, Skye Medusa, Cris Cochrane, Kristen Condon, Vlady T, Saya Minami, Tom Liddy | Written by Addison Heath, Glenn Maynard, Kenji Shimada | Directed by Addison Heath
A brand-new take on the Japanese Yakuza films of the 1960s, Mondo Yakuza is clearly inspired by the nihilistic work of Seijun Suzuki (Branded to Kill) in particular. The film tells the story of Ichiro Kataki (Shimada), a violent Yakuza gang member travels to Melbourne, Australia after his beloved sister Yuko is brutally murdered by a group of criminals. Hell bent on vengeance he teams up with Cassidy Arizona (Skye Medusa), a lady of the night with a vendetta of her own…
Seijun Suzuki’s prolific work in the yakuza genre was marked by a few things: his visual flair, the often avant-garde nature of his movies, sheer coolness… and actor Joe Shishido; who appeared in a number of Suzuki’s movies, including Youth of the Beast (1963), Detective Bureau 2-3: Go to Hell, Bastards! (1963), Gate of Flesh (1964) and the aforementioned Branded to Kill (1967). Well, in actor Kenji Shimada, Heath has found his own Joe Shishido.
Whilst this is not the first time Shimada and Heath have worked together – their collaboration has already spawned filmic gold in Under a Kaleidoscope, which was one of my top picks of 2014 – in Mondo Yakuza both have found their respective grooves. Shimada’s revenge seeking character is instantly one of cinema coolest and most bad-ass. Shooting and fighting his way through anyone who crosses his path, the character joins the likes of Vincent Vega and Jules Winnfield in the annals all-time great suit wearing, arse-kicking, suave antiheroes. The character of Ichiro Kataki sees actor Shimada really show his full range AND full potential – his character’s story arc of loss, revenge and eventual redemption is marked by a complex performance that at once commands respect from the audience but also empathy; yet it is also a performance tinged with pathos.
If Mondo Yakuza sees Kenji Shimada at the top of his game, the same can be said of writer/director Addison Heath, and in particular his scripting. Both his previous scripts, Chocolate Strawberry Vanilla and Under a Kaleidoscope, featured essentially one-character performances, focusing on the mindset of their leads. Here however the script, co-written with actors Glenn Maynard and Kenji Shimada, is much more of an ensemble piece; and as such all the characters have their own distinct voices and their own purpose – everyone drives the story forward to its ultimately satisfying conclusion, without a single wasted line of dialogue or, more importantly, screen time.
What Mondo Yakuza does share with Heaths’ previous work (Chocolate Strawberry Vanilla in particular) is the black humour. Here it’s almost relentlessly bleak. Yes, there is the odd scene in which the tone is lightened, but said humour is still, almost constantly, very black. For example, co-writer and co-star Glenn Maynard somehow manages to make a discussion about 60s spy show Get Smart into a deeply disturbing, yet hilarious, explanation of just how (gruesomely) he’s going to torture someone… And when it does take place, the deeply troublesome form of torture is juxtaposed with a ridiculous banjo-filled “deep south” Deliverance-like soundtrack, which makes the scene all that more bizarre and all that more dark!
[Sidenote: Glenn Maynard needs to have a role in every Aussie genre film going forward, he always brings something special to his roles no matter how small]
In the end, for all its Asian influences Mondo Yakuza is as Australian as it is Japanese. The blend between the two cultures – using the tropes of Japanese gangster movies, the furious action seen in Eastern cinema, and buckets of Aussie humour – is perfect; giving the audience a film that is both familiar yet fresh. The mixing of language, cultures and characters is a fantastic dichotomy and one that audiences will be pleasantly surprised by.
Mondo Yakuza is available now on DVD across Australia from Monster Pictures/Fatal Visions.
Special features on the Australian Mondo Yakuza DVD include an introduction by Fatal Visions Editor-In-Chief Michael Helms; audio commentary with co-writer/director Addison Heath, co-writer/actor Kenji Shimada, producer Dylan Heath, cinematographer/production designer Jasmine Jakupi and actor Tim Jason Wicks; featurette Branded To Film: an interview with writer/director Addison Heath, producer Dylan Heath & cinematographer/production designer Jasmine Jakupi; footage from the World Premiere Q&A at Monster Fest 2016; a music video from KAO=S; deleted scenes; and the trailer.