How To Survive A Yakuza Apocalypse
Japanese auteur Takashi Miike's latest is a genre-mashing work of lunacy featuring gangsters, vampires, and fuzzy-suited frog assassins.
There’s no escaping unscathed from Yakuza Apocalypse. The latest genre-masher from Japanese auteur Takashi Miike is a work of madcap splatter lunacy that pits Yakuza vs. vampires vs. yakuza vampires, and the only film you’ll likely ever see in which the fate of humanity is threatened by a giant plush humanoid-frog wielding lethal martial arts skills and a mesmerizing froggy death stare.
Hayato Ichihara stars as Kageyama, a junior thug who yearns to move his way up the Yakuza chain but lacks the tough skin, literally, to tattoo his back with that gang’s signature ink. He nonetheless idolizes boss Kamiura (Lily Franky), a capo with a supernatural secret that’s revealed during a gory opening sequence slash-attack. Stabbed and shot while tearing his way through a nest of armed rivals, Kamiura lives because he’s technically undead – the O.G. Yakuza bloodsucker.
Although times are tough in Kamiura’s precinct, the townsfolk adore their benevolent overlord for keeping modern big box businesses away. He tenderly rules over his civilians, whom he forbids his underlings from harming, and sates his bloodlust by stashing a knitting circle of reformed criminals in his basement to snack on.
Non-crooks taste better, we learn, but that’s just one of the many idiosyncratic truths of Yakuza Apocalypse’s universe that are better just to accept as you watch the bizarre fantasy action unfold, because it gets more and more bizarre as the minutes tick by, the body count piles up, and two other super-human antagonists mosey into town.
One is an English-speaking gunslinger with a pageboy haircut and spurs who carries a vampire-blasting pistol in a mini-coffin on his back a la Django, the Italian exploitation hero who inspired Miike’s 2007 spaghetti Eastern-Western hybrid Sukiyaki Western Django. The other is an even more anachronistic underboss: Indonesian silat star Yayan Ruhian (The Raid, The Raid 2) as a bespectacled anime dork who totes a backpack and high-waisted jeans as he crushes anyone in his path with a flurry of high kicks like a lethal Steve Urkel.
Together they’ve come to deliver a message to Kamiura from the “Syndicate” that rules over them all: Get with the program, or else. He chooses “or else,” and in the aftermath of the first of several bloody battles in a long, narrow alley, the vampire boss is dispatched – but not before transferring his vampy powers to Kageyama.
Did I mention the turtle-beaked kappa goblin with a B.O. problem, or the beam from a magical belly button that triggers the end of the world?
Miike is, of course, no stranger to blending genres and turning tropes inside and out. Japan’s prolific resident provocateur earned his stripes with brutal yakuza tales and twisted horror that traveled across the Pacific, like 1999’s Audition and 2001’s Ichi the Killer. More recent years saw Miike hop between wildly differing genres, from celebrated period jidaigeki 13 Assassins and Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai to family comedy Ninja Kids!!! Scripted by his Yatterman and Shield of StrawA.D. Yakuza Apocalypse is nothing if not an exercise in complete, balls-out Miike-ness.
Yakuza Apocalypse only happened because of another film that didn’t: When his highly anticipated English language WWII actioner fell apart after star Tom Hardy dropped out, the director needed a new project. The result is totally Miike mayhem: Gory violence, fast-flying action, broad screwball comedy, and borderline absurdist moments that defy categorization. And that’s before the Kermit-like megaboss shows up, bicycling into a showdown amid karate-chopping Yakuza left and right like a demented escapee from a children’s television program.
Sprinklings of deeper meaning are present, if elusive. “There was a time when being a man meant being yakuza,” says Kageyama, narrating his strange saga. Masculinity and the quest to achieve it amid changing times is a faintly recurring theme, as is the dubious meaning of yakuza itself. Inheriting his vampire’s curse like Spider-Man, the tortured gangster ponders what he’s meant to do with his new power. When he turns the townsfolk into a mob of “yakuza vampires,” it disrupts the existing chain of power and authority and sends his macho former colleagues into a panic. “Without civilians, yakuza cannot survive,” laments the gang’s female captain, who has resignedly resorted to growing her own docile plebes in a greenhouse.
One might read (too much) into the potpourri of players waging battle inYakuza Apocalypse as a meta-commentary in itself from Miike, a genre veteran who has pretty much done it all. Vampires, gangsters, killer otaku, and kaiju brawl for supremacy in Miike’s apocalyptic vision, but it’s the reluctant hybrid hero fueled by new blood who forges the path forward — and a fuzzy-suited frog assassin who leaves the most lasting, looney impression.