Review by David Baldwin
Akemi (musician MASUMI) is a Japanese orphan living in São Paulo, Brazil. She has had extensive fight training since she was a little girl, but has very little idea about her past. When her grandfather is murdered and mysterious stranger Shirô (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) saves her life with an ancient sword, Akemi quickly discovers she is the heiress to half of the Yakuza crime syndicate in Okinawa. And the other half happens to want her dead.
For a film called Yakuza Princess, you might expect a non-stop action thriller with that kind of synopsis. And while there is certainly some action and thrills scattered throughout the film, it is actually more of a slow moving drama about a young woman discovering her past and coming to terms with the destiny in front of her. There is a lot of exposition, even more backstory and a whole lot going on between characters in Okinawa and São Paulo (which houses the largest population of Japanese people outside of Japan). It gets a bit overwhelming at times, and some moments have a languished pacing that can be trying even at the most exciting of times.
I mention all of this, because it stands in direct contrast to the vicious violence that starts right at the beginning of the film (which includes the off-screen murder of a child) and continues right up until the end credits. People are shot, stabbed, have their heads and hands cut off, and for some inexplicable reason, keep getting hit over the head with glass bottles — which of course, shatter upon impact. It is outrageous, comical and clearly in tune with the film’s graphic novel origins. But after the third or fourth time someone spits CGI blood on the camera, it starts getting a little gratuitous for all the wrong reasons and all but completely loses any shred of cleverness it first had. In fact, the film relies almost solely on CGI blood rather than practical blood squibs, which make some of the injuries these characters sustain look a bit too artificial. It feels odd to note and be bothered by this, given how great some of the makeup effects are (and in turn, the terrific stunt work), yet it kept taking me out of the film anytime blood appeared on-screen. I understand the intention Director Vincente Amorim had in making it so viciously violent, but why skimp so haphazardly on the blood effects? And why so much editing on the stunt work and fight scenes?
Acting wise, MASUMI does fairly well in her first leading role, efficiently capturing Akemi’s plight without going too deep whereas Rhys Meyers sleep walks through every moment. While it may be intentional on his part, it feels like it could have used a bit more energy. Heads up to anyone interested, he goes completely nude for a small portion of the running time, which may be the most interesting thing you could say for him and his character (besides how awful ridiculous it is to think he can blend in with his obscene stitched up face scars). The only other actor who really makes an impression is Tsuyoshi Ihara as Takeshi. He brings the right amount of intensity to the role, and is dialed into the film’s tone better than anyone else. He cuts a bullet clean out of his leg without wincing and it might be the most bad-ass thing I have seen all year. I wanted so much more of him and think Yakuza Princess could have benefitted greatly from him having a larger role. But for a film being released over Labour Day weekend, it gets the job done.
Yakuza Princess is available on VOD and Digital now.