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Like a Dragon

Kazuma (Kazuki Kitamura, left) battles Yakuza thugs while trying
to find Haruka's (“Natsuo”, right) missing mother in
Takashi Miike's film adaptation of the Sega Playstation 2 game Ryu Ga Gotoku.
  Japanese: 龍が如く
Year: 2007  
Director: Takashi Miike  
  Writer: Seiji Togawa, Seishu Hase (original story), based on the Playstation 2 video game Ryu Ga Gotoku AKA: Yakuza from Sega
  Cast: Kazuki Kitamura, Goro Kishitani, Shun Shioya, Saeko, Gong Yoo, Sho Aikawa, YosiYosi Arakawa, Haruhiko Kato, Claude Maki, Sansei Shiomi, Natsuo Tomita, Tomorowo Taguchi, Yutaka Matshushige, Saki Takaoka
  The Skinny: As Miike Takashi films go, this is not his best but is entertaining enough to satisfy most action fans. The convoluted storyline, bizarre cast of characters and comic book violence weaken what could have been an interesting modern Yakuza genre film.

With his flamboyant sense of film style, over-the-top action sequences, outrageous visual sight gags and genre-bending sensibilities, it is easy to see why Miike Takashi's films are so enjoyed by audiences, particularly those outside of Japan. Like his contemporaries Quentin Tarantino, Edgar Wright, Guillermo del Toro and Robert Rodriguez, Miike has really done a lot to invigorate the Japanese cinema and help make it more accessible by world audiences.

His latest work Ryu Ga Gotoku (Like A Dragon) is a film that is pure Miike and covers many of his signature themes (Yakuza, innocence lost, bloodlust, cartoon violence and death).

While it's generally a bad sign when a film is "based upon a video game", in this instance Sega's Playstation 2 game, Ryu Ga Gotoku (AKA: Yakuza). However the translation here is not all that far off the mark. Of course, it helps when the screenplay was adapted from a story written by acclaimed novelist Hase Seishu (Sleepless Town, City of Lost Souls).

The story revolves around former Yakuza underling Kiryu Kazuma (Kitamura Kazuki), who has recently been released from prison after a lengthy incarceration, and is trying to piece his life together and distance himself from his Yakuza past. Along the way he encounters Haruka ("Natsuo"), a distressed young girl who is trying to find her lost mother (a former club hostess). Unfortunately Kiryu's problems slowly escalate as he is pursued by a former associate, the baseball bat-wielding psycho Majima Goro (Kishitani Goro) who has a grudge to settle with Kiryu.

Kiryu's encounter with Goro's men in a Osaka convenience store inspire a couple of free-spirited teens, Satoru (Shioya Shun) and Yui (Saeko) into robbing area stores and using the money to pay off Yui's debts and to terminate an unwanted pregnancy.

If things weren't confusing enough, a robbery is also taking place nearby where two gunmen are holding an entire bank hostage and have been tormenting the bank employees with their constant bickering.

Other incidental characters include a nebbish gunrunner (Arakawa YosiYosi), a mysterious Korean assassin (Gong Yoo) and Nishikiyama, an Osaka Kingpin who has entered into a sinister alliance with North Korean militants and is holding over 10 Billion Yen in his fortress penthouse.

The amount of male machismo and bare fisted brawling in the film is reminiscent of the Be-Bop High School movies and are every bit as cartoonish in their over-the-top violence. While the violence does not approach the sheer visceral horror of his past films like Koroshiya No Ichi (AKA: Ichi the Killer) or Gozu, there are moments where one just cringes at the body blows.

Kitamura (Controller X in Godzilla: Final Wars) is an incredibly charismatic actor who definitely has the look and brawn to play the "Dragon of Dojima" Kiryu. He is your atypical hero type - silent and brooding with a "takumashi" (manly strength) that seems to be a prerequisite of Yakuza heroes.

Kishitani (Returner, Shin Jingi No Hakaba) steals the show however as the manic Majima, a criminal with a unique flair for destructive mayhem and yet also has a strangely sinister charm about him. Unlike Kiryu, he has no honor and is not opposed to killing his own subordinates if the mood suits him. He is not much unlike Kakihara (Asano Tadanobu) in Miike's comic book Yakuza cult movie Koroshiya No Ichi but is thankfully not as vile a villain. If anything, he reminded me a lot of Tommy Lee Jones' "Harvey Two-Face" character in the disappointing Batman & Robin movie - comical in his outright villainy.

Shioya Shun (Hurricanger Red in the Hurricanger Tokusatsu series) and Saeko (Backdancers!, NANA) are a bit wasted in their roles as Satoru and Yui, and their characters aren't really given much room to develop beyond their Bonnie and Clyde type roles.

As mentioned the various fights border on the unrealistic side, possibly in keeping with the original video game. Both Kiryu and Majima often display varying degrees of almost superhuman endurance, stamina and strength in their battles. During the final fight between Kiryu and "final boss" Nishikiyama, the two start generating "auras" ("heat mode", in the game) when they fight giving off the impression that they aren't quite human. It almost takes on the "cinema of the absurd" when Kiryu goes into "Popeye" mode after drinking a special vitamin elixir that supercharges his abilities to finish of Nishikiyama.

Ryu Ga Gotoku is still an enjoyable Yakuza action film with elements of fantasy and crime drama. While I would have preferred if Miike had just focused on Kiryu's story and thrown out the subplots involving the bank robbery, the Korean Assassin and Satoru and Yui's story, I guess the intention was to create a type of Pulp Fiction type ensemble piece. Unfortunately while it worked well in that movie, it does not work well here at all and just causes a lot of unnecessary confusion. Sometimes simplicity is really better (JMaruyama 2007)

Availability: DVD (USA)
Region 1 NTSC
Tokyo Shock
16x9 Anamorphic Widescreen
Japanese Language Track
Dolby Digital 5.1
Removable English Subtitles
image courtesy of Copyright ©2002-2017 Ross Chen