Takeshi Miike is a singular talent, not because he has a specific style, but because in many ways he has a lack of style, a cold productionism that makes him popular within the Japanese studio system. He makes at least two films a year, and usually comes in under budget, ensuring that he always gets more work. Yakuza Apocalypse is a representable example of this sleek production style, taking pulp from all sorts of sources and mashing it together into a collection of scenes that entertain despite their lack of narrative coherence.
The film is about top yakuza boss Kamiura (Lily Franky), who is quite protective of his small town he runs. But soon a new threat appears in the form of mysterious men, who threaten him to come back to the syndicate, or die. Kamiura refuses, and the strange men assassinate him. The only trick is, the boss was a vampire, and passes on his vampire blood and power to his right hand man Kageyama (Hayato Ichihara). As Kageyama struggles to understand his new powers, he uncontrollably sucks the blood of one of the civilians of the town, and begins a plague of vampirism draining the town of its civilians. The attack victims become vampires themselves, and are empowered by their new condition, claiming themselves to yakuza now as well. Vampire citizens, the yakuza gang, and the mysterious syndicate men all clash in chaotic spectacle as the town, and the world, creeps towards doom.
From this description, it sounds like Miike’s new film is a blast, and in many ways it is. Scenes are filled with enjoyable material, from martial arts action, vampire attacks, yakuza outfits, and the more obtuse oddities like a group of men imprisoned in a basement knitting. The film crams itself with references, either to history (one of the assassins dresses as an old English judge), to pop culture (Godzilla riffs near the end of the film), to the lore of various cultures (vampirism lore is not native to Japan, but Kappas sure are!) This is a crazy pulpy film with a plethora of moments to fondly remember.
But Yakuza Apocalypse also suffers in some parts in terms of pacing, as some of this film lacks a tangible sense of stakes. The main point of contention the films arguably the control of the town itself, threatened with the death of the old yakuza boss and the rise of vampirism affecting the townspeople. But when pretty much all the civilians become vampires, what are the stakes then? The film turns to importing a final boss to create a new threat, merely adding material to entertain enough until its runtime ends. By this time the town acts more like an arena for the characters than a concern.
The film has tonal whiplash, another characters of Takeshi Miike’s work. His depictions of violence is brutal and bloody, even in this film, which is overall quite silly. Miike always shows the cost and pain of violence, and in a way, this could be seen as commendable. In a world that tends to pulls punches in regards to violence in media, Miike’s stylized violence always packs a punch, and reminds us of the visceral stakes at hand. The problem in this film, like in other Miike films, is that it is a fun romp intercut with drastic violence, causing tonal whiplash for the audience. Of course, this film lacks clearly defined stakes in some points, so that function is negated. This is a film with vampires, assassins, and mysterious powers, but also murder, rape, and enslavement. Yakuza Apocalypse will make you laugh, sometimes uncomfortably, as a mixture of humour and death pervades the screen.
Comparing this film to Miike’s previous work, Sukiyaki Western Django (2007) help elucidate some of the film’s other problems. Unlike Django, there is no overarching plot, or at least it falls to pieces in the end. By comparison, Django has less references and mania, but has a stronger backbone to the film organizing it thematically. While no one would call Yakuza Apocalypse deep, let it be known it does have some thematic parallels, as the citizens who were preyed upon by the Yakuza now prey upon the Yakuza, and are empowered to protect themselves rather than seek the power of others (the Yakuza). But in many ways, Yakuza Apocalypse is what happened when you give fans everything they want: more action, more silly costumes, more silliness, coupled with badassery, in general. This approach lacks the structure that can make film compelling.
Yakuza Apocalypse entertains through its sheer mania. While the film might not have too much staying power because in many ways it lacks tangible stakes, its visuals will likely be the treat of GIFs to come. This movie is a mess, but is a lovely mess all the same.