Yakuza flicks have always held more fascination and intensity for me than most American gangster pictures. The work of Beat Takashi, Kinji Fukasaku, Seijun Suzuki, and Takashi Miike have elevated the yakuza genre with high energy, fantastic production, and unique characters engaging in creative fight scenes. So when I first saw the poster for a movie called Yakuza Princess, I was immediately interested and wanted to see more. I was fully signed up for some trashy fun, and while what I got was entertaining, it didn’t reach the highs I think it could’ve.
Yakuza Princess is based on Danilo Beyruth’s comic “Samurai Shiro.” She follows Akime (MASUMI), a lady living in Sao Paulo, Brazil, who discovers she is the heir of a yakuza family. After being challenged by Shiro (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), a gaijin with amnesia, and Takashi (Tsuyoshi Ihara), a yakuza lieutenant, Akime attempts to figure out identity who to trust and protect herself against rival yakuza coming to murder her.
The picture looks fantastic, thanks to director Vicente Amorim’s use of a wonderfully murky pulp style. The neons, smoke and rain-drenched the film in the comic book aesthetics that I like. While parallels to John Wick’s production are inevitable (and deliberate, given that John Wick appears to be the newest franchisee for action movies to rip off), I adore the look, so I can’t complain. With its oddly aggressive side characters and energetic action scenes, the film appears to be heavily influenced by Takashi Miike. They’re entertaining, and I enjoyed them, but I wish the picture did more to create its own character, particularly with its unusual locale. I had no idea there was a prominent Japanese population in Brazil until I saw this video, and the film did an excellent job of highlighting it. The video dives inside the sleazy businesses and bars frequented by criminals, demonstrating an entire world within one metropolis. I would have loved to see more.
Many of the film’s flaws originate from the editing in the first act. Instead of focusing on Akime, the producers devote substantial time to Shiro, even beginning the movie with him. This issue persists throughout the film, as it will cut to Shiro even when he is not doing anything. It might be because Jonathan Rhys Meyers is the film’s greatest celebrity, but spending so much time on him in the early act disrupts the film’s pace and prevents us from viewing Akime as the primary character. Jonathan Rhys Meyers’s moments felt crowbarred throughout the picture, seldom meshing with the rest of the cast.
The picture gets up significantly in the second half. The picture is at its best when it has action scenes and focuses on Akime’s struggle with her identity. The battle sequences are fantastic, with plenty of gore and a wide variety of martial arts, gunfights, and swords. MASUMI’s performance sells her duality, as I feel her confusion about who she is, discomfort in her current existence, and power in a battle all contribute to her performance. Plus, once the plot gets rolling, her participation in yakuza society feels genuine. Jonathan Rhys Meyers plays a strange character. The actor most recognized for his work in Velvet Goldmine plays a fierce boxer, which is unusual because he captures the physicality but not much else.
By the conclusion of the film, while I was having a good time with what I had, I couldn’t help but believe it could’ve been so much more. It might have been a good action movie with a little more concentration and a sharper script. It has fascinating characters, an excellent idea, and a cool aesthetic. Still, it lacks the strong narrative and characterization that elevates Yakuza Princess to the level of others in the genre. The film foreshadows a sequel, and I’ll be on the watch for it. I adore Akime and want to see her narrative progress, and now that her character has been defined, a sequel might be more concentrated. In the end, Yakuza Princess is entertaining, but it doesn’t rise above the level of an average action film.
Yakuza Princess will be available digitally everywhere on September 3rd.