Martial and arts are a natural translation to Asian cinema. Fighting, warriors, and ancient traditions are common themes in the canon treated with a feast of visuals and cinematic ambidexterity. So I thought I was prepped for what was to come with Yakuza Apocalypse under-titled, The Great War of the Underworld, directed by Takashi Miike. For those unaware, Miike is known for his prolific filmography but most notably for bending genres and pushing censorship boundaries with hyperbolic violence and sexual perversions usually in the form of Yakuza—members of international crime syndicates—subject matter. In other words, I’ll do my best to say it’s a Yakuza-gangster-horror-fantasy film. And completely uncategorizable.
At the shutter opens, gore is thrown all over the picture as a middle-aged fighter tunes up assailants while taking an inhuman beating himself—punched, kicked, stabbed, and later shot without dying. This is Kamiura (Lily Franky), a Yakuza boss, the friendly gangster doted on by the townsfolk, a local savior and counterpoise to an abject economy. He interjects in time with small a stack to save a father from chopping of his child’s head to save some money, and enforces justice on a rapist in the act on a woman who later serves as the love interest to Kageyama (Hayato Ichihara), Kamiura’s protege and currently sub par martial artist.
But Kamiura’s former syndicate puts a hit out on him for leaving to run his own criminal enterprise, and the indefatigable fighter is brought to a gruesome justice by a master fighter, Kyoken (Yayan Ruhian) in hardcore gore porn fashion. Kageyama tries, but his defeat is embarrassing. But shortly thereafter, we find out Kamiura is a Yakuza vampire and chomps into Kageyama’s neck. At this point the film seemed, wow, a new spin on the vampire chronicle, and I was pretty impressed despite the gore glorification. Kageyama then transforms into a super fighter but has vampire qualms, a la Brad Pitt in “Interview with the Vampire.” That doesn’t last long because Kageyama needs food. Soon, the entire village is vampirized, and everyone starts behaving like criminals, like the Yakuza, they say. So Kamiura was a patriarch to the people he was eating. At this point, I’m thinking the film is a critique of the working classes’ economic oppression and hypocrisy of the Yakuza’s strict code of not harming civilians.
But from here, the film becomes too schizophrenic as Miike begins laughing to himself at some deeper satire that nobody else is in on or could possibly reason because the film just looks like it slipped into dementia. The former captain of the Yakuza’s clan, a woman, starts acting like she’s on heroin in a comatose state with strange dripping sounds as her brain melts spilling out of her ear—seriously. Whatever that’s about, add to it a man with a beak and “Rocky Horror Picture Show” makeup and halitosis as a physical manifestation of some goblin. Then add old men chained to a table imprisoned to knitting while having their feet smashed.
While all this is somehow happening, Kageyama is falling for the woman rape victim, the unvampirized Yakuza is disconcerted at the lack of people turned vampires to exploit, and the foreign syndicate with the lethal fighter that brutally killed Kamiura is now strong-arming everyone. Some awkward, offbeat humor is diced in and the whole thing becomes a genre nightmare, much less a story one. Maybe the film is a parody of Japanese film genres? But already too much thought was invested in trying to understand the film when “the world’s toughest terrorist”—somebody in a giant zip-up frog suit—made an entrance towards the end. I’m not making this up, and by this point I completely submitted to the absurdity.
At Cannes, apparently Miike sent a video of himself in geisha drag apologizing for not attending. He then changed into the giant frog suit and headed to Times Square. Tourists passed him and said he had a creepy laugh. The last part I made up, but everything else I didn’t. A select few arthouse cineastes might get the joke.