Director: Vicente Amorim
Cast: Masumi, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Tsuyoshi Ihara, Eijiro Ozaki, Kenny Leu, Toshiji Takeshima
Runtime: 1 hr 52 mins
Rating: M18 (Violence and Nudity)
Released By: Shaw Organisation
Opening Day: 17 March 2022
Synopsis: Akemi (MASUMI) grew up in Brazil. When she turns 21 she finds out that she is the heiress to half of a Yakuza empire in Japan, that she has a taste for blood and that the man who’s been protecting her has been actually sent to kill her.
There is plenty of promise in ‘Yakuza Princess’, an adaptation of the graphic novel by Danilo Beyruth about a young woman Akemi (singer-songwriter Masumi) who discovers on her 21st birthday that she is heir to what was once the most feared Yakuza crime syndicate in Osaka and has to contend with the consequences of her lineage. Sadly, much of that promise remains unfulfilled by the end of a meandering narrative that tries to be a gangland melodrama, neo-noir thriller and spaghetti Western all at once, without succeeding at being any despite its stylistic accomplishments.
Following a prologue explaining what had happened to Akemi’s family when she was just a one-year-old girl, the setting shifts to Sao Paulo’s Liberdade neighborhood, home to the world’s largest ethnic Japanese population outside of Japan. It is there that Akemi had been raised as a kid, and in between trainings with her instructor Chiba (Toshiji Takeshima), is now working a dead-end job at a souvenir gift shop. Her life takes an unexpected turn when she runs into a nameless White American male (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), who cannot quite recall his past but remembers that he was in possession of a legendary sword.
Their paths intersect with that of Takeshi (Tsuyoshi Ihara), a ruthless gang boss who learns a secret and heads to Brazil ostensibly to track down Akemi. Though beginning as three separate storylines, they converge by the end of the first act; in particular, the first time they do at Akemi’s apartment complex brings a thrilling fight and chase sequence that the rest of the movie will find difficult to match. Akemi and the amnesiac forge an uneasy alliance against Takeshi as they set out to find out the truth behind her heritage and his identity respectively.
As exciting as that may sound, Brazilian director Vicente Amorim cannot quite sustain much suspense or intrigue in the narrative. A yakuza retirement community where a good part of the second act is set comes off less fascinating than enervating, especially as it is never clear which side of the battle these former mobsters are on before the inevitable bloodbath. Ditto a subsequent betrayal which thwarts Akemi’s escape attempt back to Osaka, which is just as frustrating in explaining the loyalties of the other nameless supporting players involved.
Likewise, Amorim, who is credited with three other writers for the screenplay, fails to convince us why we should be invested in the fates of Akemi or her newfound ally. Beyond the fact that her whole family was killed while she was just a baby, it is never clear why we should sympathise with what happened to Akemi, given too how she seems perfectly capable of defending herself. It doesn’t help too that whilst Masumi handles the action nicely, she struggles to define the emotional journey that her character is going through at the same time. Meyers too ends up just as lacking, though the fact that his stranger-with-a-sword character is even more thinly written gives him a somewhat stronger excuse.
Without much plot- or character-driven dynamics, ‘Yakuza Princess’ becomes defined pretty much by its style, which is aesthetically alluring at the start but turns quickly repetitive. Thanks to ace cinematographer Gustavo Hadba, many of the scenes unfold against neon-soaked backdrops, whether it is of the city or its fluorescent-lit interiors, and they are atmospheric to say the least. Yet what starts off visually arresting soon loses its appeal when it becomes clear that the film’s storytelling deficiencies get blatantly obvious. Just as apparent is the unimpressive action that culminate in either amputations or decapitations, both of which are intended to detract from the quick-cut flurries of indistinct hand-to-hand combat.
Like we said, there is plenty of promise in the premise of ‘Yakuza Princess’, including its potentially fascinating setting in the largest Japanese diasporic community in the world; and yet, what could have been a compelling coming-of-age story set amidst a brutal underworld ends up being dull, derivative and dreary. The visuals are worth something, but are unfortunately lost amidst a story that needed a lot more story and character. Much as we hate the cliché therefore, we must say this yakuza story is simply not sharp enough to cut it..
(Not enough story or character dulls what could have been an intriguing underworld saga set in a fascinating diasporic setting)
Review by Gabriel Chong