Right out of the gate during Brazilian filmmaker Vicente Amorim’s (Motorrad) latest work, Yakuza Princess, I learned something new and very interesting—that Sao Paulo, Brazil plays host to the largest Japanese community outside of Japan. According to this story, as a result of this diaspora, there’s also a sizable Japanese criminal element. Based on the acclaimed graphic novel Samurai Shiro by Danilo Beyruth (and adapted in part by the director), the film tells the story of the sole surviving member of a criminal family, Akemi (played as an adult by pop star Masumi), who had to watch nearly her entire clan get wiped out in a bloody massacre in Osaka, Japan, leaving her an orphan, raised by her trust teacher (Toshiji Takeshima), who relocates her to Sao Paolo and trains her to become a skilled fighter in her own right, since he knows one day she will have to defend her rightful place as the heiress to half of Japan’s wide-reaching Yakuza syndicate.
She is kept largely in the dark about her birthright until she turns 21, when she crosses paths with an amnesiac stranger (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), who wakes up in a hospital with only a rare samurai sword in his possession and police surrounding his bed with lots of questions he’s unable to answer. When the two finally meet, it’s clear that both have sword skills that are beyond even their awareness, and it’s also in that moment that a group of killers begin chasing them, led by Takeshi (Tsuyoshi Ihara). The pair manage to escape and begin a blood-soaked adventure to find out everything from who her family really was, what is so special about the sword, and why so many people seem to want her either dead or to move back to Japan to take her rightful place as a criminal leader.
Aside from being oddly paced for an action/thriller—there are wide chasms of dead space in the middle of Yakuza Princess—the movie actually works better as a mystery than a high-energy crime story. That being said, I always appreciate a film with sword-wielding characters not afraid to take a few limbs and heads off during its running time. Masumi gives a solid performance as a woman who is both curious about her own story but not especially eager (at first) to be a part of a crime family, let alone lead it.
Visually, the film is front-loaded with atmosphere and foreboding, with each new destination on the journey having a unique and often menacing vibe. The fight scenes are bold, brutal and bloody. I was especially impressed with Ihara’s performance as the grizzled mobster who still adheres to traditions of honor and loyalty to age-old allegiances, even if it confuses those he’s attempting to kill or protect. The story in general is sometimes tough to follow, but by the end, it’s fairly clear who is siding whom and for whom we’re meant to cheer. What it lacks in dramatic stability, it makes up for in devastating fight sequences and some impressive acting. This is probably an experience that would work better on the big screen, if you have that option, but overall, not a bad time at the movies.
The film opens Friday in theaters and on VOD.
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