Tak Sakaguchi may not be a household name, but in the right circles just having it linked to your film will have a niche crowd slavering at the lips. This, by-and-large, is down to the success of one film – Versus. It was a re-imagining of the zombie flick by way of convicts, immortal warriors, yakuza, samurai and oodles of over-the-top violence. It also introduced many to Tak, a figure who looked every inch an enigmatically cool star in the making. He had the look of a man who'd just stepped out of the pages of a seinen manga and when things got hairy he certainly showed he had the moves to back up this brooding image. Unfortunately, since that film, his output has been less praiseworthy, he flits about the borders of respectability, hovering around lower-end productions and sadly hasn't realised his potential, be it through chance or choice.
Yet his name is still one that raises excitement when attached to any level of film, including something such as Yakuza Weapon. Shot in roughly a fortnight, it's in line with the growing trend of ultra low budget hyper-violent tales that are achieving cult status in the West. Based on the manga by Ken Ishikawa, it comes to the screen being co-directed by Sakaguchi (who has already tested the directorial waters with Yoroi: Samurai Zombie) and Yudai Yamaguchi. The latter name being synonymous with offbeat lo-fi Japanese splatter cinema, having worked with Sakaguchi on Battlefield Baseball (2003) and Deadball (2011). You'd be forgiven for letting out a little sigh of disappointment when you realised the marketing blurb proclaiming this production featured “the team who brought you Versus” is a bit of a stretch, the director of that piece Ryuhei Kitamura is nowhere to be seen, the hype being based on the fact Yamaguchi wrote the screenplay for Versus and Tak obviously starred in it.
So, with expectations suitably reined in, what's the substance of Yakuza Weapon? Well, there isn't any, and that's the point. If you've seen the publicity artwork, a man with a machine gun for an arm, you knew what you were buying a ticket for. It's cheap comic-book characterisations and shouted lines of fury, absurd feats of bravado, hyper-violence and mad humour, all made on a shoestring budget and delivered in a manner that assumes you're one of the club and understand this material. To get unnecessarily poncified for a moment, all art and entertainment requires you to enter into a state of acceptance in order to gain anything from it, like a contract between producer and public, a form of tacit consent, an understanding of the parameters on which the work will be judged. In short, don't expect The Third Man when a film boasts baddies with cybernetic penis enhancements!
Unfortunately, this nod-and-wink arrangement of acceptance between director and viewer can get skewed, particularly in this case by PR that invokes the name Versus, because this is a million miles away from that. The story, on the face of it, sounds quite serious: An ex-yakuza by the name of Shozo Iwaki (Sakaguchi) has left the family business of gangsterdom and headed to the South American jungles to live as a mercenary. Here he is tracked down and informed of his father's passing, only to head home to find dear old dad's right hand man, Kurowaki, has muscled in by means of having pops assassinated. It all sounds a bit Ninkyo Eiga doesn't it?
The truth is, even if you had blind rented this film and got swept up in the Versus name-dropping, practically the first line Sakaguchi utters will set the scene for you perfectly. Armed men are swept up in a brutal fire-fight in the verdant foliage of the jungle, panicking and firing in every direction, bullets ripping through the leaves from all angles, and in steps Tak. He steps over the bodies that are starting to litter the ground, stands idly in the middle of the maelstrom, gets out a packet of cigarettes and lights one up. After a long drag, the incredulous onlookers (suitably terrible American actors) question how come he isn't getting shot, to which he retorts, only those afraid of getting hit do so, spitting the words out in cartoonish machismo and simmering anger “I can even scare land-mines with a glare”. It sets the scene nicely.
The action is obviously over-the-top, but as with all these low-budget supposedly “extreme” films, the extremes they reach are lovable naffness. Making a film in a fortnight is a boast that probably shouldn't be made, CG explosions and muzzle flash are all well and good, but without careful direction and painstaking choreography, even a martial artist as talented as Sakaguchi is at times reduced to looking like a bloke mucking about with his mates for a YouTube clip. To a certain extent critique is a moot point, because for everything you can knock about something like Yakuza Weapon, someone will find it oddly charming, like a school nativity play in which the manger's knocked over and Joseph can't keep his finger out of his nostrils; so wrong, but you can't look away.
It plays to this though, the people involved in its making know the shortfalls of the project and the confines within which they are working. The ridiculous telegraphed mega-strikes mixed in with the little fast jabs are humorous, asking you to laugh with it rather than at it. If you can't see that then you're likely the kind of person who thought Alan Partridge was a real chat show host. The gore is removed from reality, the filmic equivalent of a ghoulish Halloween sweet, such as a gobstopper marketed as a witch's eyeball, it's meant to be morbidly tantalising and should be taken as such.
Once we get into the big battles, and Shozo comes out the other side with an M61 Vulcan cannon for a right arm and a rocket launcher for a leg, there's no turning back, the ship has left the port of reality and you're aboard a madness cruise. It probably sounds a bit like a male version of The Machine Girl, but there are two notable differences. Shozo hasn't so much lost an arm as gained a more adaptable replacement, his new appendage being able to morph back into fleshy looking form. This stops the skills of a notably accomplished martial artist in the lead being unnecessarily wasted and the film doesn't need to rely on gunfire alone for its battles. Yakuza Weapon also has far more comedic moments than the aforementioned case of Asian extreme cultdom.
It sounds great, but if there's one major criticism of Yakuza Weapon it's length. A short shoot and throwaway material should have facilitated a brief run-time, an absolute necessity for such material. They typically throw as much gore, ill humour and insanity at the viewer in a sub 90 minute time-frame as they can. A cinematic shock-and-awe mission with a quick escape plan. Yakuza Weapon fails to abide by these rules, and the 105 minutes it's assaulting your senses may not sound like that much longer, but it can't maintain the pace and ideals of a disposable bit of absurdist carnage for that extra sixteen minutes.
It aims for action, delivers, but actually goes beyond into a hinterland of extreme cinema, unfortunately starting to slightly flag and outstaying its welcome rather than offering a quick fix of bad taste. It is somewhat saved however by the sheer exuberance of Sakaguchi and the new additions to the ever-inventive kill gallery of splatter cinema. Comedy is never far away and the cast all bring the correct air of zaniness, with the direction often, surprisingly, proving more adept in the moments of madcap humour than in the heat of battle. Even Tak seems more adept with comic timing than martial arts moves.
Like an amusing hyperactive child, you can't really hold the faults of Yakuza Weapon against it, but you need to accept its shortcomings.
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