You know, it is amazing how much Takashi Miike has molded a career that makes him the inheritor of Kinji Fukasaku's resume. Both are highly prolific filmmakers, doing multiple films a year, and each dabbled in different genres. Though each showed a penchant towards exploitation and gangster pictures, each proved themselves capable of scifi, straight b-pics, period films, and the occasional well-meaning drama. Though their high output and budgets meant not every film was a gem, there is still a thread of skill that is always apparent.
Yakuza Demon (2003, aka. Kikoku) is another in the long line of Miike yakuza films. Starring Miike regular and "v-cinema" icon Riki Takeuchi (Deadly Outlaw: Rekka, the Dead or Alive series), Yakuza Demon finds Miike in the more meditative gangster film mode, along the lines of his Ley Lines rather than the outrageousness of Fudoh: The New Generation or Gozu.
The Tendo yakuza group is going to war with the much smaller Date family. Hitting up its members for help in their escalating war, the Date family goes to debt ridden boss Mr. Muto, whose tiny gang consists of himself and two henchmen, his right hand man Seiji (Takeuchi) and Yoshi. Muto cannot oblige his assignment, which severely annoys the Date family. In order to get his boss out of harms way, Seiji has Muto arrested. Seiji takes matters into his own hands and goes after the head of the Tendo group. In his effort to prove his gangs worth by going after the root of the gang war, he only causes it to escalate. Despite a hit squad from Tendo group out for his blood and the increasing disapproval of the Date family, Seiji sets out on a mad dog, one man war against them all.
Yakuza Demon written by one of Miike go-to yakuza flick writers, Shingenori Takechi who also penned Izo, Deadly Outlaw: Rekka and Agitator. It isn't really all that innovative or quirky, but it is a solid straightforward gangster film. Japanese yakuza films usually fall into the seedy, gritty exploitative variety, or those that revel in the group politics and sense of honor and loyalty, or some blend of the two. This definitely falls into the second category, with one soldier taking on two larger groups, all under a blind sense of dedication and even perhaps love. And for a while, it looks like the odds may be in his favor and that bull-headed rage may be able to topple two organizations.
If Kirk Douglas is "The Chin", and Clint Eastwood is "The Squint", then Riki Tekeuchi would be "The Scowl." Though his hair almost overpowers it (call him "The Pompadour"), his scowl really wins. With film acting, effort usually wins all of the acclaim, but something should also be said for effortlessness. Cinema doesn't always need range, sometimes just an effective signature look or hook, like Takeuchi's bleary-eyed maniacal sneer, can eat up the screen and make a character actor as magnetic as the best method actors out there.
Again, Miike proves that even while working on the fast and cheap, he can still deliver some impressive setups, be they very Fukusaku inspired montages, or some impressive handheld camera work used in the mob hits. Even a scene in the rain which features a water spattered camera lens probably wasn't intentional, but Miike makes the most of it, blowing up the shots, making the spatter even more apparent, effectively capitalizing on a flaw. Likewise, he uses the same camera setup in all of powwows for the Date family leaders, which creates a sameness that (though maybe not intentional) reflects the one-sidedness of their hierarchy.
The DVD: Pathfinder
Picture: Anamorphic Widescreen. As a "v-cinema" (or direct to video) production, so it is a little rough around the edges, but the production (and Pathfinder) make the most with the budget. There is some slight low level noise apparent in the darker scenes. Color range is pretty good. Grain is fairly heavy, but that is just the budget and, anyway, it helps the style of the film. Very good transfer of low budget material.
Sound: Dolby Digital Japanese language with optional English subtitles. Sound quality is good. The dialogue is nice and clear. Fx is good, though a little stock sounding. The score gets the most out of the mixing, though, and it is a real odd one. The score is made up of some standard industrial synth melodies with some monk chanting. It works but doesn't sound like it would be very congruous.
Extras: Film Essay by "Agitator: The Cinema of Takashi Miike" author Tom Mes— Trailer— Bios— Still Gallery.
Conclusion: Pathfinder doesn't offer the extras that other companies have delivered with their Miike-related DVD releases. Still, the picture and sound quality is very good and makes the most of this small scale film. This is a very decent little gangster picture that, while not exactly explosive or ground breaking, delivers a good story of mob loyalty and an against the odds gang war. I wish direc to to video films in the US were half this interesting.