Last of the Wolves (孤狼の血 LEVEL2, Kazuya Shiraishi, 2021)

“The Showa era’s over. We don’t use guns now, business is our battlefield.” a recently released foot soldier is told, finding himself in a whole new world emerging from a not so distant past of turf wars and street scuffles into a late bubble wonderland of besuited corporatised gangsters. Set in 1988, Kazuya Shiraishi’s Blood of Wolves had been about the twilight of post-war gangsterdom forever associated with an era that was literally about to pass. Set three years later in the twilight of the bubble economy and an already established Heisei, Last of the Wolves (孤狼の血 LEVEL2, Koro no chi: Level 2) finds no longer rookie cop Hioka (Tori Matsuzaka) taking on the mantle of his late mentor Ogami, attempting to broker peace by getting uncomfortably close to yakuza. 

At the end of the previous film, Hioka had managed to engineer a truce between rival gangs Odani (with whom he is affiliated), and Irako through pushing top Odani guy Ichinose to take out boss Irako. Three years later, the peace has held and in any case Heisei yakuza no longer take violence to the streets. The release of crazed Irako foot soldier Uebayashi (Ryohei Suzuki), however, threatens to destabilise the local balance of power. Despite mournfully declaring that he doesn’t intend to wind up back in prison, Uebayashi’s first call on release is to the sister of one of his guards whom he rapes and kills in quite gruesome fashion. Hioka is put on the case and partnered with a genial veteran, Seshima (Yoshiko Miyazaki), weirdly excited about investigating a murder at this late stage of his career, but quickly realises that Uebayashi’s recklessness is primed to destroy everything he’s built. 

Having started out a straightlaced rookie, Hioka has fully incorporated the Ogami persona dressing in sharp suits and sunshades, driving a sports car, and hanging out with the Odani guys, while also using his girlfriend’s little brother Chinta (Nijiro Murakami) as a mole in rival gangs. As a cynical reporter points out, however, Ogami was essentially “undercover” in that he understood hobnobbing with yakuza was part of his job and something he did solely to keep civilians safe by preventing another street war. Hioka has started to lose his way, enjoying himself a little too much and already way out of his depth as the fragile peace he’d brokered by less than ethical means begins to crumble beneath his feet. 

Having been in prison, Uebayashi is unaware of the various ways in which the world has changed seeking to return to old school rules of gangsterdom, ironically lecturing his superiors on the absence of jingi (honour and humanity) in their new corporate existence. He’s a monster and a sadist, but his violence is also a result of the horrific abuse he suffered as a child which led to an equally heinous act of revenge while as a member of the ethnic Korean Zainichi community, like Chinta and his siblings, he continually faces discrimination and social oppression. His first act on release is of revenge against the guards who relentlessly tortured him in prison, the murdered woman’s brother confessing that they wrote him up as a model prisoner in the hope he’d be released early so they wouldn’t have to deal with him anymore.  

Yet what Hioka and Uebayashi have in common is that they’re both pawns in a game they were unaware was being played. As it turns out the police corruption Hioka discovered during the previous film did not go away, and in certain senses they liked things the way they were before. Hioka’s truce is very bad for business for a certain subset at least. They might be minded to let a dangerous killer go loose if it disrupts Hioka’s attempt to suppress the criminal underworld to manageable levels. Mimicking the classic jitsuroku, Shiraishi throws in occasional voiceover from an anonymous narrator along with freeze frame and montage while skewing still darker in the levels of depravity among these desperate men fighting over the scraps of a world already in terminal decline even as the bubble seems fit to burst. Shiraishi ends on a note of change with the institution of the organised crime laws which have contributed to the ongoing decline of the yakuza, a relic of the Showa era unfit and unwelcome in the modern society, but also discovers that for good or ill there may yet be wolves in Japan.


Last of the Wolves screened as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Teaser trailer (English subtitles)

Jam (SABU, 2018)

PrintSABU began his directorial career with a reputation for shooting on the run. Time may have caught up with him, in that relaxed contemplation has begun to replace frenetic action in the more recent stages of his career, but it’s to his first feature, Dangan Runner, that he (after a fashion) returns in the similarly structured Jam. Random circumstance conspires once again to send three fugitive guys on a zany collision course, but this time the crash offers each of them something a little more positive (to a point, at least) than a grudging acceptance of life’s impossibilities.

The first of our three heroes, Hiroshi (Sho Aoyagi), is a cheesy enka singer with an army of middle-aged female fans whom he is perfectly aware of exploiting. Despite his “star status” with the ladies who crowd out his meet and greets, Hiroshi’s big concert is at the Civic Centre in Kitakyushu which is not exactly the Budokan, but it’ll do for the minute. Trouble brews when the wealthiest of his fans, Mrs. Sakata, suggests a change to the setlist only for a backbencher to leap to Hiroshi’s defence with slightly embarrassing fervour. Masako’s (Mariko Tsutsui) crazed fan aesthetic is later brought to its zenith when she gets Hiroshi to chug down some home made soup which is laced with some kind of knock out drug.

Meanwhile, all round good guy Takeru (Keita Machida) is driving around in a not quite classic car and looking for people to help because a Buddha appeared to him and told him if he did three good deeds a day his girlfriend would wake up from her coma, and ex-con Tetsuo (Nobuyuki Suzuki) is patiently pushing his grandma round town in a wheelchair and taking revenge on the gangsters who have betrayed him every time her back is turned.

“Pay back is scary as hell” one of the gangsters affirms as he laments potentially mixing up a thoroughly good guy like Takeru in their nasty yakuza business. As the other had earlier outlined, this is a world very much defined by karma – you do good and good comes back to you, but do something bad and you’re in for more of the same. The logic is sound, and yet it doesn’t quite work the way you’d expect it to. Takeru is nothing but good, too good as it turns out, but constantly suffers precisely because of his goodness. Not only is his girlfriend gunned down in front of him during an act of random street violence, but he eventually finds himself tricked into helping the exact same thugs commit further crime only to attempt heroics and see that massively backfire too. Even so, he keeps on trying to be good and perhaps it really will pay off in the end.

Meanwhile, Hiroshi seems to be leading something of a charmed life though perhaps through a prism of self-loathing. He knows he is a cheesy lounge singer and one step up from gigalo in the way he accommodates himself to these older ladies in whom his only interest is their money. This is perhaps why he finds himself desperately playing along when kidnapped by Masako in the hope he will write a song just for her (that’ll show the snooty Mrs. Sakata), but finally betraying her in the final moment as if attempting to reassert his artistic autonomy. Masako eventually makes a sacrifice of her own which sends Hiroshi running for the hills only to finally acknowledge a sense of responsibility for his willing misuse of her loneliness and disappointment in selling her an impossible dream of connection.

As for Tetsuo, pushing granny round the city by night, the yakuza lurk round every corner proving the past really is impossible to escape. As expected, the paths of the three men eventually intersect in strange and various ways though each is bound for a different destination and an individual epiphany. Another boy band odyssey from SABU, this time in collaboration with studio LDH and the members of EXILE, Jam takes a fairly ironic view of the idol business if thinly disguised in Hiroshi’s depressing business plan of self-debasement and fansploitation while simultaneously asking if you really do reap what you sow when it comes to cosmic karma in an increasingly surreal existence.


Jam was screened as part of the 2019 Udine Far East Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Mr. Long (ミスター・ロン, SABU, 2017)

Mr. LongTaiwan and Japan have a complicated history, but in SABU’s latest slice of cross-cultural interplay each place becomes a kind of refuge from the other. Working largely in Mandarin and with Taiwanese star Chang Chen, SABU returns to a familiar story – the lonely hitman tempted by a normal family life filled with peace and simplicity only to have his dreams taken from him by the spectre of his past. Only this time it isn’t just his past but that of others too. Despite the melancholy air, Mr. Long (ミスター・ロン) is a testament to the power of simple human kindness but also a condemnation of underworld cruelty and its vicelike grip on all who enter its grasp.

Mr. Long (Chen Chang) is the best hitman in the Taiwanese underground. A part-time cook, he’s known for his knife skills and fearless action, entering a room full of gangsters and instantly eviscerating them before they can even reach for their weapons. Sent to Japan to take out a prominent yakuza, Mr. Long finds his usual methods ineffective owing to the fact his target is wearing a stab vest. Captured, beaten and driven out into the middle of nowhere, Mr. Long is beginning to think this is the end of his story when the gangsters are attacked by another knife wielding assailant repeatedly asking them to free his girl. Mr. Long escapes in the ensuing chaos but has no money or way back home.

Marooned and bleeding in a rundown area, Mr. Long is saved by quiet little boy who brings him first medical supplies and then some probably stolen vegetables. Mr. Long manages to find an abandoned house which still has running water and cooking facilities and shares his improbably tasty soup with the little boy whose name is Jun. Surprisingly, Jun can speak fluent Mandarin because his mother, Lily, is also from Taiwan. Soon enough, other people in the area start to hear about the mysterious stranger and his wondrous cooking. Before he knows what’s happening, the tiny town has adopted him and built a stall on a cart where he can sell Taiwanese beef noodles.

SABU embraces his absurd sense of humour as Mr. Long’s capture becomes a cartoonish slapstick affair which ultimately sees him running off into the night with a sack on his head before regaining his quintessential cool. Mr. Long is the archetypal movie hitman – the major reason why he doesn’t say much is firstly that he doesn’t know any Japanese but  his conversations with the boy are pretty one sided and he doesn’t seem to be the chattiest even in Taiwan. Confused as to why all of this is happening Mr. Long asks Jun for guidance only for him to point out that it’s his own fault for acting so cool and never saying anything.

Yet for all the comedy there’s an underlying sadness as Mr. Long comes to care for this strangely friendly village which has more or less adopted him, providing him with food, clothing, and even an occupation in his brand new beef noodle stand. Even though he’s been in contact with his bosses and is supposed to get a boat to Taiwan in just a few days, Mr. Long doesn’t quite want to go home and let all of these nice people down. Especially as he’s begun to bond with the boy and grow closer to his mother.

Both Mr. Long and Lily are people who’ve had their lives ruined by proximity to the underworld – his by being trapped into a profession of killing with no possibility of escape, and hers by losing the love of her life to men who claimed to own her. Lily’s story is a sad one which eventually sees her fall into prostitution as a means of caring for her son only to be exploited by a duplicitous customer who gets her hooked on heroine as a means of control. Mr. Long frees her from this particular demon and the three begin to look as if they could make a go of things together only for the past to suddenly reappear and ruin everything.

Unexpectedly dark, Mr. Long veers between whimsical comedy and heartbreaking tragedy as its hero begins to long for another life which he knows he will be denied. Filled with SABU’s typically absurd world view mixed with balletic yet horrifying violence as the lonely hitman becomes the dragon spelt out in his name, Mr. Long is a familiar gangland tale in which a man cannot escape his past or his nature and risks rejection from those who’ve come to love him when they discover who he really is, but even if there can be no escape for some there is hope of redemption in human kindness and genuine connection.


Mr. Long was screened at the 17th Nippon Connection Japanese Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Yakuza Apocalypse (極道大戦争, Takashi Miike, 2015)

Yakuza-Apocalypse-Quad-HalfSize-NEWBelated review from the 2015 London Film Festival – Yakuza Apocalypse is released in UK cinemas for one day only on 6th January 2016 courtesy of Manga who will also be releasing on home video at a later date.


Takashi Miike shuffles back towards the yakuza plains in the western inspired horror comedy Yakuza Apocalypse (極道大戦争, Gokudo Daisenso) trailing ever more zany humour behind him. Yakuza gungslingers, bloodsucking, high school girls running away from things and, finally, a guy with a magic belly button wearing a frog suit who just happens to be “The World’s Toughest Terrorist”.

We open in media res as vampire yakuza boss Kamiura (Lily Franky) cuts up a storm in settling some local disputes. There’s a handy voice over from our soon to be protagonist, Kageyama (Hayato Ichihara), lamenting the old yakuza world of tough guys and honour codes but things don’t really take off until a very geeky looking guy and a Van Helsing type in 17th century attire suddenly turn up hoping to re-recruit the boss to “The Syndicate”. When he refuses, they fight and the geek twists Kamiura’s head right off. Using his last ounce of strength and in a touch right out of Hausu, Kamiura clamps onto Kageyama’s neck turning him into a vampire. However, in his just turned state, the honourable Kageyama turns a few more vampires of his own – and not only vampires, the bite also transmits yakuzaism too. This increase in bloodsucking gangsters is a bit of a problem for the regular guys as it does mean their pool of victims is being steadily depleted…

Not making much sense is not generally much of a problem in a Miike film. In fact, it’s a pretty much a given at this stage of the prolific director’s career. However, in the case of Yakuza Apocalypse it’s even more pointless than usual to pay any attention at all to any kind of narrative. Looking over Kageyama’s shoulder, we move from set to piece to set piece as, first of all, the non-vampire yakuza guys struggle for power between themselves and then with the vampire variety before the giant frog turns up to ruin everything.

There are some rules, Miike takes a while explaining to us how this yakuza business works with Kamiura as the “good” kind of yakuza committed to protecting his townspeople above all else – essentially, he’s the sherriff around these parts. He’s a vampire, yes, but he only feeds on yakuza who he’s “reforming” by means of an underground knitting circle held prisoner in his basement. Apparently yakuza blood tastes bad and isn’t very good for you but eating civilians is dishonourable and anyway, limited in supply, because when you turn someone they also become a foul mouthed yakuza fighting machine.

The world building is shaky at best, none of this really hangs together making for a fairly disappointing series of one note jokes. There is an attempt at a bit of more sophisticated satire with the regular gangsters suddenly lamenting that there will be no one left for them to prey on if everyone turns yakuza vampire but otherwise it’s crazy piled on crazy. Not a bad thing in itself but somewhat lacking in substance.

Despite that, the film offers some quality performances notably from its lead, Kageyama, played by Hayato Ichihara, as the yakuza who’s so sensitive his delicate skin won’t allow him to get a proper yakuza tattoo. That is, until he becomes a brooding, conflicted vampire mourning the loss of his boss and of those long held tough guy ideals. Lily Franky also offers a high impact though short lived appearance as the honourable vampire boss with a hinted at backstory, though the much publicised cameo of The Raid’s Yayan Ruhian feels a little wasted as he’s just generally hanging around for a handful of fight scenes. That said, the action scenes themselves are extremely impressive, both exciting and often funny too.

Yakuza Apocalypse is not one of Miike’s most well thought out efforts. Its collection of crazy ideas feels thrown together and there’s disappointingly little depth to its world building. Even its media res conclusion looks more like running out of ideas than a deliberate decision. However, that’s not to say it isn’t heaps of fun, which it often is. A crazy frog riding a bicycle who somehow wakes up the giant king of the crazy frog people after some kind of emergency plaster is ripped off his belly button – really, what could be more fun than that? That really is all there is though and those who prefer their absurdist action thrills with a little more substance had best look elsewhere.


Yakuza Apocalypse is in released in UK cinemas for one night only on 6th January 2016. Luckily the film is playing across the UK even if it’s only the one night and you can see if it’s on anywhere near you by checking out this handy link! If it’s not, don’t despair! It’ll also be available in all the normal ways from Manga later in the year.

Reviewed at the 2015 BFI London Film Festival.