This review of Yakuza Princess is part of our coverage of the 2021 Fantasia Film Festival.
A big Hollywood studio recently released a film about a character discovering his place in an ancient Japanese clan, a world filled with intricate combat and a teasing of the supernatural, but for all of its budgetary excess, Snake Eyes ended up an uninteresting bore. Yakuza Princess tackles a similar narrative on far less money, and while it hits some bumps, it still manages to succeed where the big boys failed by crafting an engaging and interesting journey of self-discovery.
A slaughter at a fancy party in Japan, with a guest list consisting of criminal underworld elites, sets the stage for everything that follows, and two decades later two lost souls and a madman cross paths half a world away. São Paolo, Brazil is home to the largest Japanese diaspora on Earth, and Akemi (Masumi) sits among them. She’s spent the last several years training in various forms of combat, raised by the grandfather who saved her from the bloody massacre twenty years prior, and now he’s been murdered too. Clues are sparse, but she’s determined to find the truth behind her life. Meanwhile, an amnesiac man named Shirô (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers) awakes in a hospital across town. Police question him about the sword he was found with, but he escapes in search of answers of his own. Slicing his way through the city on a bloody path towards both is Takeshi (Tsuyoshi Ihara), a yakuza lieutenant who wants the sword and Akemi’s head.
Yakuza Princess is, first and foremost, one hell of a stylish and visually attractive film. Neon lighting, shadows, and the cultural beauty of São Paolo make for an undeniably appealing palette. The script and action don’t fair quite as well, but both do enough to hold viewer engagement throughout. The film’s origin from Danilo Beyruth‘s graphic novel is evident, but more attention to the meat of the film would have lifted it higher. The big pull, though, are energetic and interesting performances from Masumi and Rhys-Meyers.
Director Vicente Amorim and cinematographer Gustavo Hadba ensure the entirety of their budget is visible on the screen, and the effect is a memorable one. The bulk of the film unfolds in one of Brazil’s many electric cities, and it’s a perfect setting for movie about violence, honor, and swordplay. Colorful lights shine through the evening haze, sword blades cut through cigarette smoke and flesh, and the city’s pulse can be felt beating beneath it all. Action unfolds on rooftops, bathed in neon lighting, and among stone markers of the dead.
That action is a blend of swordplay, gunplay, and old fashioned brawls, and while none of it bores some succeeds better than others. Masumi does much of her own fighting/stunts, and she feels like the student that Akemi is supposed to be. She convinces but never excels despite the film’s desire to make viewers believe otherwise (although she could obviously and easily beat any of our keyboard warrior asses). Instead, and perhaps surprisingly, it’s Rhys-Meyers who reveals an action star in B-movie actor clothing. His performance is solid as a masterless samurai, but he shows real chops and intensity with a sword in his hand. Oddly for a film called Yakuza Princess, the guys seem to get more and better action beats than the female lead. It doesn’t sink the film, but it’s an unfortunate choice.
“There are no harmless old men,” says a character at one point, and it’s a pretty sharp observation in a script that otherwise feels somewhat disjointed. Part of the issue is the film’s interest in tying together the three main characters with an ancient sword that never truly matters in the grand scheme of things. Time is given to elements that feel like unnecessary exposition, when Yakuza Princess would be better served getting to know its protagonists and antagonists in more detail. It’s not necessarily convoluted, but at nearly two hours there’s perhaps a bit too much unnecessary information in place of far more welcome details.
Still, Yakuza Princess is never dull and delivers some satisfying action sequences along the way. That’s already more than a certain dice-tossing studio effort can claim.
Related Topics: Fantasia Film Festival