Man in White: Bloody Battle of Lions

3 out of 5

Directed by: Takashi Miike

Man in White is, for a good chunk of its running time, pretty visually spectacular.  Miike goes almost full handheld on the movie, resulting in these beautifully woozy, documentary-like conversations, following characters from surprising angles for that kind of shot – like from in front of a car – while also employing odd angle changes that may or may be suggestive of the varying, not-eye-to-eye viewpoints within the several yakuza family gatherings we witness.  There is, most obviously, the juxtaposition of our titular man in white, Azusa (Masaya Kato) against the black-suited gangsters he’s pitted against – including his rival in the flick, Serida (Tatsuya Fuji) – with his frequently-changed suit being quite the canvas to splatter blood against…  And playing with this light and darkness, there’s some brutal light flares allowed in several scenes, brilliantly disorienting during the eruptive scenes of violence.

For those with their scorecards, Takashi also gets to cycle through some of his recurring thematic setups, with children frequently exposed to violence – Azusa himself, as a child, witnesses his father’s death – and adoptive fathers / families, but…

…But I’m not sure what the film does with them.  Part of this is certainly owed to the fact that the movie seems to be marketed into two parts, when it was actually shot as one whole.  I wavered on whether to review them together, but since a lot of early Miike sequels were shot as one movie, but marketed separately (and so I watched them separately), it seemed proper to follow suit here.  That means that it’s entirely possible that there will be a bit more emotional payoff in the second half.  ‘Bloody Battle of Lions’ seems to stack the deck that way, setting up an incredibly interesting relationship between Azusa and Serida, in which the former tracks down the latter for assassinating his current yakuza boss (completing a nice little “lost fathers” circle there), and then has the two finding common ground to team up against those that set Serida on the task in the first place, it just seems like we skip over some steps along the way.  Miike, as he’s ought to do, cuts in flashbacks to different times in Azusa’s life, which further establish his connection to his mob family, as well as to Serida – and include a telling and repeated chat on the nature of good and evil, and deciding which way you’ll go, but the chronology on these becomes a little confusing, and the climactic teamup is made underwhelming by the inevitable cliffhanger lead-in to part 2.

Although the energy of the visuals start to dim in the film’s latter half (and there’re only so many times blood on a white suit is shocking), the movie still remains engaging throughout.  Azusa is a bit emptier of a character than Serida, unfortunately, in part due to the actors in each role: Azusa is meant to be one of those quiet, springs-to-action wild dog types, but instead, we’re just left wondering as to his motivations – it’s in the flashbacks and the script, but not so much in Masayo Kato’s eyes.  Meanwhile, Tatsuya Fuji is all unpredictable swagger, bringing to life an attitude to befits his shoulder shrugging “we might die today” attitude.  With screentime generally balanced between these two – and with Miike regulars Renji Ishibashi and Kenichi Endō in some great roles as well – the movie definitely has an edge on the “average” yakuza flicks from Miike’s oeuvre, but I do hope that he fleshes out how these characters work in to some of the themes introduced in the following half.