5 out of 5
Director: Takashi Miike
Rewatching movies: absolutely valuable. Accidental in this case, as I’d initially watched this under its English title (as above: Yakuza Demon) and then again under the title Kikoku, thinking I hadn’t seen it, but I’m glad to report that, firstly, once it started playing I actually remembered watching the movie – I’m not just jamming this stuff into my brain without absorbing some of it, whooppe – and then, secondly, that I was totally entranced this time by a flick that had underwhelmed me on that initial viewing. In part, I could chalk this up to having watched more Miike by this point, but I’d seen a good chunk of his oeuvre on the first go around as well, ranging from the Ones We All Know to more obscure and early stuff, so I actually think it might be the opposite: not watching all I could get my hands on in a row allowed me to assess the movie more on its on standing, and then through a Miike filter. And I’d say it’s quite a stunning achievement through both assessments.
Demon, on the surface, takes the template of many yakuza movies – essentially a fragmenting gang war that splinters off into uncontrollable violence. Under the surface, though, we have bubbling of a deeper plot: the aging Mr. Muto leads a shambling three person group (including Seiji, played by Riki Takeuchi, our ‘demon’) that is part of a larger yakuza family. When Muto’s underachievements come to light, the family demands that Muto show his worth by assassinating a high-ranking rival family figure. Seiji knows that the task is essentially a death sentence for his boss – whom he views very much as a father figure – and so arranges it such that Mr. Muto may perhaps focus on living his life while Seiji, and his clan brother Yoshi (Yûta Sone) may give the finger to their yakuza family and go on a rampage of destruction.
It’s not been unusual, throughout Miike’s many crime flicks, for the director to subvert the genre in interesting ways to insert his own themes of legacy, and family, and cross-culturalism. That’s certainly here, in ways that I’ll touch on. But I would say that you can often get a sense of the tone of his films early on – whether it will be something more bombastic or more serene; brutal or contemplative – and while that’s also true of Yakuza Demon, the extra layer here is that this was potentially Miike’s last flick of this nature, as the V-Cinema market in which he’d made his name was in flux at the time, so there’s this interesting blending of the kind of chaos that fueled DOA with an overridnig somberness as the movie crumbles in on itself. It’s a tragedy; it’s one of Miike’s saddest films, to me, interestingly parading through the tropes of the genre while sporting a frown.
There’s the cast of Miike / genre recognizables – Takeuchi, of course, but also Renji Ishibashi and Kenichi Endo – and yet, they’re not employed in their usual fashion. Takeuchi actually gets to employ some acting (okay, stoically, but he’s not just a representative of fury, here), and is wholly prevented from making his characteristic sneer throughout; Ishibashi and Endo are also both very straightlaced, playing the yakuza elders they generally do but without eccentricity; without any of the sexual deviancy that always exists in a Miike movie. The clan discussions are shot close and cropped; heads cut off by the framing such that you can rarely tell who’s speaking. One boss is in jail and never seen; others’ actions are only really shown when separated from their ‘job,’ appearing human and sort of silly outside the ‘seriousness’ of the yakuza, and yet, again, literally faceless when all suited up. The action happens with the suddenness and brilliantly upfront camerawork Miike has often employed for such things, but it’s edited such that we often cut away during peak moments; flash to peaceful memories during deaths. We, the viewers, get the rush of the scene without being allowed to ‘revel’ in the bloodshed. Conversations throughout hammer home the duality of family and the destructive force of it; the comfort of habits and the need to break free of them – and yet, the danger of doing so. This is a contemplation on yakuza, on yakuza movies, and then on Miike’s career as well, taking steps soon after Yakuza Demon to bigger and bigger films.
Watched on the back of a sequence of more (relatively) direct Miike movies, I understand why this one didn’t work for me the first time. It’s almost a bait and switch – a revenge plot with an entirely muted tone. But a few degrees separated from expectations of the genre or of the director, and it’s a brilliant use of the genre to explore it, and ranks up there with Miike’s most masterful applications of his themes and style.