After the grim, nihilistic Outrage and Beyond Outrage, it’s not surprising that Takeshi Kitano returned with something a bit more lighthearted and filled with fart jokes. Ryuzo and the Seven Henchmen definitely qualifies as a lighthearted film with fart jokes. It also gets a lot of laughs out of the prolonged degradation of a beloved character’s dead body, but this is Takeshi Kitano we’re talking about here. You expect some of that.
Ryuzo and the Seven Henchmen tells a relatively familiar story. An old Yakuza guy, Ryuzo (played by the amazing Tatsuya Fuji) finds himself all fed up with the disrespect he gets from youngsters and decides to form a new Yakuza gang from all the old school badasses that are still mobile/drawing breath in order to reclaim his self respect before it’s too late. The only problem is that the Yakuza doesn’t really exist anymore. It’s been replaced by corporate assholes who might be even more cutthroat and brutal. The Yakuza may have been a bunch of criminals, but they had a code, dammit.
So we watch as these old goofballs go through a series of schemes and adventures as they try to claim turf, make money, etc. Most of them end in comedic failure. The primary tone Ryuzo strives for is adorability. These guys, as they go around yelling at everyone and threatening severe violence for every little slight, are cute rather than menacing, which is of course the point.
The problem is that none of the jokes are all that funny. Kitano uses humor throughout the film but achieves polite chuckles at best, never anything laugh out loud or memorable. The film also suffers from an episodic structure that never feels like it’s going anywhere. Ryuzo’s gang has a main nemesis in the form of a nefarious company that seems to be involved in every thing they try, but their conflict never feels like it’s leading up to anything. This results in a light and cute film that feels about four hours long.
And while Tatsuya Fuji is great as the blustering, unflappable Ryuzo, it’s hard not to miss Kitano, who shows up occasionally as a cop from the old days. Everything gets a little better when he’s onscreen, but his brief scenes end too soon.
Ryuzo and the Seven Henchmen certainly has charm but not enough to overcome its meandering pace. A little tightening script-wise is about all it needs to be the movie it wants to be. Instead, Kitano delivers an occasionally fun movie that doesn’t quite live up to its goals.
(Ryuzo and the Seven Henchmen is a selection of the Fantasia Film Festival.)