Few directors are as prolific as Takashi Miike. Seemingly unable to stop, the man turns out multiple films a year, with many becoming instant or delayed classics. But not every movie can be an Audition or a Happiness of the Katakuris. Miike has dabbled in a wide range of genres, but he’s best known for bizarro gangster films like Dead or Alive. Supposedly, Yakuza Apocalypse: The Great War of the Underworld represents a return to the director’s roots - with a hell of a genre twist.
Kageyama (Hayato Ichihara) isn’t having a great time in the yakuza. Disappointed and bullied by his cohorts for being too wimpy to get a tattoo, he’s considering quitting altogether when a Django-esque assassin takes out famed and beloved yakuza boss Kamiura (Lily Franky). With his dying act, Kamiura reveals himself to Kageyama as a yakuza vampire (!), transferring his powers to the up-and-comer. Thus begins a war between Kageyama’s growing yakuza vampire army and the yakuza proper.
Miike treats the existence of yakuza vampires with admirable matter-of-factness. The rules of yakuza vampires - as distinct from ordinary yakuza or ordinary vampires - are laid out almost in a classroom setting, as if we’re all really dumb for not knowing them already. The various vampire kills are carried out in a manner seemingly disconnected from the story, and with variable air-punch value; none of the vampire action lives up to the spectacular opening sequence’s hilarious bloodletting.
One of the film’s funniest elements - yet its most confusing - is the relationship of the people to the yakuza and their vampire kin. At the start of the film, everyone loves the yakuza for protecting their town from corporate developers. It’s comical just how much everyone adores and respects Kamiura in particular. But as the film goes on, it’s unclear who’s fighting for what, particularly in the muddled second act.
Yakuza vampires may be the focus of this Apocalypse, but there’s a ton of entertaining strangeness going on in the margins - so much that it kind of derails the story. There’s a recurring gag of chained-up yakuza hostages in a knitting circle being tortured and fattened up. Yayan Ruhian shows up playing an anime-obsessed variation on his Mad Dog character from The Raid, tragically never really getting a chance to show either his formidable martial arts ability or a solid connection to the plot. And an uncomfortable rape-survivor plotline absolutely clangs with the tone of the rest of the film. Most bizarrely, Miike brings in a kappa demon and mascot suit-clad Kaeru-kun as further complications, resulting in plenty of laughter, though more incredulous than genuine.
Yakuza Apocalypse’s third act goes into full-blown action territory, replete with hand-to-hand combat, bodily fluids, and surreal supernatural business, including a glimpse at the titular Apocalypse. The final showdown (or is it?) is among the funniest fistfights I’ve ever seen, taking one terrific gag and stretching it out until it’s not funny anymore, then going even further to the point of sublime comedy. It’s infused with dumb soap-opera masculinity and I love it. The sudden, hyper-dramatic final beat will leave some puzzled, some disappointed, and everyone wishing they were watching the sequel it apparently sets up.
At 125 minutes, Yakuza Apocalypse runs a little too long and indulges itself a little too often (or just the right amount?). It might be a return to Miike’s roots, but it’s not exactly a return to form. There’s nothing approaching the mad artistry of semi-recent hits like Sukiyaki Western Django or 13 Assassins, but the madness is there, and it’s entertaining as hell. As a midnight movie, Yakuza Apocalypse provides plenty of laughter and excitement. Just don’t expect a masterwork and you’ll come away giggling.