The Blood of Wolves is about as explicit as throwback cinema gets, adopting the styles and sensibilities of the yakuza crime thrillers from Toho’s 1970s pulp heyday and creating something new and contemporary from those pieces. And yet, this is more than a nostalgia trip, as director Kazuya Shirashi has made a stone-cold modern classic of the genre, a near-perfect melding of mystery, comedy, and drama that recalls the work of Shane Black nearly as much as it does the pastiches of the era of genre fare it so reveres.
Oh, and it’s brutal as hell, so that’s certainly a plus.
In 1988 Hiroshima, Shuichi Hioka (Tôri Matsuzaka) is a detective new to the precinct paired with known loose cannon Shogo Ogami (Kôji Yakusho), who is in the process of investigating the disappearance of an office worker with known ties to one of the city’s yakuza gangs. As the pair follow the clues, Hioka, a straight-laced by-the-book academic, finds that Ogami is more than willing to breach normal ethical boundaries and even break the law in order to strong-arm thugs into giving up necessary information about the disappearance and, even more pressing, the escalating gang war that threatens to overtake the entire city.
The film’s opening scene is of a gangster forcing a beaten man to eat shit in the middle of a pig pen, so that should give you a sense of the graphic and comedic nature of The Blood of Wolves. Ogami in particular is a riot to watch, as he fucks, fights, and manipulates his way to answers in a climate where two competing gangs share an uneasy equilibrium through a shared hatred of the cops. As Hioka plays the straight man and vision of how police are supposed to operate in theory, Ogami gets his hands dirty, provoking brawls, lighting fires, tricking Hioka into acting as an accomplice, and even holding down a man to forcibly remove his genital piercings. In other words, Ogami is a huge asshole, and the pleasure of The Blood of Wolves is in watching how far this man can stoop in increasingly unexpected ways, especially as the continually shifting politics of the yakuza conflict threaten to make even his increasingly desperate tactics ineffectual.
And, shockingly, this bloody action comedy eventually pulls back to reveal some honest-to-goodness depth in how it deconstructs Ogami’s personality and motivations. Yes, he’s playing a farcically silly rendition of the Bad Cop archetype, but as elements of his past and his present position as uneasy arbiter between the yakuza clans becomes more apparent to Hioka, the more The Blood of Wolves strips away the clowning shield to reveal some genuine emotional rawness. Major credit to Kôji Yakusho for pulling off such a nuanced bravura performance, and when it comes time for Hioka to step up and bridge the gap between Ogami’s seemingly anarchic strategies and his need for ethical order, Tôri Matsuzaka turns the comedic straight man into something approaching a tragic hero.
Of course, those looking for the retro styles, bloody fist fights, and full-on torturous violence of yesteryear’s yakuza films are not going to be disappointed. But within that framework, The Blood of Wolves is something truly special, hilarious and scathing in a way that disarms you into loving its leads before pulling the rug out from under you to leave you bawling on your ass at the absurd tragedy, all before you even realize the shift has even happened. You may approach The Blood of Wolves with a sense of nostalgia for yakuza films, but you’ll leave with a sense that this pulpy genre has been injected with new life.