Movie Review: “Yakuza Princess”

One, usually, does not approach a jigsaw puzzle from a single spot. That is, as you go around building the entire border, separating all the edge pieces no matter if they match the ones you already have or not. After the border is complete, you don’t roundly reject pieces that clearly fit together because they aren’t part of area on which you’re currently working. No, you put them together and set them aside. In fact, you very well might work at multiple places at once, putting together various sections as you find the right pieces.

Movies that we often refer to as “puzzles” rarely work in this fashion. They are not wrongly categorized, they just approach it all from a single area—a single character—and move forward, building from that one point outward.

Director Vincente Amorim’s latest film, “Yakuza Princess,” doesn’t take this tack. Instead, writers Fernando Toste and Kimi Howl Lee provide a movie (based on the graphic novel “Shiro” by Danilo Beyruth) that offers up three characters that we all know will wind up fitting into a single puzzle, but pieces their stories together slowly and, at first, separately. We learn about these individuals—Akemi (Masumi), Shiro (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), and Takeshi (Tsuyoshi Ihara)—and over the course of the film figure out their histories, their motivations, and their relationships to one another, working forward from multiple points as the movie cuts between their tales, knowing that eventually they will meet (some sooner than others).

As the movie proper opens, Akemi is living in São Paulo, Brazil, where her now deceased grandfather raised her. She isn’t quite sure why she’s still there, she’s thinking of leaving, but she is. Shiro is also in Brazil, in a hospital, and claims to have no memory of who he is or how he ended up there. Takeshi is in Japan, a member of the Yakuza, and on the hunt for someone or something.

It might not initially be a lot to go with, but it’s enough to capture our attention. Yes, the approach would be completely unsuccessful if Amorim didn’t give keep us invested in the various stories as we move ahead, but fortunately he does. We know that Akemi is going to have Yakuza in her past somewhere as she has to be the princess in the title. Utilizing that fact, we start to build out from her and approach Takeshi and his current occupation. The fact that Shiro is also, quite clearly, capable of doing terrible things doesn’t throw him far outside that world either. Piece by piece, it all comes together.

Combine the unfolding mysteries with some truly bloody, vicious, action sequences—ones that are as well constructed as the movie—and “Yakuza Princess” will instantly have many hooked. If the puzzle pieces aren’t falling right for the viewer at any given moment, a bit of fighting can’t be far off to pull them in closer.

If that’s not enough, the film’s lighting and camera work (Gustavo Hadba is the cinematographer) provide plenty of visual interest. The world we are given is a dark one, true, but we can still make out everything with ease as neon and other lights shine brightly, showing us every bit of dirt or blood spatter. From quick edits to unusual angles, it’s well presented. There is a beauty in the look of the film, one that is swiftly and cleanly undercut by the horrific nature of some of what takes place – this is, make no mistake, a vicious world.

The movie represents Masumi’s first big screen lead role and there are unquestionably moments where a line reading or two falls flat. Happily, this does not occur frequently and the actress is quite clearly more than capable of handling the action moments. She is further buoyed by the performances from Rhys Meyers and Ihara, although one imagines that she could make the whole thing work quite well without the help (and sees a future where she will).

With the moment that “Yakuza Princess” shows us the first few puzzle pieces, we are instantly engaged, instantly intrigued. It is a film which presents the simplest of questions (“what is going on with these characters”) and then offers up the answer, bit by bit, until the whole picture is revealed. The individual pieces of the puzzle and the picture as whole prove worth our time.

photo credit: Magnet Releasing

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