Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Sep 02, 2021 6:02 am 
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A beautiful but otherwise forgettable samurai movie set in São Paulo's Japanese neighborhood of Liberdade

Director Vincente Armorim boasts of this movie that he and his crew "have built a desaturated version of [a] nineties neon noir, without its corny excesses." He's not lying, and this wasn't a vain project: though the story won't leave much impression, it's for its gorgeously overwrought visuals that this movie is worth watching, maybe even re-watching. Rather an oddity, this is an expensive coming-of-age/birth-of-a-female-super-hero Japanese gangster movie set in Brazil, specifically in São Paulo's Liberdade section, the largest ethnic Japanese community outside of Japan. Where do you get neo-noir nowadays? In a graphic novel, and Danilo Beyruth has provided one as this film's source and offshoot, a Brazilian-Japanese creation, Shiro Samurai.

Yakuza Princess is a brooding, aesthetics-over-sense film replete with thunderstorms, blue-lit tombstones and limbs lopped off with a shimmering, ringing ancestral samurai sword with a noble name, the Muramasa, and an in-built curse.

"Ren Oshima," 1947-1999," in Japanese on a tombstone, and the headline "Takikawa Clan Boss Brutally Murdered Along with His Family" on an old newspaper clipping hidden there, are shocking revelations for the film's protagonist in the Libertade cemetery. They arrive only in the last third.

There are two main characters. That they have little connection most of the way through is a sign of the film's somewhat hazy premise and slow-opening water flower of a plot. First is Jonathan Rys Meyers, known here as Shiro, who wakes up in a São Paolo hospital - from which he must escape - with slash marks on his face due to that sword, which was found with him and which he carries away. He remembers nothing, not even his name. Next, and more central, is Akemi (MASUMI) a young woman working somewhre nearby at two jobs and also practicing the art of Japanese swordplay. It's her 21st birthday, and now that she wants to walk away from her present life she starts finding out she isn't the person she thought she was and her real grandfather was somebody else.

Shiro - but he doesn't yet have a name - for some reason decides that Akemi will know the story of the sword he's carrying and give him some fix on who he is. His innate ability to knock out rooms full of men and language skills he didn't know he had mark him as a sort of scruffy Asian-influenced Jason Bourne. Very violent and very empty, he makes a perfect sexy movie-star hero, but he's rather under-used here. Akemi is a mixture, sweet, puzzled, and tough, with a soon-to-be-discovered gift for ultra-violence. The actress, a newcomer, is rather over-used, earnest but not quite as interesting as her constant screen closeups seem to imply.

In any case these two characters in search of pasts always remain less important than the handsome cinematography by frequent Amorim collaborator Gustavo Hadba. Hadba has said they shot "not the real São Paulo, but a Japanese city from graphic novels, closer to the Tokyo or Osaka we have in our collective memory." Note Amorim calls this a "neon noir," not a neo-noir: his concept of the genre leans toward the purely visual.

The imagery that grabs you from the film's earliest sequences is dramatic, romantic, and handsomely composed, drenched in desaturated blues or ambers of the "neon noir" the director mentions. A single flash of lightning suddenly illuminates a glittering white blanket of heavy rain: it's a gorgeous throwaway two-shot sequence so striking it makes a memorably pure and pleasing visual meme. Rhys Meyers/Shiro's yellow-greenish hospital room, with its dirty glass wall behind the head of his bed revealing a corridor and orderlies beyond, is a gemlike mix of grungy and grand. It's these visual delights along with the adrenaline rushes of sporadic violence that glue the vague, patchy plot together, and keep you watching for the next mood-swing.

The narrative craftsmanship doesn't live up to all those production values. Things take a little too long to develop their portents into events. A character called Takeshi (Tsuyoshi Ihara) enters the scene by shooting three men, a prisoner revealing a whispered secret to him and the two men who've been guarding him, and goes on from there. Later, after a mysterious but visually handsome melée in the cemetery that Takeshi begins to spell out more clearly his significance when he reveals to Akemi, who he calls Aki, the secrets of her family that make her partial heir to a divided gangster dynasty. But do we care? And where's "Shiro", whose compelling plight opened the movie but then, except for a some inexplicable murders, fell by the wayside?

Linguistic oddities of this movie: though it takes place in Brazil, almost no Portuguese is spoken. Takeshi speaks lengthily in slow, laborious English with Akemi, even though she has demonstrated that she can speak Japanese. (He is a veteran Japanese movie actor; she is a first-timer who has lived a lot of her life in the US.) The dialogue can be clunkily generic: "I won't be trapped by a past that isn't my own."

But in true Japanese gangster movie fashion, this film's ending sets us up for the next episode: Akemi in Japan. An interesting hybrid: one only wishes it were in Japanese and Portuguese, but's going for the international market where dramatically lit sword battles and elementary English are the accepted norm.

Further notes

Yakuza Princess, 111 mins., has its festival debut at Montreal (Fantasia International Festival) Aug. 18, 2021. US release by Magnolia Pictures and Magnet Releasing in cinemas and On-Demand Sept. 3, 2021.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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