"Yakuza Princess" is a good-looking exercise in bloodletting, but it lacks a convincing lead performance from singer-turned-actress MASUMI.
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You likely already know if a movie called “Yakuza Princess” (now available in select theaters and on VOD) is your bag or not. It doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but there’s enough “John Wick”-like neon lit slicings, dicings and decapitations to satisfy fans of the subgenre even if the gore has more computer-generated assistance than I’d prefer.
“Yakuza Princess” is based on the graphic novel “Samurai Shiro” by Brazilian artist Danilo Beyruth. It opens in shocking, attention-grabbing fashion with the Osaka, Japan-based massacre of the Kawa crime clan. Men, women and children are gunned down indiscriminately. The family’s sole survivor is a 1-year-old little girl named Akemi.
We flash forward 20 years to São Paulo where Akemi (singer-turned-actress MASUMI making her feature film debut) works a dead end job at a gift shop owned by Mrs. Tsugahara (Mariko Takai) and trains with her sensei Chiba (Toshiji Takeshima). A title card tells us that São Paulo boasts the largest Japanese community in the world. (I had to laugh at this because wouldn’t Japan be the largest Japanese community in the world?)
Elsewhere in São Paulo, Shiro (Irish actor Jonathan Rhys Meyers – the gaijin’s presence and name are explained in the movie) awakens in a hospital bed. His body and face are covered with scars. He can’t remember how he got here or who he is. He’s essentially a gangland Jason Bourne.
In a sequence that plays like a far more graphic homage to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s introductions in “The Terminator” pictures, Meyers’ Shiro skulks around the hospital naked as a jaybird hanging brain like he’s Michael Fassbender in “Shame” (Irish Curse my foot!) before stealing a visitor’s clothes and retrieving the samurai sword with which he arrived.
The sword, which supposedly contains the souls of those felled by it, serves as a link between Shiro and Akemi. They begrudgingly join forces when ambitious gangster Kojiro (Eijiro Ozaki, “The Man in the High Castle”) discovers that rightful yakuza heiress Akemi is still alive and gets on the first plane from Osaka to São Paulo to bump her off. Also along for the ride is Kojiro’s rival Takeshi (Tsuyoshi Ihara of “Letters from Iwo Jima” and “13 Assassins”), but his intentions are hazy.
Performances vary greatly in “Yakuza Princess.” First-timer MASUMI is convincing in action but a complete void when playing any sort of emotion. Meyers’ character is a cipher by its very construction, but he has enough presence to pull it off. Ihara steals the movie like an unattended 8-year-old might a pack of Pokémon cards at a hobby shop. The dude just oozes effortless cool. No kidding, I’d be happy as a pig in shit simply watching Ihara smoke cigarettes for an hour and a half.
“Yakuza Princess” is co-written (alongside Kimi Lee, Tubaldini Shelling and Fernando Toste) and directed by Vicente Amorim, who’s probably best known for making the 2008 Viggo Mortensen movie “Good.” The flick starts and concludes strongly enough, but hits an unfortunate lull at its midpoint. It’s a cool-looking movie (cinematographer Gustavo Hadba is Co-MVP alongside Ihara) with a bountiful amount of bloody action that leaves itself wide open for a sequel (supposedly this is the first installment of a planned trilogy). If MASUMI gets more acting lessons I’m down to clown.