Action / Thrillers, Drama, Exploitation, Films, Japan, Police, Reviews, Yakuza

Last of the Wolves

3.5 stars

孤狼の血 LEVEL 2 Korou no Chi [lit. “Lone Wolf’s Blood Level 2]. Japan 2021. Directed by Kazuya Shiraishi. Starring Tori Matsuzaka, Ryohei Suzuki, Nijiro Murakami, Nanase Nishino, Baijaku Nakamura, Taichi Saotome. 139 mins. In Japanese with English subtitles.

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A new rogue cop faces a new rogue yakuza amidst intrigue in both of their ranks for an ultraviolent sequel…

For 2018, director Kazuya Shiraishi would briefly bring yakuza cinema back near the forefront with his movie The Blood of Wolves. While grossing a perfectly respectable $4 million-ish at the box office, in a turn of events that would’ve been unimaginable during the genre’s actual heyday, it won even bigger at the award and festival circuits. The movie garnered awards for Best Director for 2018’s Blue Ribbons and Best Picture at the Hoichi Awards, and more numerous Best Actor ones for star Kōji Yakusho — all of them beating out favourites among critical, mainstream and cult releases alike in Shoplifters, Detective Conan: Zero the Enforcer and One Cut of the Dead.

However, that didn’t seem to simply be recognition for the film’s individual greatness towering above others. It was more likely award bodies choosing to symbolically make up for years of previously undue neglect and scorn towards a genre and style that would later be recognised as a beloved piece of national film history. It was perhaps equivalent to the way the Oscars for 2006 chose to shower The Departed and its main players with awards despite it not being Martin Scorsese’s best film (those already lost and got snubbed over and over over the last two decades), and their not even nominating its source material Infernal Affairs. That’s still nothing against what Shiraishi managed to accomplish with it, however. Upon the original’s success, he’d make his sequel separated yet connected in continuing where the last movie left off, but with all-new leads in a story that works well fine as a standalone.

Hiroshima police detective Shuichi Hioka (Tori Matsuzaka, The Blood of Wolves…but this time running the show!) — or at least “Hiroshima” ever since he was forcibly transferred there — has become a controversial legend three years after he paradoxically shook up yet stabilized the world of the yakuza. Amidst extensive war between the Odani Gang & the Jinsei-kai, Hioka’s carefully orchestrated (i.e. manipulated) killing of Boss Shohei Irako was seen as a necessary evil. After all, it led to the gangs calling a long-held truce in addition to basically forging a police alliance with the Odani. Hioka in turn assures them that the last rowdy elements of the Jinsei-kai are soon to be arrested into submission, so there’s nothing to worry about.

Nothing to worry about except for the slain Irako’s old righthand man, Uebayashi (Ryohei Suzuki, Baragaki: Unbroken Samurai….soon), that is; as he’s just about to be released from prison. Welcomed by the last remnants of Irako loyalists who he leads (plus a complimentary prostitute), Uebayashi gets right down to business, vowing revenge on all the yakuza punks who “forgot the code of jingi”, compromised their gang just over damned peace and collaborated with deka (pigs). But before aggressively pushing the gang — including his “superiors” — into a new war with Odani and police if necessary, just to show he’s serious[ly deranged], Uebayashi takes a little time out of his busy schedule to target the sister of his old prison guard.

But sly as ever, Hioka also has new plans for keeping the peace, sending young Korean hoodlum Chinta (Nijiro Murakami, I was a Secret Bitch — haven’t seen the film but just thought I’d mention that) as a mole into Uebayashi’s gang. Chinta may not be the most competent anonymous connection to the streets Hioka could have, but he is the most loyal, looking up to him “like a big brother” [aniki]. Chinta’s sister Mao (Nanase Nishino — one of however many members of a given time from idol megagroup Nogizaka46), meanwhile, also looks to Hioka like a big brother — but as in oppa. She runs a bar with Odani yakuza protection thanks to Hioka, but is getting fed up with how exploitatively she thinks her beau is using her bro.

While violence is literally already being planned before the studio logo even leaves the screen, it takes just a little over ten minutes for Wolves to really get “going” so to speak. Upon Uebayashi’s gang finding his first target for revenge (who’s not even the real target, but will do for being related), they (“they” as in both the men and the movie) make it seem like they’re solely going to rape her as would’ve happened in 70s yakuza films almost as if by quota. But they opt to do something…. well, if not measurably “worse”, then even more stomach-turning.

Any time you see this shot on a yakuza movie, you know the results won’t be good….

Proudly flaunting its Toei heritage, Wolves is actually kind of like an amalgam of yakuza films and directors; mainly Kenji Fukasaku. While the Hiroshima backdrop may bring Battles Without Honor And Humanity (and especially Deadly Fight in Hiroshima) to mind for many first, in overall concept and content it draws more from later Fukasaku films: the upstart, drug hit-loving psycho who publicly goes against his own boss recalls Graveyard of Honour, while the blurring and manipulation between cop and crook recalls Cops vs Thugs. But by far the most similarities lay with the less known Yakuza Graveyard, which similarly featured a cop with deep and shameless yakuza ties (who even got “transferred” as a euphemism for exiled in similar manner) trying to prevent/pacify war between two gangs, a low-level yakuza (or two) who totally admires him as aniki, and even a very uneasy love (or something) with a Korean woman.   

However, Wolves is updated or might we say transcribed in setting. Mainly set in 1991 shortly before the advent of Japan’s game-changing Anti-Organized Crime Law that forced the yakuza to be a little more discreet, the movie is given a somewhat more “modern” mood. It goes a few decades back from when it’s made — exactly as its 70s predecessors did as well — by moving the movie’s period from the immediate postwar decades to the transition from the Shōwa to Heisei Eras marked and marred by the bubble economy. That essentially lends this movie the opposite dynamic from the old ones for showing how yakuza deal with an economy in sudden decline if not freefall rather than the earlier black market, cheap labour-driven boom.    

Recalling the good old days as it really was in Japan (and maybe can still be on occasion), the Odani Gang’s headquarters is openly and prominently displayed in public.

There are lighter bits of other yakuza film elements thrown in, including some hanafuda gambling and a reference to colleagues in Abashiri prison (as Teruo Ishii made into a yakuza pilgrimage site). But Wolves definitely does not aim to confine itself to being a nod to past glory. It attempts new takes on many genre mainstays; some hit and some don’t. The most direct of all jitsuroku carryovers — the “docudrama” interludes with the narrator laying out the socio-economic background of the carnage past and to come — is lovingly nostalgic while still placed in a new atmosphere. Less successful in creating past magic, however, is the generally limited, low-key and sometimes generic soundtrack coming off more like early 90s budget V-cinema. It’s a far cry from the iconic music to grace classic Toei films like Battles Without Honor And Humanity, Female Prisoner: Scorpion etc., but maybe that’s asking for too much.   

In more distinct terms, the movie does very well for itself with the surprising degree of focus it puts on the awkward, highly dysfunctional (though with difference in background and profession, how could it not be?) three-way relationship between Hioka, Chinta and Mao. Their life together gets even further complicated by the different degrees and varieties of gang ties they all have. This quite unusual angle actually does more to uplift the movie than its more conventional action/yakuza elements. 

Chinta will do anything for his aniki, but acting as an underling of Uebayashi seems scarcely any better than being an enemy….

For that, Wolves is also helped by three surprisingly convincing leads. The last I saw of lead actor Matsuzaka was as the title character in the excellent-ish Iwane: Sword of Serenity — which aimed to breathe new life into the jidaigeki epic just as this aims to for the yakuza film. He chooses (and/or is chosen for) roles that sure give him a lot of do and he carries his load for that well here. Suzuki had already earned his (very different kind of) outlandish exploitation credentials as the titular Hentai Kamen / Pervert Mask, and delivers another wild performance as the unstable-even-by-yakuza-villain-standards Uebayashi. But the most unexpected boost here is from Nishino — as one’s initially brought to question whether she even belongs in something like this. Despite her origins (see “Side Notes”), she actually has the most natural performance of any significant performer here, making her role effectively conscious but unswerving testament to how little power or say women ever tended to have in these movies.

Not helping so much however, is the deliberately and sometimes outlandishly histrionic acting by almost everybody else other than the leads (especially most of the other gangster characters), and a couple of leads once in a while too. This element is so pervasive that it occasionally makes the movie seem more like a parody than a tribute or reboot. Past the characters, the movie itself irregularly brings out a decidedly tongue-in-cheek tone; a little pooch plays a supporting comic relief role, whether for yakuza cuddling or to fetch discarded pinkies. Conversely (and I do mean conversely), the violence is decidedly more Miike than Fukasaku, as the latter even when graphic would generally keep his rooted in realism and relatively “normal” behavior even among rogues and brutes. Actually, a bit of this is may even cross Miike’s on-his-worst-days parameters; namely showing a twitching naked, mutilated woman’s body on the cusp of death while trying to present it as dry humour.

That’s not say Wolves can’t ever be taken as something serious or sane. In fact, it gets surprisingly serious and even borders on moving for a couple of later scenes. Also done well is the gradual unveiling of the full story and how the police department can be just as colourful and shady of a place as any gang offices. The action and violence also very widely vacillates in nature and inspiration. The setup for a certain killing scene of a yakuza-affiliated woman is made far too obvious to generate any interest at all, while the quite drawn out climatic battle is perhaps the movie’s best nod to the glory days — though it interestingly subverts them in having the vicious antagonist with a sword against a (handicapped) antihero with a gun. That draws closer parallels to Spike vs the vicious Vicious in Cowboy Bebop later than Toei yakuza films (especially ninkyo eiga) that would equate preference of the sword to chivalry and/or the gun with cowardice. More importantly for all practical purposes, it has bloody good choreography.

Last of the Wolves is in more ways than not the next step and “level” in a commendable effort to corrupt new generations of audiences who’ve been missing out on classically gratuitous exploitation cinema. From an industry now flooded with wussy manga adaptations (which ironically, the 2000s decade’s one yakuza genre superstar director, Miike, has more recently been facilitating as much as anyone can), this is a punch, stab and shot in the gut. The poles between the parts of the movie that are taken seriously and ones that aren’t are too stark to forget about and somewhat mar the overall experience, and it goes overboard to the point of feeling a little artificial or self-ridiculing with the scenery-chewing and shock violence a few times. But it’s as easy a recommendation to anyone really inclined or strongly nostalgic as it is cause for caution for those who aren’t. It remains to be seen how enduring these movies can ultimately become; and that may hinge on overcoming a couple of creative vices.

“[Yakuza are] trouble my ass! Compared to political criminals, yakuza are easy! Yakuza say they’re bad and do bad things….Those who do bad things but think they’re good are tougher.”

Last Of The Wolves screened as part of New York Asian Film Festival 2021, and screens as part of Camera Japan, running in Rotterdam from 22 to 26 September 2021 and Amsterdam from 30 September to 3 October 2021.


Side notes

Nishino was one of the leading members of Nogizaka46 before “graduating” to be replaced with new younger gals as per custom. The idol group named after a Tokyo subway station was created as the official rival to AKB48 (yes, I know “official rival” is kind of an oxymoron, but they said it, not me). So as Wolves essentially launches her independent movie career (i.e. as the first major role that’s not an idol vehicle with more to come), this is an odd transition from that world indeed — though unsurprisingly, she doesn’t get the sort of thing that happens to pretty much every other female character who appears onscreen more than 30 seconds to happen to her. So perhaps now in her second career, Nishino will congruously become the “official rival” to AKB48 alumni-turned-actress Atsuko Maeda (To the Ends of the Earth, Initiation Love).  

The subtitler of this movie seemed to be quite the WWE fan, as there are references to both “assclowns” (probably first said in the 1999 movie Office Space but further popularized by Chris Jericho not long afterwards) and “candyasses” (unquestionably popularized by The Rock, both in WWE then when he used it against Vin Diesel in their bizarre Fast & Furious 7 production spat). It’s not really that that makes the translation any less or more accurate than many other such Japanese movie subs, however, since the way insults and expletives operate in Japanese are as uniquely nuanced and hard to directly translate as a lot of other things in the language.

About the author

Wally AdamsWally Adams Wally Adams
Born & raised in North Carolina, a citizen of the world. Asian cinema is but one of many avatars of my longtime fascination with cinema, general culture, music and languages throughout the world. But by now I recognize it may be the strongest of them all and sum it up like this: Whether Mifune in a duel or Madhuri in a dance, Song Kang-ho being a dunce or Gordon Liu in his stance, the finest Asian cinema always leaves me in a trance. Find me on Facebook.
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