Takashi Miike’s Yakuza drama with a science-fiction twist is released today in America through Artsmagic DVD. Dave Foster takes a look at their R2 offering that debuted earlier this year…
After seven years in the Yakuza Kensuke still finds himself at the very bottom in the chain of command, scrubbing toilets and being looked down upon by the younger recruits. As it turns out this is fully justified for he is useless as a Yakuza fumbling any opportunity handed down to him, crying at his partner’s feet and wetting his pants instead of completing an ordered hit. Unfortunately Kensuke is also lacking in a more general capacity as well, failing as a man by returning home to his unfulfilled girlfriend who laughs in his face proclaiming he has a “limp-dick as usual”.
Kensuke is only in the Yakuza because he idolises Tosa, a famed boss who still walks around like a Yakuza soldier of old continuing the traditions long since forgotten by many as he goes about his work, samurai sword in hand, with a brutal efficiency. The two have an unlikely bond despite barely knowing each other due to the difference in rank, and when Tosa is assassinated Kensuke is unfortunate enough to be in the line of fire and lose his life as well.
Waking up dazed and confused in a makeshift laboratory of sorts Kensuke discovers a mad professor has used his and Tosa’s remains turning him into a Full Metal Yakuza, endowed with a robotic body complete with the warrior heart of his former boss and as a bonus, a new dick to make him proud. A relatively straight forward revenge story follows of superhuman proportions.
Miike shows the restraint regulars know he has but the hype would suggest he lacks and spends some time early on developing the character of Kensuke, both prior to his transformation and just after so we are fully aware of his motivations. This helps to ground the film and set up our protagonist as a weak human character before he undergoes an extraordinary makeover which leads to an all together more comic piece that verges on the out and out hilarity seen in Happiness of the Katakuris (if Kensuke had started singing and dancing I’d be laughing so hard I wouldn’t be writing this!).
Once he becomes Full Metal Yakuza Kensuke appears to be much like the title character Miike would later deliver in Ichi the Killer, a rather wimpy looking guy with a fancy outfit only here the lead character is considerably more buff thanks to his body enhancements. A lengthy exposition sequence where Kensuke learns what he has become is made an utter joy by the fact he is reduced to a decapitated head on a table while listening to his creator, the self-proclaimed genius scientist better known amongst his peers as the nutty professor. Complete with his full body leather cat suit he looks as though he was trying out for the role of cat woman, while fans of Japanese cinema will no doubt revel in the irony that actor Tomorowo Taguchi is the creator of this metal man, rather than becoming one as he did in Tetsuo.
After he completes what is essentially Robocop orientation class in which he learns some truly hilarious defence stances Kensuke heads off on an all-out revenge mission to destroy the gang who killed both him and Tosa. This results in the first of two well staged brawls in which Kensuke utilises a samurai sword to send heads flying, and with the aid of his foot completes a field goal across the cities beautiful night sky. The final action set piece is brought about through the introduction of a love interest, a girl whom Tosa used to date stumbles across a hermit like Kensuke and soon becomes the bait which the Yakuza will torment in a horrific manner to lure the Full Metal Yakuza out.
Tsuyoshi Ujiki impressed with his role in Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s disturbing thriller Cure and puts in an entirely different performance here as Kensuke. Looking more like a drained businessman to start with he really takes hold when he becomes Full Metal Yakuza, constantly ‘on’ as he depicts his characters internal struggle with his new body and overrunning emotions by twitching his way through the action, like an excitable child tweaking on a sugar high. Thanks to the slow build-up his motivations are clear for the first bout of revenge, while the finale is well served through his time spent with Shoko Nakahara whose punishment here is only bettered in her later role for Miike’s Visitor Q.
The only other character worthy of further exploration is Tomorowo Taguchi as the nutty professor. The complete opposite of Kensuke his motivations are not well developed with any attempts by Miike to flesh him out leaving more loose ends than a rounded persona. None of this really matters however as Taguchi is the films comic lifeblood, setting the mood for a series of unbelievable events which are played so straight they become increasingly more humorous, while his larger than life portrayal is wonderfully delivered and entertains for every second he is onscreen.
Made in 1997 as a straight-to-video project (known as V-Cinema, this is actually a large respected source of films in Japan unlike western counterparts) the film is shot in Miike’s typically (for this time) raw style with very little in the way of set dressing or overly glamorous locations. The resulting effect combined with some shaky camera work early into the films running time results in some amateurish shots, though for the most part a solid visual style is achieved that although rough complements the low budget effects work. From the disastrously comic bodysuit to the garish electrical effects I can only praise Miike and his technical crew for achieving the impossible and making this ambitious project work by not dwelling too much on the finer technical details and concentrating on an achievable look that is successful thanks to the films other strengths.
Originally titled Full Metal Gokudo Artsmagic released this film as Full Metal Yakuza on R2 DVD in February 2004. This is the version reviewed here and as the cover boasts it has survived the BBFC unscathed. Having now branched out into American distribution Artsmagic will release a near identical version of this disc on R1 DVD for 25th May 2004, details for which can be found here.
The Official US / UK Artsmagic websites for Full Metal Yakuza include DVD release info along with a promotional trailer.
Picture and Sound
Presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen the transfer here is generally disappointing yet somehow what I’ve come to expect from Miike DVD releases here in the UK. Of course it should be pointed out the film was shot on a low budget, a direct-to-video effort so you can never expect too much but the source for this transfer is clearly not the best with an overall muddy appearance lacking in fine detail which is made worse by over-saturated colours and next-to-no shadow detail. In terms of compression you will find some minor edge enhancement but little in the way of artefacting, at least nothing that stood out from a generally below average but watchable presentation.
The original Japanese language track is presented in a stereo mix that aside from a few distorted high-end moments does its job admirably while the optional English subtitles are easy to read and appear to offer a fine literal translation.
Tom Mes, author of Agitator: The Cinema of Takashi Miike steps forward to provide us with a running commentary that delves into the film and its components. Topics of conversation including the origins of V-Cinema, the Yakuza film roots seen in Full Metal Yakuza, discussion on the characters and their motives, and most interestingly the actors and links they have throughout Miike’s filmography and close director friends of his including Shinya Tsukamoto. On the whole this is a good commentary track that only really suffers from technical difficulties with the balance between commentary and film audio being such that hearing what Mes has to say can be problematic, while the films audio is out of synch from the picture and can be a distraction. The track is also recorded far too low and there are a couple of dropouts and spikes.
Two interviews are also featured, the first with Takashi Miike where in his usual dry manner he answers questions on work ethics and displays why he is often thought of as a renegade director, completely dismissing the studio aspect of film making by showing little care for the commercial success of his work (“as long as the cast and crew are happy then I’ve made a good film”). Full Metal Yakuza is another talking point in this 33-minute interview but you may very well find it hard going as his demeanour could hardly be described as engaging. Miike’s regular editor Yasushi Shimamura is fortunately a little more energetic in his 14-minute interview where he covers just what it is like to work with Miike and the process they go through in the editing room.
A biographies section offers an in-depth look into Miike’s career and single paragraphs on four of the lead actors, while each is given a detailed filmography. The remaining extras are standard fare with Artsmagic DVD previews, listings (via an artwork gallery) and website link present.
A precursor to many of the concepts later embellished with Ichi the Killer this early example of Miike’s V-Cinema days is a fine addition to his impressive filmography that will entertain with laughter more than it shocks you through graphic violence, while the character and Yakuza aspect make repeat viewings a welcome prospect.
Some informative extra features go some way to make up for the distinctly average transfer but I do hope we see a marked effort on Artsmagic’s part to ensure future DVD releases contain audio/video that matches the extras and some of the better R1 releases from Ventura.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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