I saw this movie because of the title.
Yakuza movies always had more energy and intrigue to me than most American gangster films. The work of Beat Takashi, Kinji Fukasaku, Seijun Suzuki, and Takashi Miike have elevated the yakuza genre with high energy, amazing production, and unique characters engaging in creative fight scenes. So when I first saw the poster for a movie called Yakuza Princess, I was immediately interested and wanted to see more. I was fully signed up for some trashy fun, and while what I got was entertaining, it didn’t reach the highs I think it could’ve.
Based on the comic “Samurai Shiro” by Danilo Beyruth, Yakuza Princess is about Akime (MASUMI), a woman living in Sao Paulo, Brazil, who learns that she’s the heir to a yakuza dynasty. After being confronted by a gaijin with amnesia, Shiro (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), and a yakuza lieutenant Takashi (Tsuyoshi Ihara), Akime tries to come to terms with her identity, figure out who to trust, and defend herself against rival yakuza coming to kill her.
The film looks great as the director, Vicente Amorim, peppers the film with a gorgeously murky pulp aesthetic. The neons, smoke, and rain drench the film in the comic book designs I crave. While comparisons to John Wick‘s production are expected (and intentional since it seems like John Wick is the newest franchise for action movies to knock off), I like the style, so I can’t complain. The film also seems to take heavy influence from Takashi Miike, with its quirkily violent side characters and its energized action scenes. They’re fun, I did enjoy it, but I wish the film did more to establish its own identity, especially with its unique setting. Before this movie, I didn’t know that there was a significant Japanese community in Brazil, and the film was at its strongest showcasing it. The film delves into the seedy shops and clubs populated by gangsters, and shows how there’s a whole world in this city. I would’ve liked to have seen more.
A lot of the film’s problems stem from editing in the first act. Rather than focusing on Akime, the filmmakers instead dedicate a significant amount of time to Shiro, even opening the film with him. This problem extends throughout the film, as it will randomly cut to Shiro even when he’s not doing anything. It could be because Jonathan Rhys Meyers is the biggest name in the film, but focusing so much time on him in the first act interrupts the film’s pacing and keeps us from seeing Akime as the main character. Jonathan Rhys Meyers scenes throughout the entire movie feel crowbarred in, very rarely jelling with the rest of the film.
The film heavily picks up by the second half of the film. The film is at its best both with its action scenes and focusing on Akime battling her identity. The fight scenes are all great, with some fun gore and a diverse array of martial arts, gunfights, and swords. MASUMI’s performance sells her dichotomy, as I believe her uncertainty of who she is, her discomfort in her current life, and her strength in a fight. Plus, her immersion in the yakuza culture feels natural once the story gets going. Jonathan Rhys Meyers is weird in his role. The actor known for Velvet Goldmine playing a gruff fighter is odd, as he nails the physicality but not much else.
By the end of the film, while I had fun with what I got, I couldn’t help but think it could’ve been so much more. With some more focus and tighter writing, it could’ve been a solid action film. It has cool characters, premise, and look but without the tight writing and characterization that puts Yakuza Princess on the same pedestal as others in the genre. The film sets itself up for a sequel and I will be on the lookout for it. I do like Akime and I want to see her story develop, and maybe now that her character is established a sequel could be more focused. In the end, Yakuza Princess is fun, but doesn’t elevate above an average action film.
Yakuza Princess is releasing everywhere digitally September 3rd