You ever just get a craving for a certain kind of movie? Like you could be relaxing at home when all of a sudden you just have the urge to watch some ultra-violent shlock? That was me a few weeks ago, only instead of some over-the-top gorefest, I wanted to watch a yakuza film. Maybe chalk it up to always appreciating Japanese crime thrillers, but I wanted to see a yakuza action movie. I wanted to see intense Japanese men talk about loyalty and honor. I wanted a climax on a rooftop when both men take their shirts off and fight to the death. I wanted gunfights and I wanted action. Lo and behold, it was at that point I learned about Yakuza Princess.
Since September, COVID-19 or not, is usually a slow month for releases, I figured that this would be a perfect time to expand some horizons a bit. Sure, this is a yakuza crime thriller, a genre that I’m fairly familiar with, but it’s a Brazillian yakuza crime thriller. Now you may be asking why a yakuza film was made and set in Brazil? Apparently, Brazil has the largest Japanese diaspora in the world! That’s a Snapple fact for you. Outside of that refreshing bit of trivia, after one sitting with Yakuza Princess, I find it hard to give it that same bit of praise.
Director: Vincente Amorim
Release Date: September 3, 2021
Set in San Paulo, Brazil, Yakuza Princess follows Akemi (MASUMI), a young woman who just turned 21 and is having a nice night on the town. Unfortunately, after her night goes astray thanks to some lovely drunks, she’s suddenly being chased by members of the yakuza for some unknown reason and is assisted by an amnesiac man (Johnathan Rhys Meyers) in evading and killing them. It’s eventually revealed that Akemi is the heir to a yakuza clan that was wiped out when she was an infant, and now that she’s an adult, the rival clan wants to make sure that all traces of her bloodline end. Similarly, Akemi now wants revenge for the death of her family, including her grandfather, whom she loved more than anyone else.
Yakuza Princess takes its first hour very slowly, establishing three major plotlines before eventually combining them together. We have Akemi and the amnesiac man, who is eventually named Shiro, and then we follow a lieutenant in the Yakuza named Takeshi (Tsuyoshi Ihara) who primarily hunts Akemi down for most of the film. The problem is that the film takes too long to open up and reveal what’s happening. By the time the stakes are established and all of the main characters meet each other, the movie is halfway over. I don’t have anything wrong with establishing the world, but taking the necessary time to flesh things out only works if the world and the characters are worth fleshing out.
Sad to say, neither of those statements is true. I mean, they’re executed competently, but they’re nothing really remarkable. San Paulo comes across like any other major metropolis, complete with dodgy nightclubs and neon lights. Even the old-school Japanese dojos that are present feel muted and devoid of personality. I should be entertained watching two crotchety Japanese men talk about the virtues of samurai, but when they’re doing it in an empty room with a futon, nothing is keeping me visually engaged. Nearly every location in Yakuza Princess feels stock. A stock location for a stock movie I guess.
Like the locations, most of the cast don’t really stand out in any noticeable way. Shiro fares the worst since Yakuza Princess uses him as a tool to defend Akemi until she asserts herself as the main character. He has no personality and just exists to be the tough guy. Akemi fares a little bit better as she gradually and successfully transitions from a city girl working paycheck to paycheck to an up-and-coming yakuza boss, complete with loyal followers. The one downer is that this is the first acting role of MASUMI, who is traditionally a singer. She adapts well, but this is clearly her first time acting in a leading role and it shows.
It’s the Japanese characters who really bring the movie to life. When it’s just the yakuza members on-screen arguing about loyalty, bloodlines, and generational grudges, it’s a fun time. Early on in the film, there’s a shouting match between Takeshi and another lieutenant that almost ends in Takeshi severing his finger to show his loyalty, and those are the kind of moments I just eat up. I would have gladly taken more of that instead of the “chosen one” narrative that we get instead.
I didn’t hate my time with Yakuza Princess, but I was most certainly underwhelmed by it. To be perfectly honest, these are the kind of movies that make me sad. There’s nothing technically wrong with Yakuza Princess. Everything in the movie works and there’s nothing broken or bad about it. The film just lacks any passion or energy behind it. If it wasn’t for the fact that I had to see this movie for work, Yakuza Princess would be the movie you put on as background noise when you’re trying to fold laundry or something. To that end, what’s even the point of making a film if it leaves so little of an impact that it’s best served as background noise?