Brazil has a large Japanese population, and the social conflicts between returning Japanese ex-pats and more traditional Japanese citizens have been the subject of a lot of great Japanese cinema, like Takashi Miike’s wild City of Lost Souls and Masato Harada’s tremendous, soulful Kamikaze Taxi. But this is the first time I’ve seen the topic tackled from the Brazilian side, as a Japanese-Brazilian woman (musician MASUMI) finds herself pursued by her family’s criminal past in the home country.
The story, based on a comic by Brazilian artist Danilo Beyruth (who did some excellent work on the recent Gwenpool series), leans a bit heavily on yakuza tropes, as we get honorable (and dishonorable) gangsters, betrayals, and assassins. But the film benefits from its atmosphere, as the characters prowl Sao Paulo’s Liberdade neighborhood, home to the biggest ethnic Japanese population outside of Japan. If anything, I wish we’d gotten more of the local color, as the shots of Liberdade are fascinating – I’d like to see a film set more tightly in that milieu.
Despite that, director Vicente Amorim has style to spare, establishing a strong neon aesthetic reminiscent of the work of Michael Mann, Nicolas Winding Refn, and Ridley Scott. But Amorim’s Liberdade has a grungy edge to its Kabukicho-esque visuals – a darker, dirtier edge that still manages to capture the feel of a place where real people work and do business.
Amorim is aided by an excellent international cast, with Jonathan Rhys Meyers as an amnesiac hitman and Tsuyoshi Ihara as an ambiguous gang boss from the home country. Ihara in particular is very strong here, even though the role requires playing his cards very close to the vest. MASUMI has to shoulder a lot of the narrative burden and frankly looks a little more comfortable when asked to sing than act, but handles the numerous action scenes with aplomb.
Yakuza Princess doesn’t exactly reinvent the genre, but it’s a satisfying yakuza film in an unconventional setting, and small touches of oddness (like the yakuza retirement home) are thoroughly enjoyable. Yakuza Princess opens today, September 3, digitally and in US theatres from Magnet Releasing.