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“Once more, with feeling,” hollers a sadist mobster in the opening scene of The Blood of Wolves as he readies to saw off yet another finger from his victim. But the words might serve as a concise description of Kazuya Shiraishi’s gangster movie. The Blood of Wolves takes its cues from a staple in Japanese cinema – the yakuza flick as embodied by the legendary Battles Without Honor and Humanity series (1973-76), with which the film shares the same geographical setting of Hiroshima – but then runs with it by dialing up the melodrama and visceral gore, while offering characters who are motivated by a real sense of justice and empathy toward others and society in general.
While very much a showcase of the abilities of Koji Yakusho (The Eel, Babel), who delivers a powerful turn as an unhinged cop who wheels and deals with the very gangsters he’s supposed to contain and eradicate, The Blood of Wolves is proof of the genre-hopping versatility of the up-and-coming director. One of the most proficient helmers in Japanese cinema today, Shiraishi has already made four films in the last 12 months, with the others being a rugged relationship drama (Birds Without Names), an abduction thriller (Sunny/32) and a fictionalized take on the lives of radical filmmaker Koji Wakamatsu and his associates during the social upheaval in the late 1960s (Dare to Stop Us).
What’s constant among these films is their raw representation of human desire and discontent, a murky quagmire The Blood of Wolves ceaselessly wallows in. Loud, larger than life and devoid of nuance, the simplicity of the movie is bound to appeal to aficionados of bleak police movies and yakuza bloodbaths. Bowing first at the Far East Film Festival in April before opening in Japan the following month, the mob flick has already screened in the U.S. at the New York Asian Film Festival. Yakusho’s selection as the actor-in-focus at this year’s Tokyo film festival – thus the return of the film to Japanese screens as part of a miniretrospective of his work – should provide Shiraishi’s film with yet another opportunity to appeal to international distributors seeking an in-your-face genre title.
Based on Yuko Yuzuki’s novel of the same name, The Blood of Wolves is set in 1988. The period setting is crucial: Bolstered by its phantasmagorical bubble economy, Japanese society was just hitting its most garish and amoral heights. Mirroring the greed and corruption running rampant in even the legit walks of life, the yakuza have ceased to uphold any resemblance of a samurai-like code of chivalry. Driving The Blood of Wolves forward is just such a manifestation of this, an ever-escalating turf war between two gangs on the streets in a rundown district of Hiroshima.
Unsurprisingly, the cops prove to be completely incompetent (or indifferent) in dealing with the chaos. So it takes a rogue to deal with rogues: With his oily hair, equally dodgy beard and gaudy attire, Ogami (Yakusho) could easily pass himself as a mobster. Cynical as hell about what’s going on around him, he readily takes advantage of his position – he receives “travel expenses” from gangsters, and takes “stripping down to the truth” in its most literal sense when he interrogates a woman – while also paying scant regard to protocol when he really does investigate a case.
The case at hand here is the disappearance of a mob accountant – that is, the very man who has his digits cut off and pig excrement shoved into his mouth in the first scene. But Ogami isn’t allowed to look into this alone: joining him is Hioka (Tori Matsuzaka), a university-educated suit whom we first see being ordered to make shaved ice for everyone in the office, and then getting battered by a huge hoodlum in a pachinko parlor in his first outing with Ogami. The contrast between the upright rookie and the hard-boiled oldster is perhaps vividly illustrated in the one exchange they have after that brawl, when the young man says he knows karate but will rather avoid a fight than use his skills to beat people up. Ogami slaps him and retorts: “You never pull out unless you’re fucking!”
Indeed, The Blood of Wolves is mightily uncouth, with gurning goons dispensing foul invectives and even fouler violence while battling their foes, and then having no qualms about harassing or molesting masseurs and escorts after a hard day’s work. It’s during one such instance, in a deadly row over the affections of nightclub mamasan Riko (Yoko Maki, After the Storm), that the two gangs – the Kakomura clan and their ultraright benefactor on the one side, the disintegrating Odani clan on the other – finally declare open war.
While appearing to play investigator and mediator amid all this, Ogami actually sides with the Odani, as he discusses strategies with their leader (Yosuke Eguchi) about how to deal with the Kakomura while going to illegitimate lengths to expose that gang’s role in abducting and then killing that number-cruncher. But the seemingly fumbling sidekick soon reveals his true colors, too: Actually an Internal Affairs operative, Hioka begins to report back to metropolitan headquarters about Ogami’s collusion with the mobs and his other misdemeanors. But his superiors there somehow refuse to act on them, and instead demand him to search for Ogami’s secret diary.
It’s perhaps hardly a spoiler to reveal that Hioka will soon understand how corruption goes all the way from the grimy precinct to the very top, that a good heart lies obscured beneath Ogami’s crazy veneer and that Hioka learns the errors of his starry-eyed ways. Offering convenient conversions and closure, The Blood of Wolves flows from its nihilistic beginnings toward a more conventional finale – but one that comes with crimson splatter, decomposed bodies and severed heads aplenty.
Takahiro Haibara’s camerawork and Hitomi Kato’s cut manages to generate and maintain the tension and mayhem of the violence breaking out onscreen, but the central driving forces here are the performances and the plot – and the affirmation of how this is, after all, a world with, rather than without, honor and humanity.
It’s not just a pun: With Hiako’s rite of passage into a scruffier, more world-weary lawman, let’s not rule out the possibility of The Blood of Wolves shaping up into a franchise – just like Battles Without Honor and Humanity did four decades ago, in a world that was more gung-ho but less complex than that of today.
Production company: ‘The Blood of Wolves’ Production Committee
Cast: Koji Yakusho, Tori Matsuzaka, Yoko Maki, Yosuke Eguchi
Director: Kazuya Shiraishi
Producer: Kazuto Amano
Screenwriter: Junya Ikegami, based on a novel by Yuko Yuzuki
Director of photography: Takahiro Haibara
Production designer: Tsutomu Imamura
Editor: Hitomi Kato
Music: Goro Yasukawa
Venue: Tokyo International Film Festival (Japan Now)
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