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Fantasia 2021: Yakuza Princess

Based on the graphic novel Samurai Shiro by Danilo Beyruth, Brazilian director Vicente Amorim puts us in the heart of the Japanese community in Sao Paulo in Brazil (the largest outside of Japan itself) for a story mixing modern action with traditional legend.

Akemi (Masumi) is a street orphan who is actually the heiress to a Yakuza crime syndicate following her families murder 20 years earlier. She crosses paths with an amnesiac (Meyers) who can’t remember much after fleeing hospital, but knows that he was found only with a rare samurai sword and various injuries, and that his fate is entwined somehow with Akemi and the Yakuza. It falls to Akemi to defend her family name as a Yakuza syndicate and take the war to those who took everything from her, with the amnesiac fighting demons of his own to discover his place in the Yakuza war.

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Japanese / US singer and actress Masumi makes her feature film debut here with plenty of chances to sing (thanks to a colourful karaoke bar) and kick ass in her longing to be someone away from a simple street market trader. Haunted by the memories of her past that saw her become an orphan, her small circle of friends isn’t enough to warrant her existing from day to day on the neon lit streets of Sao Paulo. With Masumi not an actress by initial trade, she makes a good feature debut with the material on offer to her. She’s a fragile character but sitting on a lot of skill and expertise that needs to be unleashed to honour her bloodline. It’s safe to say Masumi channels a good mix of both naivety and power to her character Akemi to make her journey a worthy one. It’s only when the volatile vagrant Jonathan Rhys Meyers arrives on the scene with a samurai sword, deemed to be part of a Yakuza bloodline, that things get interesting.

Meyers has an atmosphere surrounding him akin to that of Michael Biehn’s Kyle Reese from The Terminator. He doesn’t care who he has to cross to get answers and is surrounded in a threatening mystery we aren’t sure about, hunting for answers in a dangerous world, until he comes across a young woman who may have the answer he needs. Meyers is a wonderful actor, and of late has returned to screens with some juicy roles; this proves to be another one of them that lets him tap into a darker side that we’ve not seen from him in years.

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Yakuza Princess is dark, and rightly so. Not just in terms of how it looks with action set across a vibrant city during night-time or the characters on offer, but also in terms of the content; the violence is brutal and bloody; blood splatters across the screen (more tongue-in-cheek graphic novel touches), limbs are sliced off in grim detail and bullets thump into heads and hearts. When it comes to the Yakuza and their generations old way of honour, no amount of killing is ever too much to keep it safe and we see that in graphic detail here.

Writers Fernando Toste and Kimi Lee don’t shy away from making this a character drama as well as just a revenge film. The action itself is spread thinly across the story, with a few moments of conflict that doesn’t drag, at least until the final act when there is no amount of blood spurting and bones breaking in the search for answers and truth. It’s an often-complicated web of threads that come up, making you pay attention as to what family ties relate to what story, and who can be trusted. It’s nice that there is a good portion of this sub-titles with no expense spared to lend authenticity to the Japanese culture. It’s a film about the culture and heritage of the samurai over just an all-out assault of slashing and stabbing. It’s no John Wick in levels of action, but it doesn’t set out to be. Deaths take their toll on characters more than just disposable collateral damage, and there is a great deal of the story dealing with family and bloodlines; what it means to be part of a Yakuza syndicate for real.

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Sao Paulo is a perfect location for this story – blending the domestic familiarity of Brazil for director Amorim, but also immersing the audience in a rich and electric Japanese community. There are some lovely shots used across the city that really come across to honour the graphic novel this came from. When hooded figures stalk damp streets, reflections lit up by the neon signs ahead and steam rising from the sewers, or clash with swords illuminated by shadows, it’s nothing but an atmospheric delight. A sinister score by composers Lucas Marcier and Fabiano Krieger marries both traditional and modern Japanese music motifs, undercut with a synthetic level of, once again, Terminator-esque threat and menace when the danger lurks in the darkness.

With an acclaimed director like Anorim respecting the source material and the culture it came from, matched up with an impressive debut from Masumi and reliable sinister support from Meyers, the pacing of this can be overlooked thanks to the gorgeous city we are in and the wonderfully slick and well-staged action.

Verdict

Bold and brutal in both style and story, this is a bloody journey through what it means to be both Samurai and Yakuza with great authenticity to the Japanese culture. Solid direction, intense performances and immersive locations all help carry the story for an entertaining watch.

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