Filmmaker Takashi Miike generally operates in two distinct artistic modes. There’s the accomplished, internationally esteemed moral formalist who’s directed such films as Audition, 13 Assassins, and Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai. There’s also the puckish, genre-bending, gleefully obscene wild man who continues to churn out every kind of movie imaginable, including ultraviolent yakuza debauches, J-horror, musicals, westerns, children’s fables, monster movies, and even something that scanned as a haunting tribute to David Lynch (Gozu). Inevitably, there’s overlap between these personas, and Yakuza Apocalypse offers one of the director’s more fully integrated fusions of Miike the poet and Miike the pulp anarchist.
This wedding may take some getting used to, even for those, such as this critic, who greatly admire both sides of the artist. Yakuza Apocalypse opens in media res with a beautifully gory swordfight. Narration provides us with the usual macho platitudes about the code of the yakuza, while a gang leader charges into a rival’s fortress and mows through henchmen, suffering theoretically fatal bullets and body blows that fail to faze him. As he has shown in many other films, Miike has a pronounced gift for orchestrating action scenes that are chaotic yet coherent, merging the best of both worlds.
The chaos is exhilarating, proffering an illusion of there being less of a formal boundary between the bloodletting and the audience than there might be in a more conventionally stylish, choreographed set piece, yet it still unfolds with pulsating exactitude. When a man is shot twice point blank in the chest, we respond less to the shock of the violence than to the will of the man pushing forward. When swords are swung in this film, they move and land with a palpable sense of the personalities controlling them. Several scenes in Yakuza Apocalypse are aesthetically remarkable, recalling the spatial wizardry of something like the final act of 13 Assassins.
But there’s also slapstick so broad as to belong in a children’s film, though it’s filtered through an obsession with bodily fluids that few adults will wish to expose to the young. There are also wildly indulgent tangents, which would be less jarring in one of Miike’s entirely unhinged movies, but the precision of the action keeps priming us for one of his earnest, autumnal crime narratives. Or, conversely, just as we settle onto the film’s intuitive, stream-of-consciousness wavelength, accepting goblins and gods who resemble men in cheap gecko costumes as a matter of course, along comes another sober action sequence that conventionally belongs in a “straight” genre film.
Compounding this intentional whiplash is Yakuza Apocalypse’s unsurprisingly disposable plot. The various character allegiances are difficult to follow, and one simply gives up after a while. Essentially, yakuza are fighting other yakuza: Some are vampires, others are human, and portions of both factions have forged alliances with the goblins and other critters. This incomprehensibility is a source of purposeful comedy (most of the characters are as clueless about their situation as the audience is), and this absurdism threads the film’s various sensibilities together.
Miike can stage a throwaway punchline as confidently as an action sequence, and he mines particularly effective what-the-fuck moments from images of the gecko creature walking down a dusty street, summoning yakuza to battle it with a hilariously expectant gesture of the hand. Eventually, the fakeness of this thing’s outfit is acknowledged when it sheds its costume to reveal a man with an even faker gecko head attached to his body. Meanwhile, yakuza continue to slice each other to pieces, while vampires proliferate. This lunacy soon brings about the titular annihilation, which occurs with a sense of gleefully inevitable abandon. Yakuza Apocalypse doesn’t add up to much, but it’s a diverting tour of Miike’s anything-goes, splatter-paint sensibility. Negligible amusements like this are a small price to pay for the director’s astonishing productivity, which presumably keeps his creativity at full boil.