Hollywood cinema is awash with comic book and video game adaptations. With the huge success of Jon Favreau’s Iron Man earlier this month, and the almost guaranteed box office bang of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight later this summer, it doesn’t look like there will be any scaling back. Not long ago, we heard that Gore Verbinski will be adapting the game Bioshock for the big screen and that the pinnacle of Iranian royalty, Jake Gyllenhaal, will be playing the Prince of Persia in Jerry Bruckheimer’s upcoming production. The fad is not limited to the US, however. Over the past few years, Japan has been trying its hand at adapting home-grown comic and game properties with a renewed vigor, such the recent Dororo movie or 2006’s Forbidden Siren.
In this case, the base material is the videogame Ryu Ga Gotoku, a huge hit for Sega in Japan that has spawned two sequels in its own country, but flopped into bargain bins when released in America. The game sees players assume the role of a tough gangster as he attempts to solve a mystery and clear his name by beating up almost everyone he meets. The title can be translated Like A Dragon, and that is the official name for the film in English-speaking territories. More important than the meaning though is what it sounds like. Ryu Ga Gotoku is an incredibly manly sounding title in its native language, especially amid a sea of Japanese movies like Unfair with unimaginative katakana names. It’s inspirations are rightly reflected in the name. It has a ring to it, that of gangster movies from the 1960s and 70s, Nikkatsu productions about tough, honourable yakuza with wonderful titles like Otoko no Monshou / A Man’s Crest or Ore Ni Sawaru Abunaizae / Touching Me Is Dangerous!
While Japanese movies like that are rare these days on the international market, they still survive in Japan itself. Not on the big screen in the multiplexes, but at home thanks to V-Cinema, the Japanese straight-to-video industry. For 25 years now, Japan has been building one of the best straight-to-video systems in the world. Unlike the American DTV industry, V-Cinema has a different reputation, known as the home for niche, experimental and edgy material, instead of simply being the graveyard of action movie has-beens. It’s been the sanctuary for previously popular genres such as chanbara pictures, the samurai swordplay genre. Go into any Japanese video rental shop, and you’ll undoubtedly find a rack of movies with dark covers and stern faced men. This is the hideout for the yakuza pictures, from mean and gritty to honourable and idealistic, they’re all there.
V-Cinema has one more important function. It has also been the training and proving ground for some of the biggest names in modern Japanese cinema. Perhaps the most successful son of the video industry is Takashi Miike, the internationally renowned director of Audition and Ichi The Killer. So perhaps its fitting that he directs the film version of Ryu ga Gotoku, a game that so wants to be a V-Cinema film it copies design elements from many of the most successful titles from the racks and has voice work from former Nikkatsu star Tetsuya Watari.
The plot of the film follows a number of different threads, with the main strand resembling the first game. Kiryu Kazama (played by Kazuki Kitamura) is a famously tough yakuza foot soldier who has just got out from a long spell in prison. Naturally, he’s attempting to go straight and get used to life on the outside. Trouble arises when his path crosses with a young girl wandering the streets who wants Kiryu to help her find her mother, meanwhile Kiryu’s old yakuza buddies are out to find him, led by the insane, eye-patched, baseball bat wielding Majima (Goro Kishitani). The scope also broadens to include a pair of teenagers on an escalating crime spree, a Korean hitman in town for a mysterious job and a botched robbery in progress lead by a double-act of idiots.
The acting is solid overall, and Miike goes to a few regulars to fill out the supporting rolls. Kazuki Kitamura, from Godzilla:Final Wars, carries off the right amount of swagger as Kazama and is convincing in the fight scenes. Goro Kishitani, who unfortunately is probably best known in the West for Returner, is very entertaining as Majima, bouncing between funny and demented but clearly enjoying himself. However, a few good decisions are wasted. Korean actor Yoo Gong unfortunately does not get much to do, as he is sidelined for much of the movie apart from one scene, or even much to say, as his character does not speak Japanese. The excellent Sho Aikawa from the Dead or Alive series is given one of the smallest speaking parts in the movie and Claude Maki from Brother appears so late in the film, he basically walks on camera right into a punch in the face.
Visually, Miike is more restrained than he has been in a while. While the movie contains a number of authentic street scenes and Miike-style CGI gags, the images on sets are very flat and badly lit, occasionally looking a little like television. On the other hand, there are no fancy or annoying editing tricks either and a number of small sequences come off well. The best and most authentic is the montage set to an original enka song. Classic yakuza films often had this kind of crooning in it somewhere, more usually at the start although the hero whistles his own theme song throughout Tokyo Drifter. The main theme music is also quite good, a kind of cheesy rock guitar that matches the kind of class on screen.
Like a Dragon starts out quite ridiculous and only gets more so as it continues. Your disbelief must be suspended quite securely while watching. While that is generally a good rule of thumb for most of Miike’s films, Like a Dragon takes it a little further into the realms of excusing slightly shoddy workmanship. Perhaps as a fault of sticking too close to the source material, characters frequently appear out of nowhere and only arrive when they are needed to kill someone or get killed. Others are there for little more than colour. While some background may be able to be gleaned from watching Miike’s previous two tie-in short films to the Like a Dragon franchise, it shouldn’t be necessary to watch promotional material in order to enjoy a feature film.
There is some exaggerated violence in the film but it is very much of a cartoon-like bent and certainly not gory like Ichi the Killer. The first action sequence in the film is quite well done, but Miike’s interest in shooting these seems to wane as the film goes on and, as is often the case these days, the finale is a bit anticlimactic. Some fantastical elements do appear over the course of the film, and one very strange moment toward the end, but they don’t come from as far out of left-field as they do in Dead or Alive for example. The film very quickly establishes itself in a semi-ridiculous world. While absurd in places, and lively, the film never really so wild or imaginative to earn its place amongst Miike’s better movies in that bracket. On the other hand, it’s not enough of a serious gangster movie to come close to rivalling the director’s Agitator, for instance.
Like a Dragon works best as a nod to the kind of pictures it admires, and justifies itself on another of Miike’s talents, his sense of humour. This is one of the most accessible films he has made over the years, but because of that it lacks much of what makes the director special. In terms of his own filmography, it most closely resembles City of Lost Souls. Perhaps no accident as both were based on material written by novelist Hase Seishu. Unfortunately, Like a Dragon has ended up far tamer than City of Lost Souls, entertaining but unremarkable, directed with either eyes shut or hands free. It’s been said before, but perhaps Takashi Miike should cut down on his four film a year habit in his middle age, and refocus the energy on making one film a year really well rather than a handful really fast.