Beautifully photographed & scored, American Yakuza (1993) is a marvel of film construction. Add to its technical perfectly a completely winning cast & the other other thing you need is a good story.
Viggo Mortensen is like a modern, much more soulful version of Kirk Douglas in his prime, perfect for an action film. And in the 1960s heyday of Japan's ninkyo-eiga (chivalrous gangster films) yakuza heroes were expected to be soulful as well as physical. Viggo as Nick Davis has that aspect down just right.
Within ten minutes we've seen Nick's sweet machismo go from needful working class guy who wants a job, to uber-warrior inserting himself into what appears to be a knifes & machine-guns gang war.
The film's level of violence is like that of Takashi Miike at his outer extreme, so American Yakukza combines the traditional chivalrous angst ridden gangster film with the more modern straight-to-video vision of yakuza psycho bloodshed.
Moving the tale into an American mileau for Japanese yakuza vs Italian mafia really should've been pure sleeze & inauthentic, but American Yakuza is written with complete comprehension of the Japanese originals.
Nick having intervened in the gang battle has saved the life of Shuji Sawamoto (Ryo Ishibashi), a bigwig in the Tendo gang, sent to arrange shady business transactions in America.
Soon Nick finds himself hired as the Japanese mafia boss's personal bodyguard. Kazuo (Yuji Okumoto), Shuji's lieutenant, instantly hates Nick out of jealousy.
It'll turn out Kazuo's gut instinct not to trust the American so quickly was a good one, as far from being a mafia type guy, he's an undercover FBI agent, whose boss is Littman (Robert Forster). Nick is deep in. He goes through the moving ceremony to become Shuji's sworn brother.
Yuko (Christina Lawson) is the girl Shuji sends to his new bodyguard as an "interior decorator" for his ritzy new digs. She's also Shuji's granddaughter, so when Nick falls for her, it's with the utmost respect.
A westerner at the inner sanctum of the yakuza underworld is not without its pleasures. Nick for once in his life experiences love, & has been embraced by a veritable family. He relates all to well to the yakuza system of loyalty, which has meant everything to him in his life as well. And now he finds himself in the position of being the ultimate betrayer, with no way out. Either he "goes native" & betrays the FBI, or he remains a loyal agent & betrays his sworn brother as well as Yuki his lover.
Isshin Tendo (John Fujioka) owns an importation business that is legitimate only on the surface. Mafiosa Dino Campanela (Michael Nouri) is "gearing up to hit the whole Tendo family" with the FBI's help.
Littman pulls his agent so that the mafia can do what the US government dares not, just assassinate an entire Japanese criminal gang. But Nick knows, & loves these guys too much. Shuji survives the slaughter, but his gang no longer exists. He plans a classic one-man-raid on Campanela's headquarters. He won't have to go alone after all, for Nick arrives to fight at his side, sword & pistols blazing.
It ends as a blood-drenched tragedy of incredible beauty. The majority of western viewers won't know the ninkyo-eiga genre at all, but it won't matter, they'll get it all.
But there's something added for those of us who've always loved Japanese gangster films. It is all the more wonderful to see it captured so well in an English language production.
Nick & Shuji's side-by-side assault of the mafia lair is exactly like similar "romantic male friendships" between such soulful actors as Ken Takakura & Koji Tsuruta in similarly bloody climaxes in classic chivalrous gambler movies.
This unexpectedly successful cross-cultural genre film was scripted by Takeshige Ichise, producer of j-horror classics Ju-on: The Grudge (2003) & its sequel & its American remake. But a shitload of praise has to be given Frank A. Cappella's direction which never screwed up a thing, who clearly has a woody for yakuza movies & took another run at the subject in No Way Back (1996).
copyright © by Paghat the Ratgirl