Monday, July 27, 2015

Fantasia ’15: Ryuzo and His Seven Henchmen

It its prime, the yakuza life may have had its benefits, but they did not include a pension, 401K, or long-term disability. As a result, those who manage to live into their golden years become an embarrassing burden to their families. Out of boredom and contempt for the new brand of organized crime, a notorious retired yakuza decides to get the old gang back together in Takeshi Kitano’s Ryuzo and His Seven Henchmen (trailer here), which screens today during the 2015 Fantasia International Film Festival in Montreal.

Ryuzo still has his massive yakuza tattoos and he is not shy about showing them off, much to his salaryman son’s chagrin. One day, Ryuzo nearly falls for a confidence scam, but the arrival of his old crony Masa limits the damage. Evidently, this is one of the many predatory operations run by Keihin Industries, the ostensibly legit financial outfit that took over territory once run by Ryuzo’s now defunct clan.

Assembling his surviving associates (in some cases just barely), Ryuzo forms a new inter-clan “league” to teach the Keihin creeps how crime should be done. They even have the wink-and-a-nod blessing of crusty Det. Murakami, who was just a kid in their day, but is one of the few remaining coppers who still remember the old yakuza. Of course, Ryuzo and his gang (including Mokichi the dreaded “Toilet Assassin”) are over-matched and out of shape, but they do not have much to lose.

Henchmen is about as cute as Kitano gets. There is usually a pronounced element of black humor in his gangster films, particularly the Outrage duology, but now he brings the comedy front-and-center. Of course, when the gags involve finger chopping and commode killings, it helps to have an appreciation for the yakuza tradition.

As Ryuchi, the quietly simmering Tatsuya Fuji looks like he could explode at any time. The former Stray Cat Rock star still has plenty of fierce in him, making him a perfectly suited to anchor the film. However, it is amazing how much pop the film gets from Kitano’s brief appearances as Murakami. Happily, the power of his deceptively placid presence remains undiminished. It just would be nicer to have more of it in Henchmen.

There is a tendency in the film towards goofiness, but the game supporting cast (starting with Masaomi Kondo as the loyal but slightly psychotic Masa) strives more for a nostalgic Tough Guys tone than a shticky Grumpy Old Men kind of thing. It mostly works. Overall, Henchmen is an enjoyable exercise in senior empowerment and old school payback, while also suggesting it is high time someone mounted a comprehensive Kitano career retrospective. It is a lot of fun, but not as much fun as another resurrection of Kitano’s Otomo for an Outrage 3 would be. Recommended for yakuza fans, Ryuzo and His Seven Henchmen screens tonight (7/27), as part of this year’s Fantasia.