Friday, June 29, 2018

NYAFF ’18: The Blood of Wolves

You do not keep rival Yakuza clans in check by being an apologetic liberal community organizer. You need a cop with a wild streak. That certainly describes Shogo “Gami” Ogami. He has the swagger and he can match any Yakuza drink for drink. Word has it he might be too chummy knocking sake back with Hiroshima’s leading gangsters. Regardless, the young Internal Affairs detective assigned as his undercover partner will get quite a lesson in community policing during the course of Kazuya Shiraishi’s The Blood of Wolves (trailer here), which screens during the 2018 New York Asian Film Festival.

Hiroshima, 1988: a gang war is brewing and only Ogami can stop it, or so he thinks. It is really just a continuation of the previous war that broke out in the early 1970s. Ogami was also involved in that conflict—perhaps too involved, if rumors are true. As goody-two-shoes Shuichi Hioka watches his new partner and secret target extort information from suspects, pop out for quickies with witnesses, and force him into punishing brawls, he decides everything he has heard about Ogami must be true. Yet, he slowly starts to appreciate the method behind Ogami’s madness. In fact, Hioka embraces Ogami’s fast-and-loose tactics just when the top brass, the media, and the largest Yakuza clan all turn against him.

Seriously, you cannot get anymore old school than Blood of Wolves. It is just drenched in atmosphere and attitude. As Ogami, Koji Yakusho channels Ken Takakura on a grain alcohol bender. Yakusho has played his share of hard-nosed characters before, but Ogami can knock the wind out of you with a dismissive glance. Standing next to him is a tough assignment, but Tori Matsuzaka holds his own quite impressively as the tightly wound Hioka. In fact, when he eventually runs off the rails, it is quite a spectacle to behold.

Despite Yakusho’s dominance, Blood is fully loaded with memorable supporting turns, especially Yoko Maki as a club hostess with a deep grudge. It is just a ferociously beautiful performance. Pierre Taki is also quite colorful and almost humanly decent as Ginji Takii, the leader of a minor right-wing party affiliated with the largest Yakuza clan (and Gami’s best bud), while Renji Ishibashi is slime personified as its Mephistophelean chairman.

The 1980s period details are perfectly recreated, while cinematography Takahiro Haibara soaks up the grit and sleaze of the back alleys of Hiroshima and Kure. Frankly, it looks like the film was shot in the 1970s rather than the 1980s (or 2010s), but that is not a bad thing. Wolves is Shiraishi’s best film to date, by far (at least among those that have had New York festival play). It is also a dynamite showcase for Yakusho and half a dozen other prominent Japanese screen thesps. Very highly recommended, The Blood of Wolves screens Monday night (7/2) at the Walter Reade, as part of this year’s NYAFF.