The list of Yakuza-centric films runs the gamut from dramas like Lost Girls & Love Hotels (2020) to martial arts films like Chocolate (2008) to science-fiction horror like Versus (2000) to straight up thrillers like Black Rain (1989). What the majority of these films have in common is that they take place in either Japan or in America or with Americans involved. This changes with the adaptation of Danilo Beyruth’s graphic novel Samurai Shirô, the story of a young girl from Japan raised in Brazil who learns almost too late that she is the last surviving member of a Yakuza clan. Unknown to most, Brazil is the home to the largest population of Japanese outside of Japan, making the country rich with history, offering opportunities to explore the well-worn yakuza crime genre from a new perspective. Directed by Vicente Amorim (The Division) and starring MASUMI (Posse) in her feature film debut alongside Tsuyoshi Ihara (13 Assassins), Eijiro Ozaki (The Man in the High Castle), and Jonathan Rhys Meyers (Dracula), the newly titled Yakuza Princess cuts a swath through Sao Paulo, Brazil, opening doors to a world where blood flows behind the scenes of the rest of the world.
Shortly before her 21st birthday, Akemi (MASUMI) struggles with reasons to stay in Sao Paulo and not go back to Japan, a place she has no memory of ever living. Her grandfather was recently murdered in a mugging, her sensei believes he’s taken her as far as he can, there’s just nothing left for her here. The decision to stay or go quickly moves beyond her control as she finds herself sought after by two men: Shiro, a man without his memory in possession of her grandfather’s sword (Meyers), and Takeshi (Ihara), a lieutenant in the reigning Yakuza Boss’s forces. With only her training to fall back on, Akemi will come to face her past head-on in order to carve a future all her own.
The most compelling aspects of Yakuza Princess come in two forms: the performance from MASUMI and the way in which the film specifically takes place amid the real world. Having not been exposed to her work before, MASUMI’s performance as Akemi is a breakout role, confidently portraying a character whose identity is shattered while already dealing with a sense of isolation. The film itself is a coming-of-age tale, one where Akemi discovers the truth of her past and has to make a choice of what to do with that information. This isn’t Harry Potter learning he’s a wizard and being super stoked to go to Hogwarts, this is a girl who spends the day after she turns 21 trying to decide if she wants to hunt down the people that massacred her family or run. You have to possess a certain kind of determination to face that down, which MASUMI brings to life with grace and ease. Physically, MASUMI is able to convey the fragility Akemi feels as each part of preconceptions disappear, while also making slashes with a blade both ferocious and precise. Unlike what one might expect from the summary, Akemi isn’t born a killer nor does she appear to possess a thirst for it, but, thrown in the fire, MASUMI convincingly portrays a person more than capable of dispatching a threat with extreme prejudice.
Building off of this, MASUMI feels natural in just about any environment and the film makes a point to place the narrative in key emotional locations around the city. This includes the club where Akemi sings karaoke, her apartment, dojo, and others around Sao Paulo. The action scenes set in the first two aforementioned locations enable the audience to see what Akemi is capable of when pushed: fearsome, sure, but not necessarily confident in her abilities. By the time the action moves to other locations, MASUMI displays in Akemi profound situational awareness and adaptability, enabling her to surprise both her opponents and the audience. What’s particularly fascinating, though, is what Amorim does during the later fights: he pulls the camera back out of the conflict, making the exchange small against the city nightlife before transitioning back in again. It’s an odd scene edit as it rips you right away from the action, yet I can’t help but think about the brilliance of it. Amid the chaos as Akemi literally fights for her life, Amorim makes a point to highlight how the rest of the world is absolutely oblivious to the fight underway. This showcases just how far into the shadow world this story goes, that things are just so peaceful everywhere but where this specific action is, the citizenry of Sao Paulo going about their ordinary lives, blissfully ignorant of the life and death war boiling under the surface. So often these stories happen in public, using the fact that it’s out in the open to raise stakes, except Amorim keeps all the action small and intimate, so that it never spills over beyond controlled spaces. To me, this heightened the danger quite a bit as Akemi’s world, even opened up through various revelations, remained minute in scope.
Where the film runs into trouble is similarly two-fold and takes its form in the editing and organization of the film around Meyers’s Shiro. After an engaging opening that gives us the tragic backstory going back 20 years to Akemi’s first birthday, the present picks up with Meyers’s then-nameless and wounded man waking in a hospital. The scene itself is brief and provides an opportunity to see that the man is a fearsome individual, but, by and large, the scene offers nothing that the following scene with him doesn’t do just as well and by starting with him, the film switches the focus from Akemi (child), the titular Yakuza Princess, to a white man. His inclusion in the film is a welcome mystery and the use of the character is fascinating, not just because of how Meyers plays the man we learn is called Shiro with a slight vacant yet always alert expression or how brutal he is in every physical exchange, but in how the script, and Meyers with it, brings aspects of Shiro out without fanfare so that the character’s remembrance is slow to manifest, offering some neat moments along the way. The issue here is that rather than go from the backstory to Akemi as an adult, the jump in time to Shiro implies that he’s the focus. He’s the mystery, one of several that are explored in the film, not the focus. It feels as though the narrative wants to revolve around Akemi, but each jump back to Shiro, especially after that introduction ahead of her, makes it feel as though the film wants us more focused on him. Her’s is the journey that matters and, thankfully, the conclusion seals the deal on all perspectives as to who matters the most. That the film jumps between characters is necessary in order to weave each narrative thread from the past to connect to the present. The issue is when it shifts the primary focus from Akemi as the central component of the narrative.
Though I’ve personally never read Samurai Shirô, eagle-eyed viewers who have will delight in an easter egg appearance of the source material. It plays a small role in a scene which highlights a strange conundrum about the film that’s worth mentioning: the prevalence of English. It’s always odd to me when films taking place in a specific location feature characters native to that location not speaking the native language. Granted Akemi is an immigrant from Japan, she was raised by her grandfather in Sao Paulo and it would make sense for them to speak Portuguese or Japanese in the bulk of the sequences, yet they speak English. I get why Luca went down this road (it’s a Disney/Pixar release and the primary audience are English-speakers), but Yakuza Princess is a film about someone coming to terms with their identity and taking an active role in selecting their future. With the majority of characters of Japanese descent and much of the signage in Portuguese, that the characters didn’t speak the language of the country they’ve lived their entire lives was odd and difficult to ignore. Especially with the appearance of the graphic novel with a line about using it to learn Portuguese, that the adapted work doesn’t follow the language of the source is even stranger. This last bit is far more of a quibble than a major concern, but it is certainly something that takes audiences who become aware of it out of the magic of the narrative for a spell.
At the end of the day, Yakuza Princess delivers on the action and intrigue that it promises. There are several moments of bold and bloody action, but it doesn’t hinge everything on stunt sequences, enabling the film to take its power from Akemi’s emotional journey. To see where the character goes to how she ends up may be expected to a degree, but MASUMI makes it feel so fresh and organic that you’ll be ready to lay down your allegiance to Akemi and join her cause. Without knowing if the graphic novel is a one-shot or not, I can’t speak to the completeness of the adaptation, but, personally, I want to know what happens next. In all cases, that’s the marker of a successful cinematic adventure.
Screening during the 2021 Fantasia International Film Festival.
In select U.S. theaters and on VOD beginning September 3rd, 2021.
For more information, head to Magnet Releasing’s official Yakuza Princess website.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.