While Kazuya Shiraishi remains rather unknown to the greater public, it is nevertheless clear that directing Dawn of The felines in 2017 as part of the Roman Porno reboot has positively influenced his career. In 2018, he did not only received the chance to direct Sunny / 32 and Dare to Stop us, an energetic movie concerning Koji Wakamatsu, but was also handed the director’s seat of the adaptation of Yuko Yuzuki’s successful Yakuza crime novel Blood of Wolves.
Even though the glory period of the cinematographical Yakuza narrative has passed, the release of a new Yakuza/crime narrative is never an unwelcome event. So, without further ado, let’s delve, once again, into a world driven by honour, but so often devoid of humanity.
April 1988, 63th year of Showa era. Kosuke Nozaki (Yutaka Takenouchi) and his goons, members of the kakomura-gumi, torture accountant Jirō Uesawa (Taro Suruga) on the suspicion that he busted the safe at Kurehara Finance. While Uesawa confesses to the crime and pays accordingly – with his pink, Nozaki hears that they do not want his apology, but his head.
At Kurehara east police station, dirty cop Shōgo Ōgami or Gami (Kōji Yakusho) is teamed up with Hiroshima university grad Shūichi Hioka (Tori Matsuzaka). Together, they start a rather unorthodox investigation into the disappearance of Uesawa, an investigation also meant to squash the brewing war between the remnants of the Odani-gumi and the Kakomura-gumi, an Irako-Kai affiliate.
While Blood of Wolves is a gritty narrative about Yakuza, their code of honour – a code deeply structured on the volatile dimension of the image of the clan and the ego of its individuals – it is as much about Gami and his unorthodox methods of investigation (Narrative note 1). In truth, the narrative’s true focus is Gami’s style of investigation, which is grafted on the ‘ways’ of the Yakuza and is focused on surviving as well as it is on unearthing the dirty secrets they try to hide, and his relation with karate-kid Hioka.
Central to Gami’s relation with Hioka, who believes in lawful investigation, is a seemingly irresolvable divide between them, for instance concerning the concept justice and on the approach to take for investigating organized crime. But as this divide becomes more pronounced, the effectivity of Gami’s way of investigating gets emphasized and the question who exactly Gami’s aims to protect is evoked (Narra-note 2 (spoiler)).
Besides the two main narrative lines (i.e. Gami’s way of investigation and the development of the conflict between the yakuza families) there are two other narrative lines as well (Narra-note 3). The third narrative line – the one most important to eventual outcome of the narrative – concerns Hioka’s investigation into Gami’s (mal)practices, his integrity, and his role in the murder that ended the Third Hiroshima gang war 14 years ago. The final narrative line concerns the blooming romance Hioka and Momoko Okada (Junko Abe), Gami’s back alley doctor.
While Blood of Wolves has a great pace and its narrative structure is successful in presenting each narrative line in a way that is orderly for the spectator, the fourth narrative line is, at one point, somewhat neglected. Even if this narrative line is the least important to the development of the narrative overall, it felt like it could have used one or two scenes to make it more comprehensive.
Besides presenting everything in an orderly fashion, the structure of the narrative – by interspersing Gami’s investigation with the violent encounters and provocations between the Yakuza families – is also effective in raising the question how on earth Gami and Hioka are going to quell the brewing war. Besides this question, another question persists throughout the narrative: the question of Gami’s involvement in the murder 14 years ago (i.e. is he the killer or not?). In our opinion, it is the fruitful evocation of these two questions that provides
with the conditions to turn Blood of Wolves into a truly enjoyable Yakuza thriller. And, luckily, Shiraishi does not fail to finish this narrative set-up, as conditioned by the questions, with a thrilling, exhilarating and rather emotional finale.
Concerning the stylistic framing, Blood of Wolves resembles Battles without Honor and Humanity (1973). By applying titles, voice-over – to introduce and support the development of the narrative – and photographs, the narrative is put within the greater context of crime syndicates as well as given the impression of documenting a certain ‘reality’ (General-note 1). Blood of Wolves does not shy away to show violence and gore in all its glory. Nevertheless, in many instances cinematographical suggestion is also applied, leaving some of the impact of the violence and the gore up to the imagination of the spectator (Cine-note 1). In this respect, it is important to underline that the use of sounds, e.g. the sound of biting of an ear, cutting of a pink, or just of hitting someone, supports the cinematographical suggestion effectively.
The cinematography of Blood Of Wolves is full of movement – be it fluid, subtle or shaky. While the greater part of the narrative is framed with blend of fluid spatial movement and equally fluid following movement – sometimes in one and the same shot, shaky camera movement only enters the mix to frame uncontrolled violence. This cinematographical blend, supported by energetically paced editing, successfully underlines the tension present before the violent outburst, the tension caused by the violent act, and the grittiness of the violence as such (Cine-note 2, Cine-note 3, Music-note 1).
Even though exceptions can be found, fixed and semi-fixed shots, or fixed pauses within shots, are mainly used to underline facial expressions within conversations – be it rough interrogations or more normal interactions between certain characters (Cine-note 4). Fixed moments are furthermore used to underline Gami and, to a lesser degree, Hioka, and to frame the interactions they have with others (Cine-note 5). To conclude, we want to emphasize Koji Yakusho’s impressive performance as hard-boiled detective Gami and underline Yutaka Takenouchi’s perfomance as Rioka. Without their strong performance and their rather antithetical chemistry they have, the narrative would never been able to reach such satisfying conclusion.
With its great narrative structure – a structure keeping each narrative line orderly for the spectator, and the successful engendering of the questions concerning the quelling of the coming war and Gami’s integrity, Blood of Wolves is successful in generating the tension necessary for the spectator to invest in the narrative of Gami and Hioka up until its conclusion as such. While those expecting a true Yakuza drama – a drama solely focusing on the Yakuza and their conflicts – might be disappointed, those that give Blood of Wolves a chance are in for one of the best and most entertaining Yakuza/police thrillers in years.
Cine-note 1: Cinematographical suggestion means that sound (e.g. the screaming of the victim, the sound of the instrument, … etc.), and images related to the act of gore (e.g. the focus on the facial expression of the victim, are used to entice our imagination about the actual violent act which is not shown as such.
Narra-note 1: Gami is in many ways a cop more brutal than gangsters. Using his partner as bait, accepting bribery, resorting to trespassing and thievery, or adding some torture to his interrogative methods, every goes as long as it produces results.
Narra-note 2: The narrative is also about Hioka’s subjective development as partner of Gami. As Hioka learns about and experiences Gami’s way of investigating, which was, after all, driven by his desire to protect civilians, his initial stance will change.
Narra-note 3: Central to the conflict is Club Riko , owned by Rikako Takagi (Yoko Maki).
Cine-Note 2: Shaky shots are, in some rare instances, also used to underline other emotions, often related to tension as such. At one point, a shaky shot is used to underline Gami’s act of deciding (to set fire to a certain store). At another point, a shaky shot is used to underline the tension of arriving at the scene of violence as such (i.e. the scene at the office of the Right-Wingers).
Cine-note 3: Scenes of more controlled violence, like the torture opening scene, are shot with more fluid movement.
Cine-note 4: Facial expression or interaction as such are often framed with close-up shots and medium close-ups.
Cine-note 5: Fixed shots are also used to highlight/introduce characters of importance, often in relation to Gami or Hioka, certain places important to the narrative, and to frame ‘ensemble’ shots, i.e. shots with a ensemble of characters.
And let us not forget to emphasize that slow-motion is used effectively in Blood Of Wolves. Slow-motion is either used to evoke a range of emotions or to emphasize the coolness of a certain action.
General-note 1: The difference between Blood of Wolves and the series Battles without Humanity and Honor is that the former is fictional, while the latter is based on a true story and true facts.
Music-note 1: The music of Blood of Wolves, while subtle, is nevertheless effective in underlining the tension of the violent act as well as highlighting the tension associated with (our knowledge) that a new war is brewing.