Like A Dragon (2007) review

Introduction

While Japanese cinema has an abundance of manga/anime being translated to the silver-screen, one might forget that Japan sometimes dares to bring beloved games to the silver screen as well. While most of these adaptations are animation movies, various live-action adaptations have also been made, like Neko Atsume House (2017), Corpse Party (2016), and Miike’s Ace Attorney (2012). Miike’s Like A Dragon (2007), a narrative loosely based on sega’s first Yakuza game, is another example part of this select club of Japanese live-action adaptations of games.  

Review

One tropical night in Kamurocho, a bank is being robbed by two amateur robbers called Imanishi (Kenichi Endo) and Nakanishi (-). While section 4 of the police is monitoring the situation, Detective Date (Yutaka Matsushige), who works for section 1, forces the others to give him the lead.

At the same time, Goro Majima (Goro Kishitani) is informed that 10 billion yen has been stolen from the Tojo Clan’s deposits. Not excited by this trivial news, he starts hitting his gang-members in search for more juicy news. One member reveals that word goes around that the former Yakuza Kiryu Kazuma (Kazuki Kitamura), who has just been released from prison, might be connected to the robbery of the Tojo Clan. This titillating news makes Majima hit the streets with his gang and hunt Kiryu down.

Meanwhile, Kiryu and Haruka Sawamura (Natsuo) are searching for Mizuka Sawamura (Saki Takaoka), Haruka’s mother and Kiryu’s former childhood love.

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The narrative of Like A Dragon happens, just as the game’s story, all in the span of one night. While this might have led to a thin plot, there are enough narrative layers to keep its unfolding interesting. Besides the narrative sides already mentioned above, the plot of Like a Dragon is also thickened by the two other narrative threads: one focusing on Park (Gong Yoo), a south-Korean hit-man ordered to kill politician Kyohei Jingu (Toshihiro Nagoshi) and another focusing on the string of robberies of Yui (Saeko) and Satoru (Shun Shioya).

Even though this narrative density underlines the fact that Kamurocho is a city that never sleeps and that the tight web of the underworld with its multitude of clans thrives on conflict, this density sadly fails to hide the fact that the main thread of the narrative, the thread concerning Kiryu and his childhood-friend Nishikiyama (Claude Maki) remains impotent. The density furthermore fails to translate the dramatic dimension so inherently part of the stories of the Yakuza games – the various plot twists in the final half-hour of the narrative do not change anything about that.

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The cinematography of Like a Dragon mixes spatial moving shots, following shots, and moments of fixity. This mix enables Miike to create some truly energetic compositions, like the one that introduces the narrative’s setting and its main character, Kazuma Kiryu. A more energetic style of composing is also applied to frame tensive moments in the narrative. In the case of evoking/emphasizing tension, it is not uncommon to see Miike adding an element of shakiness to the cinematographical mix (cine-note 1).

The beat ’em up action is, contrary to the expectations of those who played the games, framed in more composed way – so don’t expect any extravagant camera movements or the framing of explicit violence (Cine-note 2, Cine-note 3). Besides the more serene nature of framing violence, these compositions are also marked by a cinematographical aspect of distance. While this allows the violence to fill the frame in a more objective way, it also subtly favours the presence of the main character(s) on the screen instead of the violence that surrounds a main character or the impact the violence causes (Cine-note 4).

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Even though we argue that the brawling action, when compared to the games, is framed in a more realistic way, there are various visual elements that ‘betray’ the narrative’s gaming origins, such as the visualization of Kiryu’s blue heat and the super-heat mode and the inclusion of more extravagant action moves – give Majima a baseball-bat and you know it leads to some extravagant violence (Narra-note 1). While these extravagant moves are often a source for satisfying comedy, these action sequences are also spiced with more naturally integrated comedic moments and comedy related to the theatricality of Goro Majima’s personality as such.

If one would consider the action in Like A Dragon without the over-the-top moments, the framed action is but merely decent. While it’s not bad, it’s not amazing either. In other words, the pleasure that the spectator can extract from the violent action is primarily situated in those moments where exaggeration and extravagance enter the frame –  personal showdowns are also framed with more cinematographical flourish (e.g. slow-motion). As these moments are the real highlights of the narrative, it is all the more sad to see the narrative fail to make the final showdown into a truly satisfying experience (Special-effect note 1).

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The framing of the narrative’s spaces is aided by a pleasant application of depth-of-field. While this play with blurriness does not serve the narration of the narrative as such, it does visualize the tropical heat that marks the narrative space as well as guide the spectator’s focus in certain shots. Due to the fluid integration of blurriness, the visually pleasure one can extract from the framing of the narrative’s spaces is greatly enhanced. But even without this visual play the colour-schemes used to bring Kamurocho to life ensures that Like a Dragon is a pleasure to watch.

The energetic moments of the cinematographical compositions are, as can be expected, supported by equally energetic music. Especially the framing of the various brawls benefit from the accompanying musical pieces – be it rock-music, tensive music, or even the more lighthearted music performed by the Crazy Ken Band. The various brawls furthermore benefit from the fitting sound-effects, effects pleasingly underlining the impact of the violent acts (Music/sound-note 1).

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The fact that Like a Dragon ultimately fails is, in first instance, not a problem born from the narrative’s structure, but a problem created by the iconic nature of Kiryu Kazuma and Goro Majima as such (General-note 1). While Kazuki Kitamura does his very best to give body to Kazuma Kiryu, he ‘fails’ in his attempt because he does not sound like Kiryu Kazuma – in our view, no-one can replace Takaya Kuroda as Kiryu. The same can be said about Goro Kishitani’s performance as Goro Majima. While his performance is successful in bringing Majima’s violent way of interacting convincingly to the fore, Kishitani cannot replace Hidenari Ugaki’s vocal performance.

Despite the various visual references to the narrative’s gaming origins, Like A Dragon fails to translate the dramatic soul of the Yakuza series on the silver screen. While this is first and foremost the fault of the iconic nature of the gaming characters as such, the narrative’s structure also lacks the power to create a satisfying conclusion. Like a Dragon is, in other words, a clear case of a film translation gone wrong. An idea that seemed great on paper, but turned out to be a bad one once experienced on the silver screen. In truth, people are far better off playing the game.

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Notes:

Cine-note 1: The use of shaky moving shots is not limited to emphasizing tension. In one instance, shaky moving shots are also applied to frame how Majima and his gang roams to streets in search for Kiryu.

Cine-note 2: Let us also note that there not that much blood present in the narrative and that many of the violent acts happens partially off-screen.

Cine-note 3: Gun-violence, for that matter, is always framed with a slight degree of exaggeration. This exaggeration is found in the visual emphasizing of the recoil of the weapons.

Cine-note 4: The moments between the action-sequences, those moments focused on propelling the narrative forward, are framed in a calm way. Besides applying plenty of fixed shots, the cinematographical movement, be it following or spatially moving, in this sequences are slow-moving.

Music/sound-note 1: Music and sound are also used in a different way in this narrative. At one point in the narrative, Miike used music as a compositional element, successfully creating a punchline-like effect. In another instance, sound is used to create a comedic effect.   

Narra-note 1: Also the Power-up Staminan X, Staminan XX and staminan Spark are unsubtle references to the games as such.

Special-effect note 1: Another aspect that’s worth mentioning is the crazy and highly unrealistic helicopter sequence that opens the finale of the narrative. Besides the fact that the special effects cannot convince us of the helicopter’s realness, this short sequence, a sequence aiming to add some drama to the narrative, brings some unwanted silliness into the narrative.

General-note 1: Some people might even feel like they are watching cosplay.

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