Even though the golden age of Yakuza films has long passed, the image of the yakuza still haunts the Japanese cinematic screen. Japanese films either implicitly and explicitly reference the way of the yakuza or integrate certain yakuza-characters in their narratives. Yet, hard-boiled yakuza-narratives full of violence, conflict, and treachery are, on the other hand, hard to come by. Luckily, fans of the genre, were treated with such a narrative in 2018 when Kazuya Shiraishi’s partially adapted Yuko Yuzuki’s Blood of Wolves. And now, in 2021, he delivers the follow-up.
Three years after Shogo Ogami’s unfortunate death in Hiroshima, Detective Shuichi Hioka (Tori Matsuzaka) finally succeeds to implement his plan tocontrol the yakuza, to end further conflicts, and save civilians from getting murdered. Yet not long after he has gained control, Hioka hears that Odani’s boss Ichinose is worried about the Irako-kai, due to the imminent release of the right-hand man of the deceased leader, Shige Uebayashi (Ryohei Suzuki -). Rightly so, because the first brutal murder by his hands is soon a fact. Kurehara’s detective Hioka is ordered by the Hiroshima police to investigate, together with his new partner Seshima (Baijaku Nakamura), the link between the Irako-kai and the piano teacher’s violent homicide.
The main conflict that structures The Last Of The Wolves is the conflict between the old violent ways and the new business-like ways of the Yakuza. When Shige Uebayashi leaves prison, he leaves it as a yakuza-relic of the showa-era, unaware of the structural changes the field of the yakuza underwent. For him, battlefields are one of full of blood and violent conflict for territory or to exact vengeance. Yet, the new ‘battlefield’ for the yakuza, as Yozo Watafune (Kotaro Yoshida), the new boss of the Irako-kai, clearly evokes, is driven by a desire to enrich themselves and gain success with more legal businesses. Rather than establishing their power with fists, guns, blood, and bodies like Uebayashi’s generation did, the new age of the Yakuza sees them assume a position of power by strategically multiplying profit.
Uebayashi endangers the hierarchical structure of the Irako-kai and threatens their precious truce with the Odani-gumi because he radically refuses to accept the new reality of his family and his inability to forgo his violent ways to solve problems and conflicts. The impossibility to resolve the boiling tension between Uebayashi and the top of the family is made painfully apparent by his statements about honor and loyalty. His loyalty lies with the murdered boss, Shohei Irako, and no one else and many of his acts of violence, especially those that destabilize the harmony of the Irako-kai, are to ‘correct’ the ways of or simply punish those that disgrace the name of the previous boss. It will thus not surprise the spectator that Uebayashi quickly destroys the hierarchy of the weak and money-drunk Odani-gumi and establishes a more traditional and rather violence-hungry Uebayashi-gumi. In other words, a new war is brewing (Psycho-note 1, Psycho-note 2).
But Uebayashi is not only interested in attacking the Odani-gumi to assert his superiority and take revenge, but also targets the police. It does take long for him to approach Kosaka (Shido Nakamura), a journalist who is investigating the link between Hioka and the violent incident that happened three years ago and caused the death of the Irako-kai’s boss by the hands of Ichinose. It is due to his journalistic investigation that Uebayashi could learn about Hioka’s dirty ways to gain a certain form of control over the various yakuza-families but also reveal him as the brain that orchestrated the demise of his beloved boss and stand-in father.
Besides using Kosaka to investigate the cops’ involvement, Uebayashi also approaches Chinta (Nijiro Murakami), who has been asked by Hioka, much against the wishes of his sister Mao (Nanase Nishino), to spy once more on the yakuza to learn Uebayashi’s plans, to investigate, together with his sister, the cops that have the backs of the Odani-gumi and to find Hioka’s family for his torturous pleasure. Uebayashi’s request does not only put Chinta in a very dangerous position that might expose him as a spy, but also forms a danger for Hioka, as Chinta’s loyalty could shift. Can Hioka escape the web that’s closing around him or will the brute force of Uebayashi crush him and the peace he so shrewdly created? Can Hioka count on police headquarters to secure the truce or will the top of the police, for their own reasons, implement a different plan behind his back?
The reason why Last Of The Wolves is such a thrilling and satisfying narrative is due to the effective narrative structure and the engaging acting-performances. While the opening moments of the narrative might confuse some spectators – especially those who have not seen or largely forgot Blood of Wolves (2018), the narrative quickly introduces the relational conflict – i.e. Uebayashi against those who dishonored the Irako-kai – that does not only allows the spectator to find his bearings, but also allows Shiriashi to slowly build up the tension, a tension that will explode in an orgy of violence. Yet, the relational conflict would not have been so effective to raise the tension if it were not for Ryohei Suzuki’s convincing performance. If he did not ooze the very danger his character poses to the precious truce, the narrative would not have been able to engage and satisfy the spectator.
The stylistic dimension composition of The Last Of The Wolves echoes, just like its predecessor, the style of Kinji Fukasaku’s wonderful Battles without Honor and Humanity. By using titles, voice-overs to introduce the context of the narrative, and photographs, Shiraishi puts the narrative in a greater societal context and creates the impression of documenting a string of real events.
Most of the narrative’s enjoyment, just like in Blood Of Wolves (2018), resides in the effective framing of the violence. With The Last Of The Wolves Shiraishi proves again that he is a master in visualizing violence in an thrilling but also confronting manner. With his fine compositional sense, he does not only infuse his moments of violence with a satisfying amount of tension, but also emphasizes the shocking crudeness of the violence (Cine-note 1). Shiraishi does not shy away from give us a glance of gore in all its glory, but relies, in most cases, on cinematographical suggestion. This kind of suggestion, coupled with a satisfying sound-design – the sound of hits, bites, the gunshots and so on are painfully realistic, is effective in inciting the spectator’s imagination, turning the moments where violence is not directly shown equally confronting.
While Last Of The Wolves does not reach the heights of the masterpieces of the genre, Kazuya Shiraishi delivers, with his sequel, another amazing and highly entertaining yakuza/police thriller – quite possible the best thriller of this year. With an engaging narrative structure that pumps tension into the narrative and a finale that stands out due to the twists and the crude explosion of violence, Shiraishi reminds us, in a rather confronting way, that the past of the ‘honourable’ Yakuza is soaked in blood.
Cine-note 1: While most violence relies on a fluid compositional playwith cinematographical movement, the cut is also effectively used – and this most apparent in those moments whereviolence is more subdued, the heighten the impact of the violent acts.
Psycho-note 1: Uebayashi acts, for the most part of the narrative, in the real to support the (old) symbolic system he believes in, while the transformed yakuza act in the symbolic, with money, to expand their hierarchically structured symbolic system.
Psycho-note 2: That a certain phallic fixation runs through the world of the yakuza is made evident by the many sexual references and sexist actions and remarks some yakuza make. The crude but lighthearted references as well as the sexual acts, in fact, reveal that the brotherhood structures that mark the yakuza world often create an intoxicating environment fixated on the fantasy of having phallic power and establishing such power. Besides the ejaculatory gun-violence and the rude provocations, the uttered sexual puns and the sexist acts are a different and more socially accepted manner to evoke one’s fantasmatic possession of the little phallic thing.