Despite being only 25 years old, Yugo Sakamoto is considered both by domestic and by international audiences as a rising star in Japanese cinema and, more concretely, in the violence genre. All his films deal in one way or another with violence. His latest film, Yellow Dragon’s village is no exception.
After a night of merry, Yuki (Atomu Mizuishi), Takanori (Takuya Matsumoto), Urara (Mayu Suzuki), and Nagomi (Yuni Matsuri) haphazardly plan to go camping the following day. They invite Kento (Inou Masayuki), Keisaku (Yoshiki Umemoto), Makoto (Shioka Ishizuka), and Mutsuo (Kenta Osaka), and set of the next morning. Later that day, while barbequing in nature, some of our friends ask why Keisaku hasn’t been at college for a long time. He lightheartedly confesses them he killed someone and was in prison. Yet, no one of his friends takes his answer seriously.
They continue their journey, but before reaching the camping ground, they have a flat tire. As Takanori, the driver, is unable to fix the car, our group of friends decide to venture into the tunnel that sprawls before them. They happen to discover a village called Tatsukiri and meet a man, called Shinjiro (Rikuno Ginjiro), who is willing to help them out with the flat tire. Yet, the following morning, our friends discover that Keisaku is missing and Takanori is murdered at the breakfast table.
The opening of Yellow Dragon’s Village, the montage of fragmentary smart-phone footage, establishes from the get-go that the interactions between our university students are dictated by a drive to attain pleasure. Our youths attain such superficial relational pleasure mainly by pulling faces in front of each other, making lewd jokes, making merry, and merrily poking fun at each other. Their impulsive decision to go camping is similarly born from their shared want to attain pleasure.
Because our youths are only focused on gaining pleasure within their interactions, they render themselves happily deaf for any kind of subjectivity that rears its head. Their singular focus on fun explains why Keisaku’s confession is not received as an honest expression of subjective truth, but merely as an awkward attempt to be funny. Later, when Keisaku loudly asks Mutsuo about using his family’s incineration plant to burn bodies, a certain awkwardness ensues, but said awkwardness is quickly extinguished by Yuki’s burst of vocal pleasure – “Go For It!”.
And – as the spectator will quickly notice – not everyone of our group of friends is as united or fully invested in this interactional search for pleasure. Mutsuo is a loner that is allowed to hang out with or ‘around’ our group of friends. His presence is tolerated because he, being a socially strange element, can easily be exploited for the others’ pleasure. Moreover, the humorous exploitation of the strange social presence – i.e. poking fun at him, strengthens the imaginary closeness between the others.
The imaginary ground of their amical dynamics is underlined by the ease by which their interactions are derailed by the blossoming of a subjective irritation. When Yuki demands that Mutsuo tells a joke to please the girls, he does not only reveal his irritation with their current situation of being stranded, but also lays bare the very fact that there is nothing other than fun that binds them together.
The strange things they encounter on the way to the village and in Shinjiro’s house – e.g. the scary scarecrows, a young girl holding a hot pot with her bare hands, … etc., renders any attempt of our friends to make merry impotent. The lingering strangeness engulfs all of them, radically obstructing their ability to exploit laughs and jokes to feel imaginary close to the other. Yuki’s desperate attempts to find some fun are, in this respect, but vein attempts to extinguish his own growing uneasiness.
Yet, the feelings of fearful uneasiness do not overwhelm all our ‘friends’ at the same time. While Keisaku’s disappearance causes anxious feelings to take fully hold of Yuki and Takanori – as revealed by their inability to eat their breakfast, it is only when Takanori is murdered in front of everyone’s eyes that Urara, Nagomi, and the others fully grasp the graveness of the situation they find themselves in.
What makes Yellow Dragon’s Village so enjoyable is the smartly delivered revelation that turns the story in the middle of its runtime upside down and radically shifts the narrative’s tone. Due to this revelation, Sakamoto’s blossoming horror transforms into a stylish action-thriller full of visually exciting and well-choreographed fighting-sequences.
This narrative shift allows Sakamoto to deliver two thematical punches. First, this shift radically puts tradition, the notion of the rule, and the blind subjection or devotion to religious rituals into question. Sakamoto underlines in a satisfying way that youth should not accept their passive subjection to ‘non-sensical’ rules and that a certain violence is warranted to eradicate certain traditions and thus change society for the better. Secondly, the punishment that befalls those who happily exploit others for their own enjoyment criticizes the contemporary blossoming of superficiality in relations and warns against the oral exploiting of the image of the ‘Other’ subject for one own’s imaginary pleasure.
Sakamoto’s choice to use smartphone-footage to open his narrative is thoughtful and – pardon the pun – smart. The inherent shakiness of this footage does not only strengthen the naturalism of the performances, but also allows the very fragmentary exploration of the youthful superficial interactions in search for some pleasure to become quasi-documentary.
Yet, Sakamoto does not film his entire narrative with such smart-phone-like impressionism and quickly transforms his succession of fleeting and fragmentary impressions into a more straightforward composition – a concatenation of fixed shots with, as the narrative progresses, more and more dynamic moments thrown into the mix. To make the tension palpable in the narrative, Sakamoto relies on compositional flourishes – e.g. subtle and frantic shaky framing and slow-motion, as well as on tensive musical accompaniment. The combination of both ensures that the spectator remains, at all times, on the edge of his seat.
Yellow Dragon’s Village is, in short, a fabulous film and a true B-film sensation. Sakamoto does not only show that one, by fully embracing the limits of one’s budget, can still make a thrilling and highly engaging action-film, but also that the reliance on highly entertaining fighting-sequences does not hinder the delivery of a thematical message – a message against the blossoming of superficial dynamics in youthful relations and traditions that should be violently disposed of.