Fantasia Review: 'Yakuza Princess' Gives Japanese Gangster Cinema a Modern Update Directed by Vicente Amorim

Starring Masumi, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Tsuyoshi Ihara, Toshiji Takeshima
Fantasia Review: 'Yakuza Princess' Gives Japanese Gangster Cinema a Modern Update Directed by Vicente Amorim
Photo courtesy of Magnet Releasing
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It doesn't take long for Yakuza Princess to establish its violent tone. We immediately witness the horrific slaughter of a family in Osaka, Japan, before flashing forward 20 years to present-day São Paulo, Brazil. In these first few minutes, Yakuza Princess reaches into the yakuza-genre toolbox and brings it into the 21st century.

Akemi (Masumi) lives in São Paulo working in a small knick-knack shop and trains with her sensei, Chiba (Toshiji Takeshima). Chiba was friends with Akemi's deceased grandfather, the only family she has ever known. Akemi knows nothing about her ancestral history and seemingly never sought out any answers. However, when a recently awoken amnesiac (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), in possession of an ancient katana, serendipitously crosses paths with her, Akemi comes face to face with a past she never knew: she is the heiress to half of a yakuza crime syndicate. Akemi's lineage becomes known to the other half of the syndicate in Japan and the hunt for her head begins.

Yakuza Princess is based on Brazilian graphic novel Samurai Shirô by Danilo Beyruth. Director Vicente Amorim honours the origins by creating frames reminiscent of comic book panels, including blood spraying on the camera lens and wide-shot beheadings. However, Amorim makes a major departure from the source material's black-and-white artistry and drowns the film in neon lights throughout. The vibrant cinematography gives Yakuza Princess a very modern feel that embeds yakuza-genre style into a 21st-century action film.

Amorim stays true to the promise made in the first frame that Yakuza Princess is a violent affair. The action set pieces and fight choreography are brilliantly executed and don't hold back. Masumi is particularly excellent in her fight scenes, showing off her talents wielding a katana and in hand to hand combat.

But while Yakuza Princess brings a lot of cool stunts and fights, the plot itself leaves a bit to be desired. The amnesiac character is written as the catalyst for Akemi and her saviour on a few occasions. Meyers is great in the role for what it is, but the character's presence feels unnecessary. There is also an attempt to build mystery by leading Akemi to different people in hopes of receiving answers about her family. Each person responds with a variation of, "It's a family secret, I don't know, you'll have to ask [insert next character here]." It's a plot device that fails to create intrigue and becomes stale rather quickly.

Another sore point is the use of Japanese-Brazilian culture, or lack thereof. Brazil is home to the largest Japanese diaspora in the world, and the prospect of yakuza mythology being fleshed out in Brazil is fresh and thrilling. Unfortunately, little is made of the unique setting, to the point that Yakuza Princess could have been set anywhere and the movie wouldn't have changed. The movie doesn't suffer because of this, but it feels like a missed opportunity.

The mythology associated with the yakuza is endlessly fascinating, and Yakuza Princess is a commendable attempt at adding modern-day action to the genre. The fight scenes are fantastic, and action junkies will delight at the violence and combat. The end of the film makes an obvious push for a sequel, and while the execution of Yakuza Princess could have been better, the story and the setting are interesting enough and a second shot at Akemi's journey would be welcome.

Fantasia Film Festival runs August 5 to 25 in Montreal. Screenings take place both virtually and in-person.