Ryuzo And The Seven Henchmen (Ryûzô to 7 nin no kobun tachi)
Japan (2015) Dir. Takeshi Kitano
The legend that is “Beat” Takeshi Kitano was a prolific actor and director in the 90’s but when the new millennium arrived his directorial output slow down quite noticeably. He has thus far directed just two theatrical films this decade, the violent Yakuza thrillers Outrage and Outrage Beyond, while concentrating more on TV films.
Kitano’s return to the big screen is another Yakuza related yarn but this time a comedy about a group of geriatric ex-Yakuza trying to cling to past glories in a modern world. The eponymous Ryuzo (Tatsuya Fuji) lives with his salary man son Ryuhei (Masanobu Katsumura) and his family, still believing he is the tough guy gang boss he once was. When the family take a holiday Ryuzo teams up with former lieutenant Masa (Masaomi Kondô) to deal with a scammer.
Through police chief Murakami (Kitano) they learn the scammer works for the Keihin Rengo Gang, fronted by the ambitious but disrespectful Nishi (Ken Yasuda). Ryuzo catches up with his former gang members – Mokichi (Akira Nakao), Mac (Tōru Shinagawa), Ichizo (Ben Hiura), Hide (Kōjun Itō), Taka (Ken Yoshizawa) and Yasu (Akira Onodera) – to form the Dragon One League and reclaim their turf from Keihin Rengo.
Old timers attempting to re-enact their glory days in what has become a young person’s world is a regular theme in film usually designed to allow the legends of cinema to have a last hurrah. Hollywood has done it a few times and now Kitano has done the same for this Japanese peers and contemporaries while sticking to a subject he knows very well.
Usually this type of film may promise laughs but usually ends up a sentimental, often maudlin exercise in pathos and twee nostalgia, an approach Kitano chose to eschew and plays the whole thing for laughs. There are moments of reflection but again this is done with subtle and dark humour with a nod to flying the flag for the old folk, reminding us not to underestimate the power of experience.
Whilst a noble sentiment Kitano unfortunately finds it a bit hard to make this premise stretch for almost two hours, with some of the characters being reduced to one note jokes – Mac is a former sharp shooter now with shaking hands – and maybe one scene too many of the gang trying to hard too be cool and dangerous again.
But when it works this is quite a fun little film, with the best saved until last, a final act crammed full of action and black comedy laughs. Until then the comedy is light, relying on the charisma of the veteran cast and the frivolity of the premise to carry the proceedings.
It is established from the start that Yakuza are outdated and that even everyday folk aren’t intimidated by them, let alone the new wave of criminals. Even Ryuhei mocks his father for being an embarrassment to the family, walking around with his dragon tattoo and missing fingers as if he was still a big shot. The rest of the gang are either in nursing homes or existing on meagre pensions but they also seem to have trouble letting go of their adventurous pasts, carrying themselves with the same swagger they once did.
The irony of the clashes between the two gangs is not so much the actions of the younger group but the ruthless way in which they conduct their business, with Ryuzo seemingly finding Nishin’s approach objectionable when he no doubt was just as bad in his day. One of the running gags of the feud is Tokunaga (Atom Shimojo), one of Nishin’s men who always seems to be at the scene of the scam whenever Ryuzo and gang show up.
After many instances where the Keihin Rengo end up with their scams being squashed by the Dragons, the rivalry comes to a head when one of Nishin learns that a hostess at a bar the Dragons frequent is Mokichi’s granddaughter (Fumika Shimizu), a job she has taken to keep him at home, and orders her kidnapping.
It is again slightly ironic that the biggest laughs come from the most unlikely and inappropriate places in the final act, which I can’t reveal as the set up would be a spoiler, followed by some silly slapstick involving a highjacked bus. Prior to this Kitano delivers a wicked visual gag at the races based around a hand signal from Ryuzo which is both simple but cleverly executed.
The flimsy storyline is given a huge boost by the energy and commitment of the cast, who may all look every inch of their septuagenarian ages but attack their roles with the verve of someone much younger. Leading the way is Tatsuya Fuji of controversial In The Real Of The Senses fame, bringing the requisite gravitas a gang boss needs, playing it rather straight while his co-stars have a little more fun with their roles.
Kitano directs with a surprisingly effective combination of sanguine verve, cheeky, boundary pushing subversion and occasional laconic restraint. The pace is kept reasonably consistent picking up for the climax, and the camerawork is largely straightforward but, unusual for a comedy, doesn’t feature Kitano’s usual artistic quirks such as animations of his own paintings in the credits.
One thing that isn’t immediately clear is whether there is a message to be inferred from this film – either that we shouldn’t write off people because of their age and respect their legacy and wisdoms, or that times are changing and older people should enjoy their twilight years and leave the past where it is. Then again Kitano probably just saw comic potential in a bunch of old guys playing Yakuza one more time.
Ryuzo And The Seven Henchmen may not stand out as “classic” Kitano but it is an extremely fun outing and arguably his most accessible work to date, proving – rather aptly – there is life in the old dog yet.