‘The Blood of Wolves’: Old-school yakuza thrills are back

by Mark Schilling

Contributing Writer

The yakuza movie used to bestride the Japanese film industry like a colossus, but now clings to its margins. A well-known director occasionally essays the genre, as Takeshi Kitano did last year with “Outrage Coda,” but a true revival has yet to come.

Director Kazuya Shiraishi delivers more of a homage than a revamp in “The Blood of Wolves,” a cop thriller based on Yuko Yuzuki’s novel of the same Japanese title. But the film’s real inspiration, as Shiraishi himself has admitted, is “Battles Without Honor and Humanity,” a seminal 1973-74 five-part series directed by Kinji Fukasaku.

Tracing a true-life 20-year gang war in Hiroshima and nearby Kure, “Battles” had a contemporary feel and a shot-on-the-fly propulsion. “The Blood of Wolves” is also set in Hiroshima but its story of a veteran cop (Koji Yakusho) suspected of being in cahoots with the yakuza unfolds in 1988 and has the air of a last hurrah, with its dirty hero being the last of his species. Which doesn’t mean the film’s many action scenes suffer from middle-aged blahs: The beatings and bloodlettings are staged with visceral realism and old-school punch.

The Blood of Wolves (Koro no Chi)
Rating
Run Time 126 mins.
Language JAPANESE

The cop is Shogo Ogami (Yakusho), who’s known as “Gami.” Rumpled and profane, he bends police rules as casually as shaking out a cigarette from a crumpled pack, but he also gets results. Investigating the disappearance of a gang-connected accountant, he calmly asks new partner Hioka (Tori Matsuzaka), a straight arrow on the elite career track, to pick a fight with a burly gangster in a pachinko parlor. Hioka reluctantly complies and is getting bloodied and bruised when Gami finally comes to the rescue. Gami then smilingly totes up the various crimes he has just witnessed (and incited) that will send the hood, nicknamed Sumo, away for a long stretch. Would Sumo like to spill what he knows?

Witnessing this and other flagrant violations of proper police procedure, Hioka decides that Gami is both a bad role model and a corrupt cop. Gami, however, is more occupied with a brewing gang war.

Back in 1974 the Odani-gumi fought a bloody turf battle with the powerful Irako-kai. Now, 14 years later, the Irako-kai’s slithery boss (Renji Ishibashi) has joined forces with the Kakomura-gumi to finally take over Odani territory.

Suspecting that the Kakomuras are behind the accountant’s disappearance, Gami wants to learn the truth and prevent an Odani-Kakomura war. But he also seems to be supporting the Odanis, while undermining the Kakomuras at every opportunity. What, Hioka wonders, is really going on?

Junya Ikegami’s script deftly peels away the plot’s layers within layers. Also, despite the many characters, including a canny bar madam (Yoko Maki) and a clownish sound-truck rightwinger (Pierre Taki), the film never feels over-populated.

For one thing, violent death thins the herd with maximum impact. For another, both cops and gangsters are more picturesquely flawed individuals than types, while not always being what they seem, Gami first and foremost.

Veteran Yakusho has played similar characters before, including the unhinged cop in Tetsuya Nakashima’s “Kawaki (The World of Kanako)” (2014), but he brings a fresh energy to the role of Gami, as though tangling with ruthless criminals were a fun game.

But Gami is also a serious professional, if one who hides his true motives behind an un-serious mask. The long wait for it to drop is worth it.