THE BLOOD OF WOLVES

★★★★

A GORE-SPLATTERED LOVE LETTER TO THE JAPANESE CRIME THRILLER

SYDNEY FILM FESTIVAL REVIEW
By Jake Watt
13th November 2018

Although Yakuza films have existed since the silent film era, it was Kinji Fukasaku’s hugely influential, documentary-style, five-part series, ‘Battles Without Honor and Humanity’ (1973), which propelled them into mainstream focus, offering an insight into the chaotic inner lives of the Japanese gangsters, wherein the personal and political clashed loudly, resulting in severed little fingers, police corruption, and gang warfare.

While the mythology of the Yakuza enjoys an enduring fascination, like the Western in Hollywood, the film genre has fallen out of favour in Japan. Once championed by directors such as Kinji Fukasaku ('Yakuza Graveyard') and Seijun Suzuki ('Youth of the Beast'), now only the occasional esteemed director will return to explore the nuances of the genre, like Takashi Miike ('Yakuza Apocalypse') or Takeshi Kitano ('Outrage Coda'). An actual revival has yet to come.

Shiraishi Kazuya’s new Yakuza thriller ‘The Blood of Wolves’, an adaptation of Yûko Yuzuki’s 2015 bestseller 'Lone Wolf’s Blood', opens with a narrative overview of the violent excesses of the Third Hiroshima Gang War in 1974. 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.

'THE BLOOD OF WOLVES 'TRAILER

One of the first shots in the film is a close-up of a pig taking a shit and a man being forced to eat it as part of some gangland-style torture in a pigsty. What better way to set the scene for the visceral imagery, dark humour and hard-hitting action to come!

Set on the sunbaked streets of Hiroshima and Kurehara City in 1988, the film centres on the power struggle between the Odani-Gumi Crime Syndicate, the Irako-Kai Family, and the belaboured police tasked with keeping order in all the bloodshed between them. The murder of a financier for the Kakomura (an affiliate of Irako-Kai) could spell war for the neighbouring cities and their respective gangs. Desperate to enter into the waning years of Japan’s economic miracle at peace, the police hope to find those responsible for the sake of maintaining an equilibrium in this delicate situation more so than justice.

Director Shiraishi (‘Dawn of the Felines’, ‘Birds Without Names’) aims to bring the audience back to a simpler time when criminality was ambiguous, cops were more corrupt and dangerous than the thugs they chased, and there was rarely a problem that couldn’t be solved by getting a little blood on your hands.

One of the first shots in the film is a close-up of a pig taking a shit and a man being forced to eat it as part of some gangland-style torture in a pigsty. What better way to set the scene for the visceral imagery, dark humour and hard-hitting action to come!

A lot of blood ends up on the hands of the mismatched archetypical partnering of a crusty, extremely corrupt veteran Ogami (a fantastic Kōji Yakusho, ‘Shall We Dance?’, ‘Cure’, ’13 Assassins’) and the by-the-books Hioka (Tori Matsuzaka, ‘Gatchaman’, ‘Yurigokoro’). Not only are they investigating the disappearance of said financier, but Hioka is convinced Ogami is secretly aligned with the Odani and attempts to expose his connections. After all, Ogami is the type of cop who thinks nothing of torturing a potential source and questioning a prostitute mid-coitus. Though the details of the various power plays that drive this film’s plot may not always be easy to follow, Kōji Yakusho's sleazy detective is charismatic and erratic enough to keep us amused for much of this tangled and horrific odyssey through Japan’s underworld.

If you’re accustomed to watching Yakuza films, then the gore (like the forcible removal of genital piercings and severed-head-in-a-urinal violence) and over-abundance of principal characters (all with separate affiliations to the factions and sub-factions of the warring bodies involved in the central conflict) won’t bother you. After all, violent deaths in Yakuza films are mainly used as a device to peel away layers of characters with maximum impact. A soggy middle section is balanced by a revelatory three-quarters mark which deconstructs the motivations of both the loose cannon Ogami and academic Hioka while shifting gear into a tragedy.

‘The Blood of Wolves’ is more of homage paid to cult gangster cinema than an attempt to redefine and relaunch the Yakuza genre. Coupled with uncompromising visuals and fine acting from the cast, this stylish crime thriller will leave an impact on you like a fist to the face.

Looking for more Sydney Film Festival reviews? Click here to check out our collection of this year's highlights.
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