The largest population of Japanese people outside of Japan is actually located in Brazil. São Paolo, to be exact. Of the roughly twelve million people who live there, more than a million and a half of them are Japanese or of Japanese descent; the legacy of a bilateral agreement between the two nations to promote migration in the late 1910s. This is, in a word, fascinating.
Yakuza Princess is set in this diaspora, the story of an orphaned girl with no knowledge of her past who was secreted away after her family was massacred. Now, of course, she is going to find out, and vengeance will be hers. Eventually.
If it feels like I’ve given anything away about Yakuza Princess, rest assured that I have given away nothing you won’t be able to piece together long before the movie reveals it to you. The film has few problems, but the main two are that it is both overlong and more than a little boring as a result. Here’s where I think things go wrong: while the film is ostensibly about the titular princess, it actually has three leads.
Akemi (Masumi) doesn’t know who she is, but she’ll be set on the path to finding out after the amnesiac Shiro (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) wakes up in a hospital with his only possession being her family’s lost katana. At the same time, Takeshi (Tsuyoshi Ihara) is alerted to the re-emergence of the sword, and he starts hunting for it as well.
Some of the rest of this is pretty predictable. Each of the characters ends up hurtling toward one another. Each of them has a past that, once revealed, will irrevocably change their relationships, and at the end of the film, there is a big showdown with the yakuza bad guys who want them all dead.
There’s simply too much here for the film to balance, though, despite its two hours runtime. There is so much exposition that it bogs down the movie, and rather than focussing on Akemi reclaiming her past, we end up with many scenes of people talking about it instead.
The three main performances are fine. Masumi is a multidiscipline artist, and it shows, and the film goes out of its way to give her a singing scene, but it all feels needless. That scene leads directly to the first big fight in the film, which escalates from zero to roundhouse face kick in no time flat. It’s clear that Masumi is up to the task when it comes to the action, but many of the fights are shot so close and with so many cuts that it’s hard to see what’s actually happening.
Rhys Meyers is clearly giving his all but feels maybe a little miscast as a mercenary called Shiro. Ihara doesn’t disappoint, though, and –of the three– does the most with the material when it gets weighty.
Ultimately though, without enough action to keep the momentum up or any real exploration of Japanese-Brazillian culture beyond “there are a lot of Japanese people in Brazil”, Yakuza Princess ends up being unable to sustain the audience’s attention.
Yakuza Princess has its world premiere at the 2021 Fantasia Film Festival and will be available on-demand on September 3rd.
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