A young woman discovers she’s a crime family heiress in “Yakuza Princess,” a grimy action-thriller set in the neon-drenched streets of São Paulo’s Japanese district. Adapted from Danilo Beyruth’s graphic novel by Brazilian filmmaker Vicente Amorim (“Motorrad), “Yakuza” delivers stylish shootouts and eye-catching swordplay but lacks the dynamic characters and story-telling panache required to lift it into the top grade. Starring Japanese American singer Masumi in her first feature role, and Jonathan Rhys Meyers as an amnesiac assassin, this well produced item still packs enough punch to satisfy undemanding action fans and should perform respectably when released in U.S. theaters and on VOD on Sept. 3.
Considering São Paulo is home to the world’s largest ethnic Japanese community outside Japan (an estimated 1.6 million people), it’s surprising how rarely the city’s Nikkei Burajiru-jin (Japanese Brazilians) have been granted leading character status in feature films. “Gaijin: A Brazilian Odyssey” (1980, in Cannes Directors’ Fortnight) and 2005 sequel “Gaijin 2: Love Me As I Am” by trailblazing Japanese Brazilian filmmaker Tizuka Yamasaki are two of very few examples. “Yakuza Princess” joins this very small club with a tale that ventures between Osaka and Liberdade, the vibrant São Paulo district where Japanese signage is more prevalent than Portuguese.
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Showing he means business right from the start, Amorim begins with the massacre of the Kawa crime family in Osaka, 1999, which left infant daughter Akemi as sole survivor. Now a young woman working a dead-end job at a São Paulo gift shop, Akemi (Masumi) has trained from the age of six in kendo, a modern martial art discipline with roots in centuries-old sword fighting styles. Her teacher, Chiba (Toshiji Takeshima), is a typically stern and wise instructor who tells Akemi that becoming a great fighter means casting aside the grief she’s felt since the murder of her beloved grandfather. “You and your soul must become one,” he says.
In a hospital elsewhere in São Paulo is a patient (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) who can’t remember his name or what caused his severe facial and bodily injuries. After cops show him a samurai sword found in his possession, he busts out of the facility and retakes possession of the weapon, hoping it will spark memories and clues. According to an antique dealer accosted by the injured amnesiac, the blade was forged by legendary craftsman Muramasa during the Muromachi period and is said to contain the bloodthirsty souls of its victims.
Although this stranger has lost his memory and Akemi has no knowledge of her family’s history, old mobsters back in Osaka haven’t forgotten anything. After casually slaughtering a couple of goons while eating noodles, tough guy Takeshi (Tsuyoshi Ihara, “Letters From Iwo Jima”) heads to São Paulo. His mission, ostensibly, is to retrieve the sword and rub out Akemi, who’s just turned 21 and unknowingly inherited the Kawa crime family empire.
With the mystery sword apparently holding the key to everyone’s destinies, “Yakuza Princess” hums along nicely as Akemi forges an uneasy alliance with the amnesiac while he tries to piece together his identity and she slowly discovers the truth about her heritage. The trouble here is that neither character emerges as particularly compelling or exciting. There’s nothing wrong with Rhys Meyers’ performance, but his one-note character gives him very little to work with. This stranger with a sword is an impenetrable enigma who becomes less and less interesting as the story progresses.
Masumi handles her action duties with aplomb. In a terrific early sequence showcasing her delightful voice and impressive fighting chops, Akemi flattens a trio of sleazy locals who make unwanted advances at a karaoke bar. But the newcomer is much less certain with challenging dramatic material. Several key scenes that should make audiences connect with Akemi and invest emotionally in her heroic journey are instead stiff, unconvincing and distancing.
The charismatic Ihara fares best as the battle-hardened mobster who may be a ruthless assassin but still believes in ancient codes of honor and loyalty. The question of whether Takeshi has a secret agenda, and his conflict with ambitious Yakuza rival Kojiro (Eijiro Ozaki), bring an energy and urgency to proceedings that’s largely missing elsewhere.
Director Amorim and ace cinematographer Gustavo Hadba (“Motorrad,” “The Great Mystical Circus”) film city-set sequences with an arresting combination of lurid neon hues and anemic fluorescent light that brings a tinge of sci-fi into the neo-noir atmosphere. A lengthy sequence at a cemetery outside São Paulo is superbly staged with blazing shafts of blue-white light that imbues the location and its occupants with a memorably mystical aura. The excellently choreographed action sequences are nicely shot and include many eye-catching close-ups that connect strongly with the film’s graphic novel source material.
Lucas Marcier and Fabiano Krieger’s eclectic score mixes deep, droning human voices with the piercing twang of the Japanese shamisen to outstanding effect in several sequences. For the record, Rhys Meyers’ character finally gets a name in the film’s final scene, which points clearly toward a sequel.
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