Like A Dragon (2007)
Tokyo is under the spell of an unprecedented heatwave. Two hapless armed robbers try to hold up a bank, but are told there is no money in the safe. It descends into a hostage situation with the police waiting nearby. Super-cool Yakuza Kiryu Kazuma, just released from prison, is wandering around Tokyo with a young girl and a small dog, looking for the girl's mother. His former boss, Kazama, is nowhere to be found. Bad-ass Yakuza boss Majima is chasing the missing money and Kazuma's tail, looking to settle some unfinished business. A young couple get caught up in a fight between rival Yakuza gangs, and decide to take up armed robbery. A Korean assassin is in Tokyo with a mission of his own from his bosses in Seoul.
If that sounds less like a plot summary than a list of concepts for a bunch of different films, that's because LIKE A DRAGON is rather oddly structured, with numerous plot threads whose connections are often tenuous, when they exist at all. It is based on the PlayStation2 game YAKUZA, though only a few of those plot strands are familiar from the game (the bits I played anyway). The story wanders along with all these different subplots developing separately, but little indication how they are all going to come together... and I don't think it's much of a spoiler to say that it's only in the loosest sense that they ever do.
Normally, a bunch of disparate plot threads that fail to combine into a coherent whole would be considered a black mark on a film, the sign of an amateur writer or director who didn't know how to tell a story. In Takashi Miike's hands it kind of works though. Miike has made any number of Yakuza films since the beginning of his career, but usually manages to find a way to make the material fresh and interesting despite the constraints of an over-crowded genre. His breakout film was the outrageous Yakuza film DEAD OR ALIVE, reportedly handed to him as a very generic Yakuza script and accepted on the condition that he had full creative control. He exercised this by condensing almost the entire script into a wild 10 minute montage at the start, then filling the remainder of the time with weird, off the wall scenes of wild excess, satire and quirky creativity.
LIKE A DRAGON is another film that's like a Yakuza film, but packed full of those trademark "Miike Moments" - the kind of out of left-field developments and directorial flourishes that make his best work so unique and interesting. It doesn't seem to matter that events in the hostage situation have almost no bearing on events in Kiryu Kazama's plot thread, and that neither of these have much to do with what happens to the young would-be armed robbers. What matters is that you get a bunch of interesting characters, each of whom gets into interesting situations - and that these characters and situations give Miike the chance to indulge his creativity and directorial prowess, which is what he does best.
There are many little touches and larger moments in the film which only Miike would have thought of including - in any film, let alone all in the same film. The absurd banter between the two bank robbers, or the scenery chewing and henchman beatdowns of Goro Kishitani provide some great moments of comedy and satire, whilst Kazuma's video-game inspired fight scenes are some of the best in Miike's filmography. In amongst this are some moments of genuine warmth and emotion between the young couple, or betwen Kazuma and the young girl he has taken under his wing.
Along the way, Miike has fun with his camera and the occasional CGI effect, creating lots of little visual flourishes and some stylishly slick visuals. He shifts the tone effortlessly between super cool Yakuza flick, comic book farce, pounding action and thoughtful human drama, in the way only a masterful director who has created great works in all of these styles already could make so natural. In the wrong hands it could have been an awful mess, but Miike mixes his ingredients like a high class barman into an intoxicating cocktail.
I have felt that Takashi Miike lost his way a little bit after 2004, venturing into territory that did not suit him so well (the abstract art film pretension of BIG BANG LOVE: JUVENILE A or the actually juvenile slapstick of Yatterman, for instance). LIKE A DRAGON harkens back more films like City Of Lost Souls or Fudoh, playful and inventive without seeming to feel a need to prove himself by over-stretching. He's very much in his comfort zone here, and surrounds himself with a cast who are perfectly suited to the roles he assigns them.
At the start of the film I wasn't so sure I was going to enjoy it, as keeping track of all the different situations seemed like a bit of a chore, but once Miike started showing his intentions by injecting those inimitable scenes of style and invention I realised that following the plot wasn't the thing to focus on, and began looking forward to more of those shots and scenes that only Miike seems to bring to his films instead. Taken on the right terms, LIKE A DRAGON sits comfortably alongside many of Miike's classic films of the past.