LFF 2015: Ryuzo and his Seven Henchmen

by Ben Diamond

Ryuzo and His Seven Henchmen (Kitano 2015, 125m)

Takeshi Kitano, perhaps best known in the UK for being the host of ’80s gameshow Takeshi’s Castle, but also known for having made some great ’90s films – Sonatine and Hana-bi – has returned with a light-hearted comedy in which old Yakuza member Ryuzo reunites with his old mob buddies to wreak havoc once more, and reminisce about the good old days, back when the Yakuza were respected by all, left alone by the police, and unencumbered by anti-corruption laws which have been put in place since the gang became inactive.  Kitano himself plays a police chief who occasionally watches on with a mask of inscrutability as his old Yakuza acquaintances make prats of themselves.  I often have a problem with directors inserting themselves into their own films (or other people’s films), especially in the case of Quentin Tarantino.  But whereas Tarantino is a nerd who should stay behind the camera, Kitano has that cult-cool about him that gives him an edge onscreen, even if he isn’t doing much.  Of course, it’s hard to tell if he delivers his lines well or not.  Perhaps a blessing in disguise when his films cross over to the West.

But fart gags are the esperanto of comedy, and translate across geocultural borders.  Hence, the film is laden with methane.  I don’t mind the heavy reliance on rectal gas, but the rest of the comedy is incredibly broad.  The camera often lingers on a sight gag or a gurning face too long, well after the penny drops with the audience.  Similarly, a lot of the political content seems completely unsubtle and appealing to our most basic sense of Japanese history, although admittedly there are some very funny moments with an old kamikaze pilot that still have bite.  I don’t quite know how the film managed to run past the two hour mark – the plot feels stretched, and at least half an hour could’ve been cut.  The genuinely funny gags are too sparse, and looking back, the plot was virtually nonexistant, a shaggy dog story for a series of set-pieces and pratfalls.  I like the idea of Kitano making a film which considers the anachronism of the Yakuza man in modern society.  It feels like he’s thinking about his own place in the world as he approaches his seventies.  It’s still a Kitano film, even if it looks like the Japanese equivalent of a Hangover or a Horrible Bosses-type outfit.  He successfully avoids giving the characters any sort of moral compass.  They are complete bastards.  That is funny and rings true.  But after a good start and a strong set-up, the film loses its way and never finds its way back, despite a few very strong scenes.  By the end it was long past its sell-by.

Ryuzo is still worth seeing for the odd moment of Kitano brilliance.  The inspired scene in a restaurant where Ryuzo and his buddy gamble on what customers who enter will order felt like a shake-up of Japan’s film history, a violent riposte to Ozu’s moments of tea-room calm, like his own school reunion scene in An Autumn Afternoon.  Kitano’s still got it – he might’ve mellowed, but we still get flashes of the old spirit.