Based on the graphic novel, Samurai Shirô, by Danilo Beyrouth, Yakuza Princess is like a bloody, violent, no holds barred episode of NBC’s Who Do You Think You Are? as the film follows a young woman on her journey to discover family truths. A film about loss, with themes of identity and belonging, and in a stylish, thrilling, and mysterious neo-noir package with strong elements from the jidaigeki genre and samurai history, Vicente Amorim’s Yakuza Princess treads in the footsteps of a dark legacy.
A home sits beneath the hills as a flag burns ahead. A family is met with bullets and steel, a dynasty of crime in Osaka is believed to be destroyed. But in present-day São Paulo, the family’s sole survivor embodies its fighting spirit as she trains in Kendo, a traditional Japanese martial art derived from the fighting methods of samurai. Akemi (singer-songwriter MASUMI) is on a journey to be a true warrior, but her teacher tells her that she must let go of her grief and anger over the recent murder of her grandfather, who saved her those 20 years ago. But the mystery of who killed him and the meaning of a symbol he left behind can’t help but linger on her mind.
São Paulo, Brazil, has the largest Japanese community outside of Japan. Its vibrant night markets and club scene are in contrast with the gritty, gang-ridden homeland we see here. The Yakuza is merciless, and the crime syndicate is after Akemi, specifically one of its lieutenants, Takeshi (Tsuyoshi Ihara). Back in the city that Akemi has made her stay, lying in the hospital, bandaged and with no memory, is Shirô (Jonathan Rhys Meyers). Police come looking for him and show him a sword that he was supposedly found with, hoping to spark something in his memory. When that fails, he makes his escape and takes the sword with him, hoping it can lead him to some answers about who he is.
This blade acts as the film’s MacGuffin. An antique shop owner explains to Shirô that it’s a Muramasa, an ancient katana said to be cursed. An object of supernatural lore with the souls of those slain by it now imprisoned inside, waiting and bloodthirsty for its next victim. Three characters in search of something – the film goes back and forth between them, eventually meeting at a crossroads. The blood-soaked tip of the Muramasa is drawn at the beginning of an odyssey that can only lead to a finale fitting for a film steeped in samurai style and legend.
No one in Yakuza Princess is who they seem to be, and it’s best to go in with little knowledge of what’s to come. But it’s safe to say that it’s a film that pulls no punches. Its many fight scenes are well-executed with brutal stunts and swordplay, and according to IMDb, MASUMI ambitiously does her own stunts. She has a rock star energy and proves she’s not one to be messed with – a killer kick and a killer voice we get the pleasure of hearing. This is her first time acting in a feature film and it shows in her line delivery. While it feels stiff with no emotion at times, you can also see how perhaps it’s intentional for the character. Every player in the cast puts on an intriguing performance, and it’s especially a treat to see Meyers. It’s nice to see him in a role of this kind – as a wandering samurai with no master. He’s quite frightening on the surface with a hard edge, but unfortunately, his character doesn’t go much deeper than that.
Gunpowder Milkshake had some fun with neon recently, but Yakuza Princess plays with lighting and color to the max. In some films, it can seem overused, but here it fits the São Paulo setting and neo-noir genre perfectly. When Akemi and Shirô leave the city, it’s used much less, mostly playing with shadow and more subtle hues, but there are shots by DP Gustavo Hadba in a cemetery that are particularly fantastic. It also isn’t afraid to play technically with the fact it’s based on a graphic novel, with close-up camera angles made to look like comic panels. This is used most notably with Shirô to emphasize the confusion he’s experiencing. Yakuza Princess could have been tightened narratively, with details getting a little fuzzy, but it’s ready to challenge other action films of the year with a blow from its katana.
Movie Score: 4/5