Vincente Amorim’s new action thriller Yakuza Princess is an intriguing blend of styles as an English-language film set in Sao Paulo Brazil featuring a story focused on the yakuza from Japan. If this seems an odd mishmash of cultural elements, you may be surprised to learn that Brazil is home to the largest Japanese diaspora in the world stemming from an early 20th-century influx of immigrants after a bilateral agreement between the two countries promoting migration.
Within the world of Yakuza Princess, a story adapted from Danilo Beyruth’s comic Samurai Shiro, Brazil is home to a young woman named Akemi (MASUMI), whose grandfather fled to Sau Paulo with her in the wake of a hit that took out her entire family. When her grandfather is mysteriously killed in an apparent mugging gone wrong, she’s thrust into the world of Japanese organized crime as she’s shadowed by Takeshi (Tsuyoshi Ihara), a lieutenant from a rival family and Shiro (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), a mysterious man who wakes up in a hospital with multiple injuries and no recollection of what happened to him. All he knows is that he’s drawn to the katana he was found with (that also happens to be the one to have inflicted his many injuries) and he’s compelled to find Akemi.
The film exists in a compelling intersection between film noir and mythological storytelling. In terms of the narrative structure, you could interpret it as a kind of fairytale, complete with a long-lost princess, mysteries about bloodlines and destiny, and not one but two mysterious rogues thrown in the mix. At the center of it all is this katana, and the movie hints at supernatural elements without committing one way or the other as characters discuss the sword’s cursed history, claiming it absorbs the souls of all those it kills.
But while the story screams folktale, the film’s aesthetic provides a down and dirty Sao Paulo awash in shadowy alleys, seedy clubs, and lots of rain. This is a world that operates after the sun goes down, with a solid ninety percent of the action taking place in the dark of night. And with that noir aesthetic comes a multitude of mysteries that seem a little overboard and disparate at first, but actually come together pretty well by the end of the film.
The cast navigates this blend of fairytale and gritty thriller well, starting with MASUMI as the titular “princess.” As Akemi, you feel for her as she’s just lost her grandfather only to find out she’s part of this underworld that she barely even knew existed. She’s understandably scared and confused, but when push comes to shove she also leaves no doubt that she can beat ass when the situation calls for it. As the mysterious Takeshi, Tsuyoshi Ihara does a masterclass in “tall, dark, and handsome (and deadly)” as a yakuza lieutenant searching for Akemi. There’s a scene of self-triage that I won’t give away beyond saying that it puts Rambo to shame in how casual he is about the whole process.
Then there’s the even more mysterious Shiro, who after being on screen for at least twenty minutes made me think, “huh, that dude kind of looks like a ragged Jonathan Rhys Meyers.” So to realize that this was indeed Meyers makes me appreciate his ability to lose himself in the role. Plus it’s fun to see a character who’s just as invested in the mystery of who he is as the audience.
If I’ve got a complaint, it’s that I would have appreciated just a few more action sequences, not necessarily at the expense of cutting out any plot, but just something to help pick up the pace in the first act. That said, when we do get to the physical stuff it’s pretty brutal, from well-choreographed fight sequences courtesy of stunt coordinator Agnaldo Bueno to some gnarly visuals when sword meets flesh from special effects supervisor Sergio Farjalla Jr. (admittedly, perhaps a bit more CGI than I would have liked, but certainly not a deal breaker).
I’ve been really impressed with the output coming out of Brazil this year, and Yakuza Princess is no exception. It’s fun, it looks great, and for a straightforward thriller the mystery was enough to keep me guessing and engaged. Throw in some funky fight sequences and you’ve got yourself a damn solid flick. Keep an eye on Amorim and Brazil in general as I think they’re going to continue to impress.