I have finally got around to watching Takeshi Kitano’s latest film, Ryuzo and the Seven Henchmen (2015), which was released last year, but, like a number of his recent works, has not been as widely distributed as the films such as Sonatine (1993) and Hana-bi (1997) that established him in the 1990s as an internationally significant film-maker. The film, which was written and directed by Kitano and in which he acts in a minor role as a detective, has received rather ambivalent reviews, dismissing it as ‘slight’ and over-long, but it is a very enjoyable film and an interesting development of themes that run through his work.
Ryuzo and the Seven Henchmen tells the story of a group of elderly, retired and incorrigible yakuza who decide to form a new ‘family’ to confront the young gang, Keihin United, that now operates in the area of Tokyo they used to control. In an invocation of The Seven Samurai (Kurosawa, 1954), and The Magnificent Seven (Sturges, 1960), and with echoes of films about ageing characters revisiting their past glories, such as The Wild Bunch (Peckinpah, 1969), Robin and Marian (Lester, 1976), Space Cowboys (Eastwood, 2000), or Stand Up Guys (Stevens, 2012), the protagonist Ryuzo assembles a group of old friends each of whom possessed signature skills that are now more or less redundant – especially in the wake of anti-yakuza laws introduced from 2011 onwards. The henchmen include Mokichi ‘the toilet assassin’ whose revolting modus operandi of hiding inside a pit latrine and stabbing the user through the opening is of no use in the age of flushing toilets, Mac ‘the quick shooter’, a Steve McQueen obsessive who can no longer hit anything, Hide ‘the 6-inch nail’ whose skill was throwing nails, but is similarly incapable of hitting the target, and Taka ‘the razor slasher’, who is now unable even to shave his own face without slicing it up.
Although it eschews the more uncompromising experimentation of Kitano’s recent films such as Glory to the Filmmkaker! (2007) and Takeshis’ (2005) or the systematic formalism of Kitano’s earlier films, such as the static framing and tableau shots of A Scene at the Sea (1991) or Kikujiro (1999), or the repetitive tracking shots of Dolls (2002), the film is nevertheless as crisply photographed and colourful as any of the director’s films. The film’s simple score recalls the pristine music of Jo Hisaishi, who composed the music for Kitano’s most well-known known films, as well as some of the most successful Studio Ghibli films, and the foregrounding of an accordion is a reminder of Kitano’s interest in the films of Jean-Luc Godard and the nouvelle vague.
The film is a fusion of a generic gangster film with farce and crude physical humour, an element of Kitano’s films (and his TV programmes or the uncompletable video game he designed for Nintendo) that has never translated very well. The ageing yakuza, who call themselves the Dragon One League – named after the dragon tattoo on Ryuzo’s back, but unfortunately also the name of a local restaurant – are described by the young gangsters as old farts, and in a running gag, Ryuzo farts repeatedly at inappropriate moments, such as when he undresses to display his impressive tattoos to an old flame. Casio Abe has suggested that the key film within Kitano’s oeuvre is Getting Any? (1994), a bizarre, incoherent and self-reflexive comedy about a young man who is fixated on acquiring a car in the belief that this will finally enable him to have sex. Getting Any? is far less well known internationally than any of his other films, and is hard to reconcile with the minimalism of a yakuza film such as Brother (2000). Nevertheless, comedy plays a crucial role within all of the films by this former stand-up comedian, highlighting more or less indirectly the absurdity of the protagonists and the situations they find themselves in. In this respect – in the systematic use of comedy to undermine the earnest self-importance and futile heroism of their protagonists – Kitano’s films are consistently engaged with a critical examination of Japanese masculinity, and Ryuzo and the Seven Henchmen is a particularly interesting example, since it eschews the nihilistic monumentalism of Brother or the fetishistic stylised violence of the yakuza thrillers, Outrage (2010) and Beyond Outrage (2012).
Ryuzo, the boss of the family, is played by Tatsuya Fuji in a performance that is almost an impersonation of Kitano’s own impassive acting style. Fuji is best known outside Japan for his role as one of the two protagonists of Nagisa Oshima’s notorious film of an obsessive affair, In the Realm of the Senses (1976). In that film, which has been interpreted as a critique of the martial ethos of Japanese masculinity, Fuji’s character, Ishida, is ultimately strangled and castrated by his lover, and so the casting of Fuji inevitably invites us to read this film as a critical reflection upon (cinematic) masculinity. Kitano’s relationship with Oshima is significant given that it was Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence (Oshima, 1983) that established Kitano as a serious screen actor, while Kitano also featured in Oshima’s final film, Gohatto (1999), and both films explore the relationship between male homosexuality and military or martial cultures. Incidentally, given the self-reflexivity with which Kitano’s films are shot through, the fact that Ryuzo is missing two fingers and is ready to slice off another at any moment in order to save face, may well be a comic reference to the conclusion of Oshima’s film. Although they have sometimes been marketed as slick exercises in genre film-making, from Violent Cop (1989) – his debut as a director – onwards, the films Kitano has directed (and usually written) have been preoccupied with issues of mortality and purpose, illness and injury, ageing, the male body, and the loss of physical strength. In that sense, rather than a slight comedy, this is a key film within Kitano’s cinema, a summary of and reflection upon his films to date. The comedy is often unsubtle and scatological – the film concludes with a car chase during which Hide ‘the 6-inch nail’ shits himself when the gang use their senior citizen passes to commandeer a bus – but as a film about ageing men by an ageing man, now 69, the film has a poignancy that is absent from some of his earlier films.