The Blood of Wolves (Japan, 2018) [NYAFF 2018]

Hiroshima is a prefecture with lots of natural beauty but filmmakers do like to find drama in the dark underbelly of the place, perhaps most famously with Kinji Fukasaku’s 1970s crime film series Battles without Honour and Humanity, which was based on the experiences of a post-war yakuza boss from the area. Kazuya Shiraishi takes audiences into the same world with The Blood of Wolves, a film that feels like a throwback to an earlier time due to its raw violence, emotions, and the character archetypes in play. Shiraishi is no stranger to the crime genre thanks to his previous films The Devil’s Path (2013) and Twisted Justice (2016) but this is his best entry yet. It is all down to a magnetic performance from lead actor Koji Yakusho whose character has a no holds barred attitude to policing.

It is the summer of 1988 in the fictional city of Kurehara, Hiroshima Prefecture. The disappearance of an employee of a financial company signals that a dormant gang war between the Odani-gumi and the Irako-kai is about to come to life again with the Irako-kai seeking help from the Kakomura-gumi in Hiroshima city.

It’s a powder keg situation as hot-headed gangsters invade each other’s territory with only the Criminal Investigations Division of Kurehara East Police Station ready to stop them. In steps twenty-something squeaky-clean cop Shuichi Hioka (Tori Matsuzaka). He may be a graduate of Hiroshima University but he has to earn his stripes with his new partner, the veteran detective and rumoured-to-be corrupt cop Shogo Ogami (Yakusho) who is investigating the disappearance. Hioka views the old hand, twenty years his senior, as a loose cannon while Ogami views the “elite scholar” as a hindrance to real policing. He states to the very by-the-books Hioka, “a scholar can’t be no gang cop”, but the two men will have to learn work together as time runs out and gangsters start getting bodied out in the streets. Ogami is willing to do anything to bust the case wide open and stop a bloody turf war from happening. As Ogami states to one yakuza thug objecting to his rough treatment, “We’re cops. We can do any damn shit we like.”

By the time Ogami says that, audiences have seen plenty of violence as Kazuya Shiraishi doesn’t shy away in showing it. Based on Yuko Yuzuki’s novel, the film is comparable to Takeshi Kitano’s Outrage series, specifically, Beyond Outrage (2012) where police and yakuza politics intersect as a wily detective plays yakuza gangs off each other. Only here the humour is less mordant, the brutality is toned up, and the action is more vibrant.

A film of two halves, The Blood of Wolves uses fresh-faced Hioka as the audience’s eyes into the criminal underworld and how old-school cops police it. He tags along with Ogami who seemingly only knows how to play rough and this causes the two to come into conflict regularly. There is a charming confidence to Ogami as a man of the streets who uses largesse, his silver tongue and his connections to cajole people into acting for him and clearly there’s something of a thrill to it all for the grizzled veteran who gleefully uses the law to trick and threaten his way into getting information from people and, when that fails, gets pretty physical. Not that this should be a problem in many cases since the yakuza here aren’t honourable or admirable in the least. So, when Ogami prowls the streets and chases leads, there is a lot of entertainment to be had watching him pick off yakuza and close in on the truth and with Yakusho’s nonchalance and air of gleeful humour, the violence, while hard to stomach at points, provides some entertainment as well as plot thrills.

The second half turns things completely on their head and gets both Hioka and the audience to question everything they know about Ogami as the full length and breadth of his imagination and commitment to the job is revealed. His cunning, his daring, and his mental acuity prove to be his deadliest traits and it is hard not to admire the way he pulls together different criminal, police, and civilian elements to orchestrate what turns out to be a far more deeper strategy than the violence we see initially suggests.

Channelling a little of his wild performance from The World of Kanako (2014), Yakusho proves to be an entertaining character to follow. He is defined by his use of knowledge and connections within the Japanese underworld to protect civilians. Questions as to how corrupt he is, where his heart lies and his place in the world make the film become more introspective towards the end for a surprisingly powerful finish that opens the way for a sequel which would be very welcome.

The Blood of Wolves is showing on July 2 at the New York Asian Film Festival.