Last of the Wolves (Japan, 2021) [NYAFF 2021]
Last of the Wolves is director Kazuya Shiraishi’s sequel to his well-received 2018 yakuza film, The Blood of Wolves. Although he returns to the crime world of Yuko Yuzuki’s novel trilogy, Shiraishi only goes as far as taking key elements and characters since scriptwriter Junya Ikegami concocts a brand new story that provides the thrills and spills one expects from a gangster film.
Set three years after the bloody climax of The Blood of Wolves, detective Shuichi Hioka (Tori Matsuzaka) has stepped up into his former partner’s position to implement a plan to control the local yakuza and prevent further gang wars in Kurehara and Hiroshima. This delicate balance of power is upset by a vicious gangster named Uebayashi (Ryohei Suzuki) who is back on the streets following time in the infamous Abashiri Prison. He is looking to avenge a gang boss slain in the previous film and this sets him on a collision course with Hioka. Along the way, many people will get hurt.
What unfolds is a bloody crime thriller with internecine gang wars, police politics, police procedural aspects and scenes of violence as various factions betray each other on the fictional streets of Kurehara and the real streets of Hiroshima in 1990s Japan. Much of it is reminiscent of the first film and countless other yakuza movies, especially the themes of changing times in the crime world and the battle between old-school muscle going out in a blaze of glory and new-school moneymen trying to integrate into regular society. The really compelling element driving the film is the rivalry between the two lead characters as they both go to the limits of their beliefs: for Hioka it is how corrupt he will allow himself to become to deliver justice, while for Uebayashi it is his desire to embody jingi (honour and loyalty) even if it means his destruction.
Having shed his good-guy persona, Hioka is a sly fox in the mould of his ex-partner. He wines and dines with mobsters to make key connections and set up police stings to keep everyone sweet or in line. On the other hand, Uebayashi is a terrifying force of nature whose relentless pursuit of vengeance for his boss results in scenes of cruelty towards people and animals that are downright stomach churning – people get caged, drugs are administered, limbs get cut off, and others get blown away or stabbed by him and his goons. One particularly nasty trait of his behavior is blinding people, the pathology of which is exhumed in a compelling backstory via his killings, naturalistic exposition between detectives tracking him, and lengthy flashback scenes that adds a little psychological depth to what might just be a mindless sadist. Through him, the film touches upon the experience of Zainichi Koreans (and a couple of other immigrant groups). While it isn’t too deep, it does add flavor.
In their roles, both Matsuzaka and Suzuki provide persuasive performances. Matsuzaka, with his lean body and pencil-thin mustache, comes off as weak and desperate in the face of Suzuki, who infuses his muscular build with an aura of threat in the way that he bulldozes his way around and casually erupts with violence. We wonder how Hioka will work this situation, especially as Shiraishi increases the gruesomeness factor in order to match the terror and threat that Uebayashi poses. The camera doesn’t shirk away as the film goes beyond its predecessor to create a grand guignol operatic experiences which culminates in an epic car chase and explosive final confrontation.
This new film definitely feels novelistic considering the wider setting and its huge cast of characters. None of its 139 minutes are wasted as each minute is rich in period detail while the twists and turns in the battle between Hioka and Uebayashi make for a riveting ride.
Last of the Wolves is showing at the New York Asian Film Festival on August 15.