During one of Yazkua Princess’s many vague conversations, lead character Akemi (played by Masumi) exclaims “Why are you all being so secretive?” It is one of the more prescient lines in the film, which poses many mysteries and keeps the answers from its characters and observers for as long as it can. Some of them go unanswered, in part to seemingly heighten the drama but mostly in an effort to kick-start a franchise.
To be fair there are some genuinely unexpected twists and turns that are well-constructed that pique interest just when it wanes. They are just not enough to justify keeping everyone in the dark the entire time, instead drip-feeding faint explanations as the story progresses. Nor is what revealed deep enough to merit any installments beyond the first.
The film begins with Akemi’s earliest memory: surviving a massacre in Osaka where her entirely family was killed. The story then shifts forward two decades and she is living in “the world’s largest Japanese community” in Sao Paolo. Conveniently enough she has little memory of her life before Brazil, but more starts to come back to her when a mysterious katana sword comes into her possession.
A symbol on the handle matches one on a patch of her late grandfathers and wielding the sword seems to unlock some repressed memories for her. It’s clear the sword holds the key to the truth about not just her path, but that of the man who brought it to her.
Jonathan Rhys Myers, who previously stared his way through Ride with the Devil and The Tudors among others, plays to and against type at the same time in Yakuza Princess. He is first seen waking up bloodied and bandaged in a Sao Paolo hospital, with no memory of who he is or how he got there. He sets out to find out who he is, his only clue being the sword, all that he was found with.
Like the guns in some notable westerns, the sword here feels almost like a character in itself. Known as the Muramasa, the sword is treated with reverence by those in the know and they are happy to tell all about its legend. That it is supposedly cursed, with the souls of those it has killed trapped inside. With this level of detail it has as much back story and development as any of the human characters in Yakuza Princess.
Why does he have the sword? How does this connect him and Akemi? It’s an intriguing line to follow, but as soon as he and Akemi are finally brought together, shots are fired at them by Yakuza hitman Takeshi (Tsuyoshi Ihara), which prompts the two to go on the run. This sets them both on courses to learn the truth, he to to recover his missing identity, Akemi to learn what really happened to her family.
She is determined to know what is happening and it would in fact be a big help for someone who knows more to explain why, but that would be too convenient. She goes to her sensei for help, but he tells her this is something she has to do on her own. She seeks out some nomads who may be in the know, but their explanations shed no light on the situation, which leads to Akemi uttering the memorable above line.
Meanwhile, Rhys Myers fades into the background, brooding, becoming something of a comic foil and having his presence in the film drawn more and more into question.
In addition to the varying levels of interest in each character arc, the Yakuza element, an important part in the events of Yakuza Princess, in the end it is only really half-explained. Its hinted that the film makers feel a sequel would be necessary to further explain the criminal’s interest in events.
This points to one of the film’s biggest problems: its pacing. Its more than a third of the way in when the story actually gets going and even then it doesn’t seem in a hurry to address or resolve its plot. Then when it comes time to wrap everything up, it just ends. Of the many reasons to make a sequel, using it to explain all the plot holes of the first should not be one.
Director Vicente Amorim and co-screenwriters Fernando Toste and Kimi Lee, adapting from Danilo Beyruth’s comic series Samurai Shiro, could have tried harder to create more interest in their characters. In the end, however, this defaults into a journey that has been taken many times before, and more interestingly; by the leads in Lady Snowblood, Harry Potter, even Kung Fu Panda.
There is a much better film somewhere in Yakuza Princess, one that is remembered by its specific details rather than the formulas it falls into. Those in an undiscerning mood might get something out of it, but it could have been more had it been less generic and used its time to better explain itself, instead of making us have to wait for a (potential) sequel to see the whole story.