Organised crime has never been so chaotic in Takashi Miike’s video game adaptation.
The Like a Dragon series of games – better known as Yakuza in the English speaking world – have been a staple of console gaming ever since the first one over fifteen years ago. The games are probably best known for their unique combination of ultra-violent gangster soap opera storytelling interspersed with ludicrous minigames, and frequent moments of absurd goofy nonsense. It’s a wild mix and one that’s certainly even harder to pull off in film, while keeping the adaptation faithful. But, almost as if he was made for this, one director comes immediately to mind: Takashi Miike. Like a Dragon combines both of Takashi Miike’s biggest strengths: adapting pre-existing material into live action cinema (a term I use liberally), and making hyperviolent crime sagas sprinkled with wacky bullshit.
Like a Dragon is loosely based on the first game of the series, but only takes the vaguest outline from the game, and instead builds its own story. Set over a single extraordinarily hot night in the fictional Tokyo district of Kamurocho, the movie follows a few (sort-of) interlinked stories. Former Tojo clan member Kiryu Kazuma (Kazuki Kitamura) has returned after ten years of false imprisonment, determined to set things right. He’s travelling with a young girl named Haruka (Natsuo), and is looking for her mother, who supposedly lived in Kamurocho. Word of Kiryu’s return spreads to his long-time Tojo rival Majima (Goro Kishitani), who scours the streets to find him.
Meanwhile, two bank robbers are attempting to steal 10 billion yen of the Tojo Clan’s money. Detectives Date (Yutaka Matsushige) and Noguchi (Sho Aikawa) are on the case, though Date seems more preoccupied with the rumour of Kiryu’s return. And also meanwhile, a young couple (Shun Shioya and Saeko) decide, on a whim, to go on a crime spree. In true Miike fashion, the stories aren’t massively well connected, except at the end when it sort of comes together. It’s a bit of a mess, but the plot isn’t really the reason you’re here.
It’s largely there to serve 110 minutes of fan service, and I have to admit: I’m a sucker for that sort of thing. The film is absolutely loaded with both Easter eggs and blatant recreations of iconic moments and details. Thugs use traffic cones and signs as weapons; people recover health from drinking Staminans; hell, I’m sure someone saves the game using a payphone at some point. It’s a film that seems less interested in being good cinema, and is instead more keen to show how accurately it can recreate the look, feel and style of the games. Miike – who would later go on to make a surprisingly good Ace Attorney movie – understands that a good adaptation is more than just the costumes (I’m looking at you, Fullmetal Alchemist). Recreating the entire plot of a 30-hour videogame is impossible, so it’s always better to tell some other story but to infuse it with the essence of the original product.
Having put so much of his efforts into recreating those elements, other parts do fall flat. There’s an assumption that audiences will be familiar with Kiryu, Majima and the entire Tojo clan, so character introductions aren’t really a thing here. I mentioned how little the stories really gel together, but also how surprisingly uninteresting they can be in places. The crime spree couple is adorable to watch, but aren’t massively engaging, and the bank robbery goes on for so long, while absolutely wasting the efforts of Sho Aikawa (who would later appear in Yakuza 5, cementing his place within the franchise).
As I mentioned above, I can’t think of anyone better suited for directing this adaptation. Miike’s vision brings Kamurocho to life, emphasising its many neon lights, seedy bars and clubs, and a criminal underbelly that would rather roam the streets with baseball bats than hide in the shadows. The film straddles the line between old-school schlock and Miike’s later, much higher production stuff where it kind of feels like a really well-funded fan film.
The casting is pretty solid, and the acting that isn’t Haruka isn’t terrible (props to Kishitani for trying to make the ludicrously over-the-top Majima work in real life). At the time of filming, there had only been two games, so the characters aren’t as fleshed out as they would be later on. Kiryu’s casting in this is very reminiscent of Jotaro’s in the live action JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure: Diamond is Unbreakable. Kitamura is a good actor who knows the role and puts his all into it, but lacks the fierce determination and immediately intimidating stature of his character. Until he starts a brawl, that is. Dude can fight.
On the subject of the JoJo film, Like a Dragon is very similar in that it gets a lot of details right while completely alienating newcomers. Ultimately Like a Dragon is exactly the film you thought it would be. It’s a Takashi Miike through and through, and if he isn’t a fan of the series, then he’s certainly very good at seeming like he is. It’s a fun time, and while it might not be as good if you’re not familiar with the source material (is it obvious I’m a bit of a Yakuza fanboy?), anyone who enjoyed the Dead or Alive series or even The City of Lost Souls will find something to like here. Now when are we getting the Like a Dragon Kiwami remake?
Verdict: Like a Dragon might get bogged down in its story sometimes, but knows what the fans want, and delivers it in heavy quantities.
Overall entertainment (for fans): 8/10
Overall entertainment (new newbies): 6/10
Sex: Surprisingly none, for a series where hostess clubs are a major gameplay element
Cameos: Series creator Toshihiro Nagoshi shows up for a scene, which is nice
Heat Actions: Only 1
Completion Rate: Like 1%. Kiryu didn’t even go to karaoke
Like a Dragon (2007)
Also known as: 龍が如く 劇場版
Director: Takashi Miike
Writer: Masashi Sogo
Kazuki Kitamura – Kazuma Kiryu
Natsuo – Haruka Sawamura
Goro Kishitani – Goro Majima
Shun Shioya – Satoru
Saeko – Yui
Haruhiko Kato – Kazuki
Saki Takaoka – Yumi Sawamura
Show Aikawa – Detective Noguchi
Gong Yoo – Park
Yutaka Matsushige – Makoto Date
Claude Maki – Akira Nishikiyama
Yoshiyoshi Arakawa – Beam weapons smuggler
Toshihiro Nagoshi – Jingu
Sansei Shiomi – Shintaro Kazama
Tomorowo Taguchi – Barber