Most people probably know Takeshi Kitano best for his series of ultra violent '90s gangster movies - his role as the sadistic teacher in the controversial Battle Royale or as the host of bizarre Japanese endurance game show Takeshi's Castle. However, in Japan he's probably best known as a comedian, though few of his comedy films have ever made it overseas. This may change with his latest effort, Ryuzo and the Seven Henchmen, which both takes him back to his yakuza roots and celebrates his comedic talents.
Ryuzo "the demon" was once a yakuza more feared than respected, whose very name alone made women swoon and struck fear into the hearts of men. Now though, he's a grumpy grandpa living with his ultra-conservative son who'd rather the neighbours didn't know he had a gangster living in his house. After some punks make the mistake of trying an "ore ore" scam on him, Ryuzo gets back into the spirit of his gangster days and takes the guy down in a classic intimidation play. However, some of his other yakuza buddies also seem to be getting into trouble with upstart youngsters and once again it's up to Ryuzo and his seven old timer yakuza buddies to set the town to rights.
The world has changed since Ryuzo and his guys ruled the streets. In the old days the yakuza were a family; they had rules and ethics and they stuck to them. They saw themselves both as heroic outlaws and as defenders of the rights of ordinary people (even if they made their money through extorting those very people they claimed to protect). This new brand of crooks doesn't care about honour, morality or human kindness - they aren't above conning the vulnerable into falling for obvious telephone scams or loaning large amounts of money to desperate people at ridiculously high interest just to make a buck. These guys are "businessmen" running a "legitimate enterprise" where the only rules are that you get rich and stay rich.
Ryuzo and company may be old, but they still have their honour and their pride. Watching the old guys trying to relive their former glory days is often funny, if a little sad as their grand schemes take on the absurd quality of little boys playing cops and robbers. It goes without saying that the film is hilarious, though perhaps takes certain instances of low humour a too little far. Each of the main eight old timer yakuza has his own particular strength which endures despite their advanced ages - though perhaps in slightly different forms - and even if they're coasting on former glories none of them has forgotten their former status.
Though not quite a return to the artistic highs of Sonatine or Hana-bi, Ryuzo and the Seven Henchmen is nevertheless an entertaining mix of Kitano’s tough guy yakuza and absurd comedian personas. Unlikely to walk away with any awards or lasting praise, Ryuzo and the Seven Henchmen is nevertheless sure to be remembered fondly for its expertly timed and often gleefully absurd humour.
Ryuzo and the Seven Henchmen was screened as part of the BFI London Film Festival 2015.