MASUMI in Yakuza Princess (2021)
The Muramasa is a cursed, mysterious samurai sword. The spirits of all those slain by the Muramasa dwell in the weapon, waiting for the next victim to feast on their blood. When wielded, the sword transforms characters into killing machines. It’s an ancient rarity, a curse that imprisons souls and forges interconnected fates. As the tagline of Yakuza Princess goes, every sword has a story, and this film tells one of self-discovery in the hope of belonging somewhere. The film follows Akemi (MASUMI), who lives an unassuming life in São Paulo, Brazil. As the sole survivor of a family massacre in Osaka, in which she lost her grandfather, she finds protection in the form of martial arts training. Akemi’s teacher is a fatherly figure to her, parting words of wisdom to encourage her independence and growth. Suddenly, her world is thrown upside down when mysterious Japanese gangsters are out for her blood. In her search for why she’s being chased, Akemi uncovers a dark family secret and the power of Muramasa, which holds the key to illuminating answers about her grandfather’s death. The story is promising: in the protagonist’s journey through her family’s past, in the veiled intentions of mysterious characters, in the supernatural aura the sword carries, in the neon-lit visuals and action sequences. Yet, the experience of watching the film is surprisingly dull. Far duller than one can imagine from the potentiality of the story. Despite having a promising protagonist, Yakuza Princess is often weighed down by stiff character development, muddled storylines, and unfocused direction.
Directed by Vicente Amorim and based on the graphic novel Samurai Shirô by Danilo Beyrouth, Yakuza Princess has elements of fantasy weaved inside a neo-noir reality. The blend of genres is one of the more effective parts of the film. In the neighborhood of São Paulo, the largest Japanese diaspora in the world, Akemi settles temporarily. She works at a knick-knack store, longing for a change, pondering a move back to Japan, and thinking there has to be more out of life. A connection to the Yakuza crime syndicate and its relentless lieutenants is not what she had in mind. The presence of the Japanese mob, and the introduction to an amnesiac stranger Shirô (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) also tied to the Muramasa in another part of the neighborhood, carries the film down a violent rabbit hole of mysterious intentions and questionable loyalty.
Akemi stumbles on a dubious alliance with Shirô, who appears protective but he doesn’t remember who he is. All he’s told when he awakes from a hospital bed is he had been found with a sword. The meaning of the Muramasa sword drives both characters’ quests in different ways. But his quest is far less interesting, and the film spends a destructive amount of time with him. Not helping matters is a choppy performance by Rhys Meyers, who doesn’t bring much spark to his character. Far more compelling, though not without flaws, is Akemi's journey of self-discovery. The feeling of wanting to count for something and come from somewhere holds a universal power. Also interestingly at play is the role of destiny and its dark side. Caught up a nightmare of someone else’s doing, Akemi is living the consequences of a past that does not belong to her… a past she is being haunted by. The puzzle pieces of her grandfather’s death are imprinted within her. It is the sudden brush with the crime syndicate, led by lieutenant Takeshi (Tsuyoshi Ihara), that illuminates her search for answers.
In the switch between storylines, from Akemi to Shirô and the crime syndicate after them both, the film loses a clear focus and the emotional connection falls flat. The character development isn’t strong enough to weather the shifts from one perspective to another. The film has an intriguing protagonist at the center whose point of view gets sidetracked far too often. In a time when Akemi is searching for her purpose in life, she is caught in a dangerous web, through which she realizes the power within herself to break free from a path that is not hers and create a new path for herself. The film sets up for some emotional moments, but without the building blocks for strong characterization, these scenes deflate on impact. Left behind is a glimmer of promise for what could have been more resonating. One particular moment being the ending, a powerful badass moment for Akemi that should have packed a much bigger punch. While a lot of dialogue feels stilted, MASUMI still delivers a solid performance that helps carry along a film in which a lot of characters are putting on an act. Sometimes this works well, as in the case of Tsuyoshi Ihara’s performance, but for others such as Rhys Meyers, what is meant to be subtly hidden is confusing instead.
The consistency of Yakuza Princess is within the action choreography and neon visuals. The interplay of neon lights and darkness makes for some stunning scenes. Gustavo Hadba’s cinematography beautifully illuminates elements of a darkened frame. There’s also a great element of neo-noir manifested in the form of stylized sets; the film paints a moody setting and leads one down the path where danger is always felt from around the corner. Fast-moving and stylish, with a strong sense of setting, the fight sequences are the moments that inject spark back into an otherwise dull film. Vicente Amorim does not hold back on the violence and gore. These moments carry so much of the energy, leaving an imbalance with the dialogue and characterization. There’s a heaviness to the pacing of the story, and an inconsistency in the direction, that weighs the film down.
The majority of Akemi’s journey in Yakuza Princess sees her follow her grandfather’s footsteps. Who did he know? Which places did he visit before his death? As much as her grandfather wanted to bury his past, the past will still come knocking to the sole survivor of his immediate family. There is a missed opportunity in not establishing a clear focus with Akemi and staying with her perspective throughout the film. When she discovers the Muramasa, the power is literally back in her hands to break from a haunted past and forge a path of her own, separate from the dangerous ties that chase her. Yakuza Princess has promise in the protagonist’s journey and the connection it holds with the ancient sword, but ultimately gets lost in a collection of uninteresting characters and dull storytelling.