You only have to do a little digging to come to the understanding that the origins and history of the yakuza aren’t necessarily written in stone. Sources conflict about how they began – as ronin or samurai family retainers, or special police formed to fight organised crime – but most sources can agree that regardless of where they started, their main characteristics involved crime, violence, and their own specific set of codes and rules.
Blood of Wolves maintains this essence of truth on several levels – in the two rival gangs in a district of Hiroshima in the late 80’s, and in story of the main protagonists – police officers in the district’s gang violence unit. One, the almost-entirely unlikeable Ogami (played by the great-for-a-reason Koji Yakusho, 13 Assassins, The Third Murder), is an old hat at managing the simmering tensions between the criminal underworld and innocent civilians. The other is new kid on the block Hioka (Tori Matsuzaka, Her Love Boils Bathwater, Gatchaman), fresh out of police school and a shiny job in HQ and expecting the world to be something that operates by the nice, clean rules he’s learned. He’s about to learn otherwise, and it’s going to hurt.
Sounds familiar, I’m sure. It’s one of those standard narrative formulas that keep working no matter how many times you see them – what’s right and wrong in terms of moral choices played out between the old school cop and the new one. Hioka is your basic Disillusionment Arc character, out of the sandpit and in the real world where he’s a puppy among wolves, except Ogami is no sheepdog, not really. In fact, his name is similar, obviously deliberately so, to the pronunciation for the word for wolf – okami –and what’s more, the film’s title in Japanese in fact translates more accurately to Lone Wolf’s Blood. Ogami is a wolf, and not even in sheep’s clothing, but he has no allegiance to either pack. His loyalties are more about survival – and not just his own, but the rest of the community as well.
And this is one of the ways in which this film just works, in the pathos of the grizzled lone character who knows that when it comes to dealing with criminal gangs the ends justifies the means, but that every step he takes is fraught with risk. Yakusho’s performance is just brutal enough and cynical enough to make this touch of nihilism convincing and personal, and it’s a testament to his ability to inhabit this character when you’re surprised at the end about how much you care about his fate even while he hasn’t really done a lot to make you like him along the way.
Matsuzaka’s performance is also excellent, and maybe it’s that everything from the time period (the height of Japan’s economic boom in the late 80’s, just before it all came crashing down) to the topic (corruption and out of control gang warfare) is already extra, but that Japanese tendency for melodrama is entirely tone-accurate under the circumstances and even just a little cathartic.
The rest of the cast are good, but take second seat to these two, around whom all the tension revolves and upon whom all meaning hinges. The look and feel of the cinematography and wardrobe is perhaps as distinctly 80’s as you can get without resorting to a New Wave soundtrack and too much neon (thankfully they didn’t) and the violence is unflinching and about as disturbing as it ought to be for a self-respecting yakuza film. Probably realistic too.
But it’s old school with a new touch, perhaps from the depth of research author Yuko Yuziki obviously engaged in to evoke the precise economic and social powder-keg that was Japan at this time, as much from director Kazuya Shiraishi’s desire to evoke the originals and greats in Japanese gangster cinema of the 70’s. The story is layered, blustery and garish up front, but possessing greater depths, and while the scenes of torture are particularly confronting, it’s one of the few yakuza movies I could name that I guarantee if you stick with it (cover your eyes if you have to), the pay off will be absolutely worth it.