An Interview with Kazuya Shiraishi, Director of “Last of the Wolves” [New York Asian Film Festival 2021]

All bets were off with Last of the Wolves. It was the highly anticipated sequel to The Blood of Wolves, a gangster epic that was a throwback to Kinji Fukasaku’s Battles Without Honor and Humanity series what with its yakuza politics, police corruption, and fearless depiction of brutal violence. This crime world is based on the critically-acclaimed novels of Yuko Yuzuki so there is a lot of material to work with but with a number of major characters dead or locked up in the slammer, just where would the sequel go? To the younger generation as yakuza wars heated up in Hiroshima Prefecture!

Blood of the Wolves Level 2

This is the latest work by Kazuya Shiraishi (The Devil’s PathTwisted JusticeOne NightDawn of the Felines). He has a knack for filming edge-of-your-seat crime thrillers and Last of the Wolves managed to do justice to the first film and take things to the very next level thanks to two intensely physical performances, one from the intimidating presence of Ryohei Suzuki who plays a murderous yakuza thug, the other from Tori Matsuzaka who is wilier than a fox as a cop dodging death while double-dealing with gangsters. Director Kazuya Shiraishi explained more about the film, what drew him into the project, the talents that Suzuki and Matsuzaka have, and more in this interview done as part of the New York Asian Film Festival 2021.

Image taken from: https://news.yahoo.co.jp/byline/nakanishimasao/20191030-00148849

This interview was done with the help of Takako Pocklington, who translated my questions, Koichi Mori of the New York Asian Film Festival, who set up the interview and translated the answers, and also the film festival staff who pulled off an excellet NYAFF 2021! Many thanks go out to them and, of course, to Kazuya Shiraishi who participated!

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Last of the Wolves 孤狼の血 LEVEL2 Director: Kazuya Shiraishi (2021) [New York Asian Film Festival 2021]

Last of the Wolves   Last of the Wolves Film Poster

孤狼の血 LEVEL2   Korou no Chi Level 2

Release Date: August 20th 2021

Duration: 139 mins.

Director: Kazuya Shiraishi

Writer: Junya Ikegami (Script), Yuko Yuzuki (Original Novel)

Starring: Tori Matsuzaka, Ryohei Suzuki, Nijiro Murakami, Nanase Nishino, Taichi Saotome, Takumi Saito, Kotaro Yoshida, Kiyohiko Shibukawa, Miwako Kakei, Susumu Terajima, Hiroki Miyake,

Website IMDB

The Last of the Wolves is director Kazuya Shiraishi’s sequel to Blood of the Wolves, his well-received 2018 yakuza film. With his latest work, he returns to the crime world of Yuko Yuzuki’s novel trilogy but only going as far as taking key elements and characters as scriptwriter Junya Ikegami concocts a brand new story that provides thrills and spills perfect for a gangster film.

Set three years after the bloody climax of The Blood of Wolves, detective Shuichi Hioka (Tori Matsuzaka) has stepped up into his former partner’s position to implement a plan to control the local yakuza and prevent further gang wars in Kurehara and Hiroshima. This delicate balance of power is upset by a vicious gangster named Uebayashi (Ryohei Suzuki) who is back on the streets following time in the infamous Abashiri Prison. He is looking to avenge a gang boss slain in the previous film and that sets him on a collision course with Hioka. Along the way, many people will get hurt.

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One Night  ひとよ Dir: Kazuya Shiraishi (2019)

One Night    One Night Film Poster

ひとよ  Hitoyo

Release Date: November 08th, 2019

Duration: 123 mins.

Director: Kazuya Shiraishi

Writer: Izumi Takahashi (Screenplay), Yuko Kuwabara (Original Stage Play)

Starring: Takeru Satoh, Ryohei Suzuki, Mayu Matsuoka, Yuko Tanaka, Kuranosuke Sasaki, Mariko Tsutsumi, Hanae Kan, Megumi,

Website IMDB

Director Kazuya Shiraishi chronicles the darker aspects of Japan with true-crime stories featuring outlaws like The Devil’s Path (2013) and Twisted Justice (2016) mixed with depictions of damaged everyday people on the outermost fringes of society like Dawn of the Felines (2017) and Birds Without Names (2018). For One Night, his first family drama, he adapts a stage play by Yuko Kuwabara but leans too far into crime territory late in the proceedings for an unsatisfactory ending.

The film opens on a stormy night at the Inamoto Taxi company which is located in some nondescript town. Koharu Inamoto (Yuko Tanaka) runs over her abusive husband in a taxi in an act to free herself and her three children from his merciless violence. After confessing what happened to her kids, all of whom bear the bruises of a beating, Koharu tells them, “Nobody will ever beat you again. You can live however you want.” Just before departing into the rain and darkness to give herself up to the police, she promises she will meet them again in the future.

Cut to 15 years later and we see that Koharu’s selfless act that was supposed to set her family free to pursue their dreams has trapped them in a vicious circle of shame and self-loathing that has made their lives nightmarish. Koharu discovers this bitter disappointment as she keeps her promise and returns to her children and the family business. Her presence forces everyone to confront the scars from their traumatic background, how the kids have inherited the sins of the mother by living in shame, and how this has all warped their personalities in various ways. These differences lead to multiple angles of conflict between characters we sympathise with due to their shared history and that provides ample drama which is excellently delivered by the cast.

Displaying various degrees of emotional damage and toxic masculinity are Koharu’s boys. Eldest son Daiki is a nebbish-looking guy who is struggling badly with a failing marriage and meeting masculine norms. The slicker younger son Yuji is a cynical journalist for a sleazy tabloid who senses he can turn his tragic past into a brighter future through writing about it, even if this betrays his family. Screen heartthrob Takeru Satoh plays the more showy character of Yuji with provoking sneers and condescension fit for his character. More conventional but really harrowing is the plight faced by Daiki. Ryohei Suzuki is very sympathetic playing the bespectacled guy unable to process what happened to them. He is all huddled and quiet with a downcast gaze and stutter due to a lack of confidence and a lot of shame. His constant avoidance of conflict leads to a shock later in the story as he he slips into violence in a way that reminds audiences that children learn from their parents.

More welcoming is Koharu’s daughter Sonoko played by Mayu Matsuoka, a much-needed ray of sunshine whose bright personality and hard-knock smile lights up the dark narrative. Having been forced to give up her ambitions to be a hairstylist, she works at a snack bar where she belts out karaoke tunes with glee and has a cynical view of men that she is unafraid to show. This motivates her to push back against her brother’s wayward feelings towards their mother.

Veteran actress Yuko Tanaka plays Koharu as a woman with mighty resolve and a humane nature who is resigned to enduring whatever hardship she faces for the good of her children. Naturally the audience will be with her and there is the expectation that she will right whatever wrongs that are going on, from saving Daiki’s marriage to coming to peace with with Yuji. Except it doesn’t quite work out so simply and seeing the family members navigate their sense of betrayal and try to overcome their traumas provides gripping material that the performances keep us invested in. Throw in an examination of how society ostracises those connected to crime, other characters around them struggling with issues like senile parents and wayward children and there is enough material here for a fine family drama that depicts the problems faced by modern families.

While the pieces are all there, the story loses its thread in the final third as if the writer Izumi Takahashi lacked an interest in realistically evolving the story and bringing the characters to a natural catharsis. Instead, a subplot involving Michio Doushita (Kuranosuke Sasaki) as a taxi driver whose criminal past catches up with him drives the action. While his plight makes an interesting parallel to Koharu’s, his story hijacks the film and takes away any agency from the mother and it leads to a contrived ending which foists an unbelievable connection between himself and the children, whom we never really see interact with him, just for the sake of a resolution.

One Night really starts off as a deep, dark, and very difficult performance-driven drama as we watch an excruciating reunion ripe for theatrics but everything is kept in check as the cast deliver some very fine and realistic portrayals showing the ways domestic violence can affect people. With a better ending, the emotional of sticking it out rewards would have been greater.

The technicals are all impressive enough and help transcend the film’s stage origins by taking advantage of the taxi company to get out of the single location so it never feels boring and there is a sense of place and time so that this feels rooted in reality.

My review for One Night first appeared on VCinema on September 01st.

The Blood of Wolves 孤狼の血 Dir: Kazuya Shiraishi (2018)

The Blood of Wolves      The Blood of Wolves Film Poster

孤狼の血 Korou no chi

Running Time: 126 mins.

Release Date: May 12th, 2018

Director: Kazuya Shiraishi

Writer: Junya Ikegami (Screenplay), Yuko Yuzuki (Original Novel)

Starring: Koji Yakusho, Tori Matsuzaka, Yoko Maki, Tomoya Nakamura, Pierre Taki, Shido Nakamura, Yosuke Eguchi, Renji Ishibashi,

Website IMDB

Director Kazuya Shiraishi follows his Roman Porno, Dawn of the Felines with this blistering film.

Hiroshima is a prefecture with lots of natural beauty but filmmakers do like to find drama in the dark underbelly of the place, perhaps most famously with Kinji Fukasaku’s 1970s crime film series Battles without Honour and Humanity which was based on the experiences of a post-war yakuza boss from Hiroshima. Kazuya Shiraishi takes audiences into the same world with The Blood of Wolves, a film which feels like a throwback to an earlier time due to its raw violence, emotions, and the character archetypes in play. Shiraishi is no stranger to the crime genre thanks to his previous films The Devil’s Path (2013) and Twisted Justice (2016) but this is his best crime film yet and it is all down to a magnetic performance from lead actor Koji Yakusho and his character’s no-holds barred attitude to policing.

The Blood of Wolves Film Image 6

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Dawn of the Felines「牝猫たち」 Dir:  Kazuya Shiraishi 2016

Dawn of the Felines    dawn-of-the-felines-film-poster

牝猫たち Mesuneko Tachi

Running Time: 84 mins.

Director:  Kazuya Shiraishi

Writer: Kazuya Shiraishi (Screenplay),

Starring: Juri Ihata, Satsuki Maue, Michie, Takuma Otoo, Tomohiro Kaku, Hideaki Murata,

Website IMDB

Dawn of the Felines is another entry in the reboot of the Roman Porno series and it comes from Kazuya Shiraishi who has worked on the rather leaden dramas The Devil’s Path and Twisted Justice. The title is a signal to anyone who knows the Roman Porno movement since it seems to follow on from Night of the Felines, a somewhat light take on the sex lives of people in Tokyo as seen and felt by a group of sex workers in a bathhouse. Dawn of the Felines is the modern update set in the glimmering neon lights and shadowy back streets of Ikebukuro.

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Twisted Justice 日本で一番悪い奴ら (2016) Kazuya Shiraishi

I recently landed a role as contributor to V-Cinema and I have reviewed a number of films for the website. I have been something of a fan and enjoyed listening to their podcasts when they have covered Japanese cinema so I’m pretty excited to be a part of the team and helping to highlight Japanese cinema. Writing reviews is something I enjoy doing and I hope people enjoy reading my reviews!

Here’s a snippet of my review of the film Twisted Justice (2016) which plays at the New York Asian Film Festival. You can find more images plus a trailer and a link to the full review further down the post.

Twisted Justice Film Image 9

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