As an independent genre within the ambit of Japanese cinema, Yakuza films have undergone massive transformations since the silent film era, from the Robin Hood-esque bakuto, painted as torn, solitary figures worthy of sympathy and redemption, to post-war depictions of violently brutish crime syndicates in seminal gangster films, including Kurosawa’s Drunken Angel (1948). However, it was Kinji Fukasaku’s deftly crafted, documentary-style, five-part series, Battles Without Honor and Humanity (1973), which propelled Yakuza films into mainstream focus, offering an insight into the tumultuous inner lives of the Yakuza, wherein the personal and political clash vehemently, resulting in severed pinkies (yubitsume), police corruption, and gang warfare.
The namesake of Yuko Yuzuki’s hard-boiled crime thriller, Korō no chi (The Blood of Wolves) weaves a disturbingly unpleasant, yet unflinchingly honest panorama of the convoluted relations between the Yakuza and the Japanese police in 1980’s Hiroshima, centering on a gore-encrusted set of events occurring prior to the implementation of the Anti-Organized Crime Law. The Blood of Wolves opens with a narrative overview of the violent excesses of the Third Hiroshima Gang War, which took place between the Odani-gumi and the powerful Irako-kai in 1974. Subsequently, the film zeroes into the sordid atrocities that take place within a pigsty, a site of violence and gross power play, wherein a young financial accountant gets tortured by the Kakomura-gumi, who are currently Irako-kai affiliates.
Investigating the disappearance of the said accountant, Shogo Ogami (Koji Yakusho) emerges as a disordered, vulgar, and utterly unpredictable cop, capable of yielding results through unlawful and coarse modes of gathering intel and carrying out interrogations. Ogami’s new partner, Hioka (Tori Matsuzaka), a quiet Hiroshima University graduate, is befuddled by his partner’s techniques, which are in open violation of standard police procedures and personal ethics. Meanwhile, the narrative thickens, and motives appear to be convoluted, as Ogami utilizes his chaotic spontaneity to peel away the layers of foul play and deception, and finds himself amidst a brewing Odani-Kakomura turf battle. The unfurling of a tragic odyssey sets in motion, with intermittent scenes of visceral brutality in the form of bloody shoot-outs, the grotesque un-pearling of genitalia, beheadings, and gore-filled debauchery.
With a clunky and slow-paced middle and a grippingly revelatory third half, the film’s two-hour narrative feels needlessly drawn-out and uninteresting in certain places. Nonetheless, the Yakusho-Matsuzaka duo belt out stellar performances in their lead roles, providing the right amount of balance between Ogami’s lawless tempestuousness and Hioka’s level-headed, yet righteous behavior. Although it fails to usher a revival of the Yakuza genre, The Blood of Wolves is a note-worthy homage paid to cult gangster cinema, with uncompromising and uncomfortable visuals and a remarkable cast.