“Like a Dragon” is Japanese director Takashi Miike’s adaptation of a video game series known in the U.S. as “Yakuza”. It cannot be stressed enough that this is a video game adaptation since if you’re unfamiliar with the game or worse, haven’t played it, then this is not the film for you. In fact, even for those who have played it, it barely works as more than a cheap novelty of seeing video game characters portrayed in live action (though most are better portrayed as animated characters).
The story is…hard to follow. If you’ve played the game then there’s a better chance of not getting too lost, but if you haven’t then there’s not much I can say that will help. There are too many characters and too many subplots. Two of the bigger ones, being the standoff with the incompetent bank robbers and the couple that goes on a robbing spree, are completely unnecessary in terms of the main plot. All the time given to them could have been better utilized in fleshing out the central story.
The basic plot, at its core, is about the Tojo clan losing 10 billion yen. The protagonist Kazuma Kiryu (played by Kazuki Kitamura) just got released from a ten year stint in prison. Why was he even in prison in the first place? There’s never an explanation. He’s looking for his old boss and a woman named Yumi (briefly shown as Saki Takaoka) while teamed up with a young girl named Haruka (played by Natsuo) who’s looking for her mom who also happens to be Yumi’s sister. There’s not really an explanation for why Kiryu’s looking for any of these people, and his relationship to Yumi is never really touched on. This is just the basic outline of the plot. They get tangled up in the lost money fiasco and all hell breaks loose.
There’s one other character worth mentioning and while he may be the most pointless character in the entire film (especially considering all the time he takes up), he’s easily the best part. Goro Majima (Goro Kishitani) has absolutely nothing to do with the missing cash, any of the subplots, or any group of characters outside Kiryu (though their relationship isn’t exactly deep). His lack of context is laughable. Apparently something happened between the two of them before Kiryu went to prison and now he’s hell bent on fighting him to the death; and I mean hell bent. He’s almost like some outside force trying to stop the film’s plot from moving forward. That being said, he’s hilariously over the top, completely and openly insane, and provides the film with its best fight scenes. His own irrelevance doesn’t seem matter to him, so it shouldn’t matter to the audience. And trust me, it won’t.
Visually, the movie is pretty impressive. It’s incredibly stylized with lots of vibrant colors, and everything is shot with deep space, making the setting look and feel like a real city; full of background action and ambiance. It features some great music and a memorable score. The fight scenes are well choreographed and it was clearly done on a lower budget, making the visuals something to appreciate (one of Miike’s talents as a director).
But I’m being generous. There are so many problems with this movie, the biggest one being the structure of the story. Even without all the wasted subplots, the story starts at what feels like the halfway point. It’s never shown how Kiryu meets Haruka, it’s never shown why he and Majima even know each other, and the villains come out of nowhere (while one of the more important ones is killed before uttering even a single line of dialogue). By the time some of the story background information is mentioned (briefly), it’s already over. There’s no reason to care about any of the characters, some of which (that damn couple in particular) you wish weren’t even in the film.
Another issue is the references. There are multiple references to the video game which is fine, as that’s something one would expect in an adaptation, but a few of them are so in your face that it’s no longer meant only for the fans to pick out of a scene. For example, Kiryu and the villain seem to be able to emit fire from their bodies when they’re fighting. I mean their energy manifests in bodily flames, “Dragonball Z” style. Why is this even possible? Why can only they do it? Why doesn’t anyone else notice or care that these people are on the verge of a flashy spontaneous combustion? This was something called “Heat Mode” in the game which allowed for special finishing moves and combos. Without this prior knowledge and recognition, this visual is merely random and bizarre.
Also, at a key point in the movie, Kiryu drinks an energy drink called “Stamina Spark” which powers him up and allows him to continue fighting after a severe beatdown, eerily similar to the way spinach works for “Popeye the Sailorman”. In the game this is something of a powerful healing item, but the way the movie makes such a huge deal out of it is simply awe inspiring and will leave you confused to say the least.
The story from the game was much more involving and dramatic while the movie’s version is strange and laughable. “Like a Dragon” can’t be recommended to anyone other than the hardest of hardcore Takashi Miike fans, and only those who have beaten the original video game first. In fact, not even them. No one should have to see this movie.