July 10, 2008 8:00 AM | Matthew Hawkins
['Cinema Pixeldiso' is a semi-regular column by Matt 'Fort90' Hawkins that takes a look at movies that are either directly based upon or are related to video games, with a focus on the obscure and the misunderstood. This week’s entry takes a special look at the recently wrapped up New York Asian Film Festival - and contains 'plot spoilers' for both shows/movies referenced.]
The New York Asian Film Fest 2008 just came to an end, and it was easily the best one yet. The final few days alone saw a documentary that examined the rough and tumble lives that stuntmen in the Korean film industry lead, a spaghetti western a la Takeshi Miike, a love letter to Hong Kong and pick pocketing by the master of the heroic bloodshed Johnny To, and Robocop done Japan-style, plus numerous other eclectic reminders why I'm not the least bit interested in seeing Hollywood fare like Hancock or Wanted.
There were also plenty of video game-related offerings. As mentioned previously, you had the Beauty Chanbara, based on D3's small budget game gone (somewhat) big screen zombies and swords and boobs spectacular, as well as the US debut of Game Center CX, retiled Retro Game Master for American audiences. Last time I went over the first of the two episodes that made their debut, so let's take a look at the second one!
Retro Game Master Episode 2: Ghosts 'N Goblins
Just as before, we have our man, the Kacho (television comedian, Shinya Arino), sitting down to face off against another classic from the yesteryears of gaming for the Famicom (or the NES its known in the land of the rising sun). Last time he tried his hand at a game so punishing that it's practically become legendary... at least in Japan. Meanwhile, even the savviest diehard gamers here in America have zero clue regarding the existence of Atlantis no Nazo, or The Mystery of Atlantis.
The game this time is Makaimura, better known as Ghosts 'N Goblins, a game that most know, as well as fear and loathe. And such familiarity makes this particular episode so much enjoyable than the first one. Because the viewer (at least those who have played G'NG, which at the very least is a lot more those who know about Mystery of Atlantis) is able to follow along the Kacho, knowing exactly what dangers and frustrations lie exactly ahead of him. And watching him tackle and suffer through the same exact punishment as we all went through in our youth... it's not just entertainment, it's catharsis.
Right off the back, the Kacho has major problems with the game. Aside from the fact that it's tough as nails to begin with, his biggest obstacle makes himself known almost immediately; the Red Arremer, a winged devil that swoops down at the player with a crazy, tough to figure out, pattern and makes the game in general a living hell.
First the Kacho tries to fight the demon head-on, and that doesn't work. Next he tries to simply pass it, but the devil follows relentlessly, so that strategy fails. After three plus hours and ninety-two failed attempts, there is finally success! But just then, "Assistant S" shows up to inform the Kacho that he has to go cross-town for an interview (the subject being legendary Sega designer Yu Suzuki, for later on in the program... which was not included... hopefully when the show finally manifests itself on these shores, whether it be on television or on DVDs, we'll get the total package).
To console the Kacho, and keep him sharp, Assistant S lends him a GBA with Famicom Mini version of G'NG for the car ride. And as he plays, S passes along some words of advice regarding Red Arremer, for next time (which in this case, is jump backwards and shooting as the devil swoops in for the kill).
After the interview, it's back to business, with the GBA training seemingly a success! That is, until the Kacho comes across the cyclops end boss, which quickly ends yet another game. So back to square one, yet again. And again. And again. Finally, after 5 hours and 23 minutes. the Kacho manages to best the first stage, and we hear from the narrator that it's easily the worst start thus far in the series.
Onto stage two! Where the Kacho is offed in a matter of seconds. Damn. Back to level one, all over again. This time, the Kacho gets killed right off the back for just being sloppy, and that's when Assistant S mention of "the forbidden trick"... a continue code (at the title screen, hold right and press B three times), which elicits a "why didn't you tell me this earlier!" from our host. But even with the continue code, the stone golems that litter the second stage prove to be a real nuisance, since they require so many hits. And once more, it’s Assistant S to the rescue, with an old Hudson Joycard controller that sports turbo fire.
Again, half the fun is not just watching Arino struggle, and how he deals with it, but also when he supposedly comes across some winning edge, yet still manages to fail, such as when, despite his new found ability to lop projectiles with the speed and consistency of a gun, still dies due to falling down some errand pit. Even better is the sometimes train of thought muttering as the game begins to become a chore, such as why your character gets naked.
Eventually, the Kacho makes towards the end of the second stage, which has not one, but two cyclops! Though with the help of the Joycard, they are (relatively) quickly dealt with. Finally, onto stage three, where the last boss is a huge dragon that's as much as a flying nuisance as Red Arremer, so fatigued and annoyed, the Kacho passes the controller to Assistant S. S handles the dragon, and the Kacho takes over for stage four, which not surprisingly isn't any easier, thanks to the reappearance of the Red Arremer.
As for the boss, it's the dragon once again, but since S was the one who handled him last time, the Kacho is totally unprepared, and the inevitable goes down. At this point, the Kacho has been playing for something like nine hours, and it's almost midnight. So the producer decides to hit the pause button and continue at a later date, which again is a first for the series up till now. But the Kacho is also given homework; figure out how to beat the dragon, since it was S who did the dirty work for him.
Day two of the G'N'G challenge, and the Kacho shows up clearly tired. But it's clear that he's done his homework, as he plows through both stages one and two with zero effort. "I've had lots of practice!" boasts Arino. But the dragon once again gets the win, so now it's time to hit the whiteboard to plan out a strategy. And it works! Stage four sees the return of the dragon as the end boss, unsurprisingly, and the stratagem works once more.
It would appear that the Kacho's got this game in the bag, but right on cue, the difficulty level once more flies off the chart, with tiny enemies that fly all over the place, simply overwhelming him. The Kacho's fingers are now starting to hurt. As for the boss this time around? Red Arremer's bigger brother, Satan. Back to the drawing boards! And with that, we're just one step closer to the end...
Stage six is just a boss rush, and is so uneventful (meaning that we've already seen Arino's ass being handed to him plenty of times) that we don't even get any highlights. It's at this point in which one wonders if the Kacho is actually going to accomplish his goal, but another four hours later, its the final showdown against the big boss, Lucifer. And, a grueling 16 hours spread across two days later, along with all the lessons learned along the way, the Kacho and his assistant is treated to the conclusion of this game's story...
... Or not. When they discover that they have to do it all over again to see the game's "true ending", Kacho immediately goes "HELL NO!" Simply because "there is a limit to how much one loves a video game!" Though afterwards, we're greeting with the Kacho addressing us, the television viewer; he knows that people want to know how it really all ends, so he plays for us the actual finale, as reached by his assistant. And unfortunately, it’s rather anticlimactic, but that was the case for lots of games back then, so there's no real need to start complaining about G'NG now.
So yeah, even know the Kacho is less than successful, especially when compared to the previous episode, it's actually more fun to watch him flail and fail, if only because of the familiar territory. Though once again, as awesome as the show is, it'll be all but impossible to sell to Peoria. I personally would like to see it just come out on DVD... there is simply no way in hell that the show will work on network television, without much meddling from network executives.
Plus, on DVD, there might be a far better chance to see the rest of the show, such as the interview segments; I myself am a hardcore Yu Suzuki fanboy, and I hear that he talks about his work on Virtua Racing and Virtua Fighter 1 in this same episode... I would kill to find out more.
Like A Dragon
I already touched upon one Miike film in the beginning (whose presence is simply a staple of the festival), but he's the dude who helmed the big screen adaptation of Ryū ga Gotoku, better known as Yakuza here in America. And right off the back, how was it?
Now, when I told various colleagues that I was seeing this movie, I got the same reason as I did with Chanbara Beauty: "The movie kinda sucks... You know that, right?" Well, I have no idea what they were watching, because Like A Dragon was hella enjoyable, and LOT better than his other movies that also made its US debut at the fest, Sukiyaki Western Django, which had glowing reviews surrounding it. And not to get off track, since this is a column that's squarely on video game flicks, but watching a bunch of Japanese actors try to speak like cowboys in English got old REAL fast.
But anyway, we're here to talk about Like A Dragon, which again is based upon a video game that deals with the life and time of Japanese gangsters. So right off the back, Miike has some interesting stuff to mess around with. It also doesn't hurt that the original game was penned by Hase Seishu, a noted Japanese author (who also happened to have other novels turned movies by Miike himself).
But unfortunately... I must admit to not being all that familiar with the game; I have played it, but I simply never got that far into things. I honestly cannot tell you if how close it is to the source material or not. So it is up you, our fine readers, to let me know if it's the same or not, and in the case of the later, to also inform the rest of us if this film sounds more interesting or if it totally misses the mark.
Well, to me, it certainly feels as if the movie recreates the game accurately, at least the essence of it. The first thing I noticed was the dude playing the part of the Kiryu looks exactly as he does in the video game...
That's our star, the center of it all. The setting? Downtown Tokyo, on the hottest day of the year. The movie wastes no time bombarding the viewer with a ton of information, including all the major players, and there sure are a lot of them. You have our hero, a gangster who literally just got out of jail for ten years and is trying to figure out the world today, the young orphaned girl whom he becomes the guardian off, the detective that despite his difference in background is old pals with Kiryu, two incompetent bank robbers, a masochistic gun dealer, a Korean hit man, a teenage convenience store clerk and his dopey girlfriend, and crazy one eyed, bat-wielding gangsta that is eager to say hello to his old buddy Kiryu.
Another major complaint I've heard from other critics is that the plot is too dense, with too much stuff going on. Again, I have to disagree. Though I guess I'm about to contradict myself, because I will also admit that I didn't completely understand that was happening before my eyes, so my overview might seem a bit disjointed to those that is intimately familiar with the movie.
All I can say is that I only saw this movie once, in a theater, as opposed to watching something on a DVD where you can hit rewind as many times as one needs to. Plus in a dark movie house, its all but impossible to write plenty of notes.
Though that being said, I still understood what was going on for the most part... it's just the finer details that were lost. But were also ultimately not that important, or at least not integral to the enjoyment of the movie. And in fact, the total chaotic nature of absolutely everything simply accentuated the mood; it's hot out there, and all hell is breaking loose. Things kick off at a bank where two inept bank robbers has everyone on the floor, hands behind their heads as they empty the vault... which is already empty. Which leads to much yelling and screaming between the two.
Practically next door at a tiny little barber shop is a mess of cops and detectives at a steak-out, keeping an eye out on the situation, including Detective Date, who we would discover is the only man on the force who isn't a complete idiot. We also learn that ten billion yen has been stolen from the Tojo Clan, a Yakuza family (which is what's missing from the vault).
Just as the AC dies for both separate parties, we cut to a convenience store where one of the clerks has just gotten off work and is joined by his girlfriend. The girl needs something and wants to go to another store, which is also where we find Kiryu. Also present are some Yakuza thugs that want to act as a welcoming party.
These few errand tough guys prove to be easy pickings, but more show up, and Kiryu has to go into full-blown one-man army mode. At one point, blue flame emanate from his fist, which is basically his "heat mode" from the game, where the player's character becomes super strong.
Caught square in the middle of this conflict are our teenagers from before, and when the girl takes cover behind the cash register, she notices it's open and gets some ideas.
Enter into the picture, Majima the totally batsh-t insane gangster, which is a staple of any Yakuza flick, that one guy that takes things "too far". Dude sports an eye patch, loves assaulting his own men with a golden baseball bat, and is the easily bored type, hence beating up his own dudes for not coming up with any ideas for the rest of the evening. That is until one mentions the missing Tojo money, and how word on the street is that the recently released Kiryu (who Majima knows, of course) is rumored to be behind it. Time to say hello to an old friend!
After that we quickly go back to the teenage couple over a meal, in which the girl reveals to the boy that she took all the cash and how they should totally go on a crime spree, since have lots of money is fun. And they do, by mostly hitting places like beef bowl shops.
Next we stop by the bank, where the two dunderheads are dying from the heat, as are their hostages. There's also a few scenes at a club in which a quiet, and bleeding, guy shows up that the guys running the joint don't know what to do with, but they've been given orders to just let him chill and they allow him to do so. Dude ends up making for them a killer drink as a quiet sign of thank you. Oh, we also find out that the reason Kiryu was at the store was to pick up dog food for the pup that the little girl that Kiryu is apparently looking after has befriended.
Like I said, there's a lot going on! Some of these folks are from the game. Others... I believe not. Or maybe they pop up later on. I certainly remember the bit about the little girl and our hero trying to find her mom. The silent bartender and his M.O. not so much. And one might wonder why there's a need for additional characters since the source material was brimming with colorful folks.
Who knows what goes on in the brain of Takeshi Miike? Remember, this is the dude that gave us Ichii the Killer and Visitor Q (all HIGHLY recommended btw), and as for as his standard fare goes, Like A Dragon is fairly pedestrian.
It should be noted that the movie is an interesting mix of the stuff that he loves to deal with, such as gangsters and over the top violence plus over the top characters, but mixed with traditional Yakuza film sensibilities. The film deals heavily with the dichotomy that crime and chivalry that the Yakuza philosophy embodies... at least on the big screen. The reality is, most folks in the Yakuza are anything but glamorous and dignified, and they almost exclusively pray on the week and easily intimidated.
But back to the movie! We soon join up with Majima and his posse, as they walk the streets in search of Kiryu. Though that doesn't stop them from bashing the heads in of whomever they come across, leading to a big gangland brawl for all in the middle of some small Shinjuku alleyway, highlighted by the sounds of the Crazy Ken Band, a kitsch pop musical act that offers sound support to the visuals.
In the middle of the fight, Majima goes into a DVD shop, goes through a secret back door, and meets up with the weapons dealer in our movie, portrayed by that goofy, fresh-faced fellow that's in like 35% of all movies made in Japan these days (his name is Yoshiyoshi Arakawa, and this year's NYAFF was somewhat in honor of the guy, mainly due to his very first lead role in Fine, Totally Fine, but mostly cuz it's about damn time people began learning his name, and I am to help that cause).
Majima slaps this poor kid around for some info, but only cuz he likes it! Majima also helps himself to some firepower, which quickly ends the fight outside.
We then return to Kiryu, who runs into Detective Date briefly and learns of the current situation, as well as why he's all of a sudden a target. We also discover that Kiryu's former boss, the guy that used to run the criminal underground with some semblance of order has been missing for a while, with someone new filling his role.
Meanwhile, the bank robbers, and their hostages, as well as the cops eyeballing them all continues to sweat as the kids go for a meaty target, this time a fashion boutique, where the guy begins to wonder why his gal Friday is so damn greedy for green all of a sudden.
We then get a nice musical montage of all our major players, going about their own business, not knowing that their paths are about to crisscross in all sorts of ways in just a few. The critics can say what they will, but the build-up is very nice.
At this point, backstory and plot-points are literally shoved down the viewer's throat; Kiryu and the girl end up at that club, which appears to be a safe place for the gangster, where he discovers that the girl's mom might be hanging around the new big boss.
Another discovery is how Kiyru might be a pal of the girl's mother's sister (or something like that... again. so much was being revealed, all at once). We then join up with Date who is part of the clean up crew, investigating the scene that Majima's men created. But once he reveals that something big is going down, the cops run off not wanting to get involved since "it's not their jurisdiction" which in turn gives Kiryu a little bit a breathing room.
Meanwhile, back at the barbershop where all those other cops are at, the guy running that joint goes to the back and runs into the silent bartender from before. Passwords are exchanged, in Korean, and we then find out that mister silent is also deadly... a Korean hit man who is in town because some other top gangster is coming to town, to meet up and maybe join forces with the aforementioned brand new Yakuza top don. Not much is known about this new central bad guy, other than all Koreans vehemently despise him.
Back to Kiryu and his ward at some bar, where he was assuming to find the girl's mom, or some info. The place is trashed, and he then gets a call via cell phone given to him by his buds at the safe heaven club, which features a funny little scene in which our man, due to being incarcerated for ten years, has no idea how to use a mobile, but naturally the little girl knows how to.
As the search continues, Kiryu finally comes face to face with Majima, and it's time to put old scores to rest, as they finally exchange blows. Mid boss battle anyone?
Then it's back to the weapons dealer! You know, in most games, your character is the only person who seems to be keeping whatever virtual shop owner in business, so it's at least interesting to see him make money from other folks. And it's a busy night for him, as not only has the teenagers stopped by (it's mostly the girl's idea, who wants to upgrade from a blade to a gun, to hit bigger and better scores)...
... As well as the Korean hit man. It's here we discover that the weapons guy is also Korean, and basically gives his stuff away to the guy. Again, all Koreans seems to hate this dude coming to town. Anyway, back to the good stuff, the fight between Kiryu and Majima; even when he's getting his ass kicked by Kiryu, he still manages to find the time to slap his men around for being idiots. It's pretty clear at this point who the real star of the movie is. The dude playing Majima (Goro Kishitani) simply steals every scene.
Time to check in with everyone else: now the streets are jam packed with Yakuza all running around, frantically searching for the missing money. The bank robbers decided to order in some fine dining for themselves and the hostages, which they are quite thankful for. Korean hit man has found himself a spot on the roof of some building, reading for his target, which is expected to fly to the top of some building via helicopter.
The teenagers decide to take a breather due to the insane heat, but that's when one gaggle of gangster spots them. The gun dealer from before suspected that they're the one who stole the Tojo Clan's cash, since the girl was carrying around a duffle bag overstuffed with cash, so he passed along the pic he took of them with his cell phone to all the dudes on the streets!
And what a coincidence; one of the men knows the girl, thus somewhat explaining her sudden need for cash. So they run off, but not without taking one of them down... though it was actually the Korean hitman from above offering some assistance. As for the dude she actually knows, they exchange gunfire, and he's dead. But she's hit too, and that's when we discover that they used to be a thing, until he wanted a baby, so I guess she was trying to buy herself out of the situation, or something like that.
Hey, speaking of hurt, what about Majima? He's on route to a hospital via an ambulance, with his loyal men by his side, unwilling to trust the medical assistance that are trying to help him.
Though he's okay in the end, and hijacks the vehicle. As for Kiryu, finally he meets up with the weapons dealer and we find out that the kid's mom is big boss man's lady friend, who is coming to town. For whatever reason, aside from reuniting a family, Kiryu has an old score to settle, the reasons which I'm not too sure of, simply because my head was simply spinning with all the stuff that was going on at the moment. Sorry.
Kiryu and the kid end up at a swanky massage parlor, where the mom might be working at, which turns out to be an ambush; Majima's men are there, fully loaded. But showing some sense of decency, he lets the little girl pass by as to continue searching for her mama, and let the men get down to business. Eventually Kiryu gets his hands on a firearm and the numbers are evened out to just one and one.
Unfortunately Majima soon gets the upper hand, as he first starts hitting him with balls served via his trusty golden bat, and soon just starts wailing on him with it directly. Just as it would seem his number is sadly up, guess who comes to the rescue? It's Detective Date who managed to unearth the missing Yakuza head!
It then becomes crystal clear: Kiryu must take down the dude who holds the key to the missing money, the missing mom, and a bunch of other loose plot points that I'm forgetting about... again, the very first evil bad dude mentioned, the one running the show now, not the second one that's coming to visit that is going to be assassinated by the Korean. Just want to make that clear. Though just a few feet out the door, and Kiryu is shot, stopping him dead in his tracks, and the girl is kidnapped. We also take a break to see the teenage boyfriend carry his dying girl on his back, to a hospital, but not before passing by his place of work and wondering, my God, what has happened to us?!
But fear not... our hero is not dead, just REALLY banged up, and in no condition for a face-to-face battle to the end. But he stumbles out of the sanctuary of some medicine guy's place and makes his way down the street, and is almost knocked down by the extremely low flying chopper that's carrying the final boss to his lair, which also breaks all the glass of every building it passes by. Though Kiryu's jacket is swept away, and we finally get to see his badass tattoo that completely covers his back (like all Japanese gangsters sport), in a shot that is supposed to resemble the box art of the game.
Eventually Kiryu reaches the top of the building, where his target, also sporting a cool tattoo (though not as cool as our main man's) is waiting for him. And the final battle finally goes underway.
Not surprisingly, Kiryu gets throughly trounced. Though just when you think it's over, that's when he decided to use the ultimate power-up!
But what about the dude on his way in the dangerously low flying helicopter? And the Korean guy that wants to kill him? The guy carrying around his dying gf? Those two sweaty bank robbers? Is Majima actually dead? Where's the money? And the girl's mom? Believe it or not, as detail oriented as I've been, there's a lot I haven't touched upon!
In the end, I honestly can't say how Like A Dragon fares as a video game adaptation, since I don't know it front and back. As a video game movie, there's a few "game-y" parts, but not a whole lot. The funny thing is, whereas most movies based on games have to make much of the back-story up since there's not much to work with, the source material had plenty, yet some stuff was used, while others was not, so I unfortunately can't make the call whether the choices made, as well as the deviations, were good or not.
I can see fans of the games getting upset over a less than faithful translation. I already know Miike fans are not in love with this not so wacky Yakuza flick, but not everything can like his Dead or Alive series (no relation to the game series of the same name, btw). So in that sense, this movie is a real bastard child... but one definitely worth looking into.
Thanks btw to Wired for letting me "borrow" their pic of the Kacho!
[Matt Hawkins is a New York-based freelance journalist and Gamasutra contributor. He also designs games, makes comics, and does assorted “other things.” To find out more, check out Fort90.com.]
Categories: Column: Cinema Pixeldiso