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Ryuzo and the Seven Henchmen
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by Jay Seaver

"No respect for one's elders, even if they're yakuza!"
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2015 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: Takeshi Kitano's name is well-enough known in American boutique-house circles for certain things - mournful cop movies, violent yakuza fare, self-referential and deconstructive comedies - that "Ryuzo and the Seven Henchmen" almost throws one for a loop. It's a small, silly comedy that in some ways plays as a mixture of those things by puncturing yakuza film stereotypes and pushing them into the past, but it's also very mainstream, positioned less as artistic satire than a movie about goofy old people.

The goofy old person of the title used to be known as "Ryuzo the Demon" (Tatsuya Fuji), though he's a senior citizen now, reduced to housesitting for his son Ryuhei (Masanobu Katsumura), a salaryman who insists his father wear long-sleeved shirts even in the warmest weather so that he won't embarrass them in front of the neighbors with his gang tattoos. Bored, he and his longtime friend Masa (Masaomi Kondo), a gambler, decide to get into contact with other old compatriots - con artist mokichi (Akira Nakao), gunslinger "Mac" (Toru Shinagawa), Taka "The Razor Slasher" (Ken Yoshizawa), Hide "The 6-Inch Nail" (Kojun Ito), swordsman Ichizio (Ben Hiura), and later Yasu "The Kamikaze" (Akira Onodera), now an activist - to form a new gang. Not that anyone, from the city's other criminal organizations to the businesses they're trying to shake down for protection money.

Kitano is getting up there himself, so while this is not exactly the inward-looking satire of Takeshis' and Glory to the Filmmaker!, there is probably more of this movie than he'd like to admit that comes from his own experience of growing older and no longer being cool and dangerous like you used to be. He and his elderly cast (including himself as a detective who maybe harbors a certain fondness for these old-school retirees) happily dive into the indignities of aging and trying to be both intimidating and honorable as life removes them as options; the jokes about the elderly are not exactly new material, but Kitano still has a few surprises in store, and is good at minding the line between being amused by an elderly person's foibles and outright mocking them - Kitano is mostly making a movie about yakuza who have become old men rather than old men trying to be yakuza, so when the jokes feel natural rather than like broad satire.

He gives himself a lot of characters to deal with, but everybody in the cast gets something funny to do. Tatsuya Fuji is, in some ways, kind of the baseline for the cast in terms of being funny, since Ryuzo is more angry and prone to lash out than the other guys, and this rage doesn't always translate to jokes all that well. It does a fair chunk of the time, though, and Fuji gives Ryuzo pride and bluster that aren't quite diminished by his reduced circumstances. It helps that he's got Masaomi Kondo to bounce off; he serves as a wry counterpoint to Fui's more excitable performance. Most of the other guys get somewhat one-note characters to play, but they hit that note well, most notably Akira Nakao, Toru Shinagawa, and Akira Onodera. Masanobu Katsumura does fine comic work as Ryuzo's son Ryuhei, making him a guy that may be saying reasonable things but does so in such a nebbishy manner as to become kind of ridiculous himself.

Things build nicely; both a seasoned comedian and filmmaker, Kitano knows how far to work a running joke relative to just how absurd it is, along with how to let something fade into the background enough that it's funny when it pops up again. He's good at letting things spin seemingly out of control and then reining them in so he can move on to the next thing and managing his large cast, and if his sense of humor is sometimes a little mean or bizarre, it's generally not without a point. He's got a handle on more than just the banter, especially toward the finale, with the film ending with a fight and chase that is equal parts absurd and effective.

And, wonder of wonders, he ends to movie just as the jokes are over, rather than overtly having the characters reflect on what they've learned and how they've grown. That may not be appropriate anyway, but when the film ends, it does so on a note that's both kind of funny and a clever encapsulation of where it had been going all along. It may not exactly be a story of how the veteran gangsters know how to get things done smoothly, but that seems to be the case with the director.

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originally posted: 08/29/15 10:15:41
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2015 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 Hawaii International Film Festival For more in the 2015 Hawaii International Film Festival series, click here.

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Directed by
  Takeshi Kitano

Written by
  Takeshi Kitano

  Tatsuya Fuji
  Ben Hiura
  Kjun It
  Masanobu Katsumura
  Takeshi Kitano
  Masaomi Kondo

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