Translating a video game to the big screen is a tricky business, one that rarely succeeds. Some would argue that to this day it actually still hasn’t succeeded. I fall into the camp that feels there have been a few worthy entries into the genre, as I thought the Silent Hill film completely nailed the atmosphere of the games, and I must admit that the original Mortal Kombat and the DOA film are guilty pleasures of mine, but being based on fighting games, it’s not like anyone in their right mind would be watching either of those films for a decent narrative.
One of the latest directors to attempt the tall task of basing a film on a video game is auteur and jack of all trades Takashi Miike. Like a Dragon is based on SEGA’s PS2 game Yakuza (the original Japanese title of the game translates literally to "Like a Dragon"), and anyone who has played that game would agree that it has a deep enough story that it could translate well to the screen. And in the hands of a competent director, it does so rather well. The main issue though is that the story may have been too involved for a 110-minute film. As bizarre is this is going to sound, the film could have benefit if it wasn’t so authentic to its video game counterpart.
Kazuma, a former (?) member of the Yakuza, is fresh out of the joint, where he served 10 years, and is looking to begin anew. Somewhere along the line he’s picked up a young girl named Haruka, and is trying to help her find her mother. Sometime or another, whether it was before he served time in jail or during it, he’s made a long list of enemies. He’s initially attacked by members of the Nishikiyama clan, a group he knows little about. He has a more pressing matter at hand however, as a madman from his past named Majima is quite interested in the fact that he’s free, and is looking for some payback for an old slight that is never really mentioned. He’s willing to throw all of Tokyo into chaos to get his hands on Kazuma.
This isn’t all that’s going on in Tokyo though. A young couple on a whim begins a robbery spree for no real reason. A duo of bumbling bank robbers is holding a group of bank employee’s hostage at a bank that has no money, and there's an equally bumbling group of cops staking them out. Where’s the money you ask? Well, someone has withdrawn it all, but the money belongs to a Yakuza clan, and no one in the clan seems to have made the withdrawal. There’s also a Korean assassin roaming the streets, looking to assassinate a high-ranking Yakuza boss. Looks like Tokyo is in store for a busy night.
As you can surmise by now, there’s a lot going on in this film, and it’s the films main shortcoming. There are far too many plot threads for the runtime, and because of that many of them are left unexplored and give the film a scatterbrained feel. Even having played the game a couple years ago, I couldn’t remember what the purpose of some of these stories had to the overall plot; in fact, some of the storylines here are actually just side stories from the game. I applaud Miike for wanting to make a film that was really authentic to the source material, but it’s just too ambitious and the film suffers because of it. The film would have come off far better if it focused completely on the friction between Kazuma and Majima.
Another problem that arises from being too authentic to the game is that it somewhat alienates anyone that hasn’t played the game before. Surely Miike and writer Seiji Togawa couldn’t have expected that every single person that sees the film would have knowledge of the game, but that’s exactly how it feels. The film basically drops you right in the lap of the story. You don’t know why Kazuma was in jail for 10 years, you don’t know why Haruka is following him and looking for her mother, and you don’t know why Kazuma and Majima are at odds with one another. For anyone that’s never played the game, you’ll get the feeling that you just tuned into a film and missed the first 20 minutes.
Whether you’ve played the game or not however, Like a Dragon features some good, and sometimes even great, elements. Apparent from the beginning, the film features some delicious eye candy. Over the past few years, Miike’s growing stardom has come with larger budgets, and many of his newer films, such as Big Bang Love: Juvenile A, Crows 0, and Sukiyaki Western Django have had fantastic visuals, and Like a Dragon is no different. Featuring a color palette that resembles something ripped out of the most garish of Italian Gialli, nearly every scene just pops off of the screen. Even scenes that take place outdoors at night in the streets of Tokyo are drenched in bright colors from the blazing neon signs all over the city. The film is a true visual treat. Likewise, the action scenes are excellent and a complete blast to watch. There’s a great back-alley brawl and a gun battle in a pastel-colored brothel that is quite kick ass and oozes with style.
While the film is rather tame in terms of Miike’s usual wackiness, he still leaves his trademark stamp on a few elements of the film, so you’ll never lose sight of who’s behind the camera. The final battle of the film, while a bit of a letdown and is in no way as absurdly out-of-left-field as the final battle in Miike's Dead or Alive, still gives a bit of a nod towards that film with the random way the fight comes to an end. Miike also serves up a handful of bizarre characters for the viewer to enjoy, including Majima himself, who would rather hit baseballs at his opponents with his golden baseball bat instead of using guns and fists, and a masochistic informant who actually wants information to be tortured out of him. Even with the recent mainstream success Miike is currently enjoying, it seems as if no one can completely take the rebel filmmaker spirit out of him.
Like a Dragon is a film that is always at odds with itself, as it features some truly excellent parts and elements, while also taking a number of missteps. One moment you’ll be cursing the fact that all of these intertwining stories just aren’t connecting or being explored to their fullest, and the next you’ll be enthralled with the amazing visuals, quirky characters, and fun fight scenes. It’s a real shame then that the films climax is an absolute mess. Characters are introduced in the final act of the film that aren’t seen at all before, and while they’ll be recognizable again to those that have played the game, it will come off as an utter mess to anyone that hasn’t. Furthermore, the resolution to Haruka’s search for her mother and the little twist it involves makes no sense whatsoever. Regardless of all the style and visceral entertainment you’ll get out of Like a Dragon, it’s this that will be the freshest memory you have after walking away from the film, and it gives the film a real black eye.
At the end of the day, Like a Dragon shows that an adaptation staying extremely close to its source material isn’t always the perfect way to go. Sometimes liberties need to be taken when adapting something into a new medium. Kubrick’s The Shining is proof positive that it can be done to great effect. Like a Dragon however didn’t even need to deviate from its source. It just needed to eliminate some of the extraneous material. As a mini-series, keeping seemingly every single element from the game would have been fine. In a film that runs under two hours, it’s just not a bright idea. Choosing to remove some of the side stories would have created room for the film to provide some background information instead of dropping the viewer straight into the middle of the films events. As it stands, Like a Dragon should easily appeal to anyone that’s played the game. For everyone else, it will more than likely come off as a mess...but at least it's an entertaining and beautiful mess.
Please feel free to discuss "Like a Dragon" here, in our forums!