“Yakuza Princess” is not Disney princess adventure, even if it does feature a pop star and some vocals. Nor is this film a super comic book super hero story. I haven’t read Danilo Beyruth’s graphic novel “Samurai Shiro” that the film is based on, so I can’t tell fans if this is a faithful rendition, but after watching it more than once, there’s not much to recommend this film.
Fans of pop star Masumi who plays the titular character Akemi or of Jonathan Rhys Meyers who is Shiro may find this worth seeing, but there’s little else to recommend here. I spent most of the film wondering if it is ever wise to use the word “princess” for a culture like Japan that has an aristocracy with actual princesses or why we’re viewing what looks to be the Kinkakuji in the initial scenes.
You might be shocked to learn that the largest community of Japanese descent outside of Japan exists in Brazil. The end of African slavery in Brazil where coffee was a major export resulted in a labor shortage. After trying to attract Europeans which lost traction because the plantation owners wouldn’t shake the slave owner mentality and expected laborers to accept poor working conditions, Brazilians turned to Japan. The Japanese were already being turned away from the United States and eventually anti-Asian immigration acts would be passed (included the Gentlemen’s Agreement of 1907) making it nearly impossible to immigrate to the US so Japanese started immigrating to South America, including Brazil. Racial prejudice resulted in the formation of cultural communities. That’s all the history you need to know for this Brazilian flick.
The film begins 20 years ago in Osaka, Japan with a formal family gathering near a temple. There’s samurai armor and a sword on display and the family decides to take a photograph in front of a temple. The temple appears to be, if I remember correctly, the Kinkakuji which is in Kyoto and not Osaka.
What follows next is a bloody shootout. There are two kids–a girl and a boy. The boy doesn’t survive but the girl is taken away along with the sword.
Then the film jumps to the present day in Sao Paolo, Brazil. In the greenish light of a dingy hospital, a White guy wakes up. He has patches on his face and his right arm is in a cast. He’s the kind of patient that no one wants because he beats up the orderlies and the nurses until someone drugs him.
Elsewhere in the same city, Akemi, who was brought to her sensei (teacher) when she was six, is practicing kendo with wooden swords. “You must leave your grief and anger,” she’s told. “Your life may depend upon one blow, a single blow,” he tells her.
Today happens to be Akemi’s birthday and she decides she needs a tattoo. She’s told, “If you get any more of these you can join the yakuza.” That should be a hint. She decides to do karaoke but while she’s up on stage she’s heckled by a blond dude with yellow fever. He tells his friends, “The Jap is mine” and getting on stage while Akemi’s singing, he snarls, “Show me how a Japanese twerks. What’s the matter, princess? I got a birthday present for you.” Akemi shows she can handle herself and we don’t care that the White guy gets roughed up. You’ve just learned that yellow fever strikes racist White men in Brazil, but that’s about as educational and enlightening as this film gets.
You’ve probably guessed where things go from here. Somehow, Akemi will meet the banged up White guy and she’ll learn more about her past and that will have a lot to do with unsavory tattooed men (Yakuza). She’ll have to seek out remnants of the old Yakuza community in Sao Paolo. The White guy, Shiro (which means “white” in Japanese but sounds more like the name of a dog or cat) will find the sword and together, they will make blood run in the city as she figures out the past and whether she wants to be Yakuza royalty.
“Yakuza Princess” has moody lighting and won’t make you want to visit Japan or Brazil. It made me want to cleanse my mind and watching something better. It would be cool to learn more about the Japanese community in Brazil, but “Yakuza Princess” is not the vehicle for that. Haven’t we had enough of White men playing samurai?
“Yakuza Princess” was directed by Vincente Amorim with a taste for violence and a moodiness that doesn’t equal style. As written by Fernando Toste and Kimi Lee it doesn’t really give us a feeling for Japan or Brazil but for the American market for Yakuza films and samurai-ish swordplay.
“Yazuka Princess” is available on a limited release as of 3 September 2021.