Today I watched Takashi Miike’s Like A Dragon (2007)
The idea of adapting a video game to film seems almost doomed from inception, at least that is how it seems considering the extreme negative reception most seem to receive. I think this is partly because of the tricky nature of narrative in the video game medium, an art form defined by interaction with systems and mechanics. What makes a video game work is not what makes a film work, the memorable elements of a game have a personal aspect that film lacks because the audience does not directly interact with a film. Alternatively, video game stories have a lot of difficulty incorporating deeper narrative connections with people because the pace of a fun game does not lend itself well to the hero losing a few rounds before finally overcoming the obstacle as is normal in other art forms. The most common recollection of a gamer is more often about a certain interaction they had with the mechanics, not with the scripted moments. But here stands a film that demonstrates how to properly adapt a video game, and do it with gusto.
Like a Dragon is based on the Yakuza video game franchise, more specifically a loose adaptation of plot elements from the first game. The plot of the film version takes place in one sweltering hot night in a fictional Tokyo neighborhood in which a bank is being robbed. This robbery leads to the discovery that the vault has already been emptied, most of the money belonged to a big yakuza boss so now heads need to roll. This metaplot is told through a number of connected people and their intertwining stories which all collide at various points in the film; there are the yakuza trying to track down the money, a pair of teenagers who are on a robbery spree in an attempt to get out of town, some bumbling cops trying to keep everything under control, and there is our main character, Kazuma Kiryu played by Kazuki Kitamura, an ex-yakuza who is trying to help an orphan girl find her mother.
While this film takes many liberties with the plot of the game, it captures the real essence of the experience in those games. The plot is mildly ridiculous and really only serves as a confusing background for the moment to moment action, which is not unlike the games themselves. The experience of playing a Yakuza game is typified by walking around a small open world environment and getting up to random hijinks of progressively increasing zaniness, a structure that this film follows to a T. The downside is that the over arching narrative is really hard to follow and somewhat poorly developed. But being caught up isn’t really all that important here, the film is a nutty live action cartoon and the seeming randomness that elements are introduced works as part of the fun.
What makes the movie really entertaining is the way the scenes work in a pseudo episodic form, like a series of creative and crazy shorts stitched together. Through this structure, Miike gets to do his trademark mood whiplash trick multiple times as the film switched very quickly, yet smoothly, from comedy to melodrama. It is all presented in an over the top, comic style of intense lighting and angles that makes the world of the film seem more than reality, an extreme version of it. Despite the scattershot nature of the over involved narrative, this boundless style and the various uses of tone in the picture work wonders and make it consistently entertaining and engrossing.
Like a Dragon works because instead of being a perfect copy of the written story of the game it is based on, it attempts to adapt the moment to moment activity of the game. It also captures the off kilter humour of the series and has numerous direct references to some of the more absurd elements of a game world, the final fight has a very random power-up introduced to hilarious results. It makes the high melodrama work with the zany comedy and got me connected to the characters despite the lack of narrative development, it took a necessary backseat to some truly fun mayhem. 4/5