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Here in the west, next to maybe Takeshi Kitano, cult director Takashi Miike is possibly the most well known of all Japanese directors (Hideo Nakata will surely catch up soon). When I hear the name Takashi Miike I automatically think of those Asian Extreme and Horror collections dominated by his own titles. Quite possibly better known for his slowly paced and most mainstream title Audition, which has such an intensely disturbing and unforgettably excruciating ending that you'll never forget. Miike's film production rate is quite astounding, looking at his IMDb profile today, he has directed sixty movies in the past fifteen years; more recently, producing yet another cult classic, a musical comedy horror entitled Happiness of the Katakuris.

Full Metal Yakuza
One of his lesser well know movies released in the late nineties for a video only audience was Full Metal Yakuza – a sort of darker Japanese telling of the Robocop story but with Japanese gangsters instead of police. Previously this title was unavailable to US audiences but to celebrate UK distributor Artsmagic's expansion into the USA they have released Full Metal Yakuza as their first major title.

Ken Hagane so desperately wants to join a Yakuza or to everyone else, a violent Japanese gang whose members are heavily endowed with intricate tattoos. Initially all he's able to do is clean floors and kiss the feet of other higher ranking Yakuza - essentially you have to work from the bottom and progress up the ranks. It is only when his dedication is noticed by the boss that things start to happen. He is given the chance to prove himself by extorting cash from poor sods daft enough to borrow from the gang for their business. Can't be that hard, can it? Well, Ken fails miserably; he lacks the meanness required to force them to pay up. They then send him to take part in a hit on another gang, but at the very last minute Ken chickens out and prevents his accomplice from finishing the job. Even a random group of kids don't care less that he's a Yakuza when they beat him up in some local park.

Seven years on, and the boss that gave Ken a chance – Tosa – is released from prison. He has been stuck in the slammer for so long after assassinating the boss of another rival gang. Tosa earned a lot of respect for this but at the same time lost his girlfriend. Now that he's free, he hopes to become the boss of the now much larger Yakuza gang.

Unfortunately for both Tosa and Ken things don't go to plan, and they themselves become the target of a hit from within. Both are assassinated and their bodies sold on the black market. This is where things start to go a bit Miike-ish. The body parts are bought by a weirdo scientist bloke who's a self-confessed nutty professor. Using the best undamaged bits of each man, he builds up an ideal warrior, covers him in metal (to protect the technological innards from the rain) and creates what I guess you could call a Japanese Robocop. The cyborg is without emotion but sometimes it will overheat and go haywire – the only means of recovery is to say a nursery rhyme in Russian as a mantra. He eats bits of metal and milk for breakfast to keep up his energy, and is filled with lots of rage and a need for revenge – sounds like an entertaining combination. Before going on a rampage, nutty professor bloke puts his angry cyborg pet through some training that includes a comical block maneuver to prevent being hit by bullets.

Full Metal Yakuza
Full Metal Yakuza was always intended as a straight-to-video affair. In Japan, such releases don't have the same stigma attached as they would over here, as such, higher profile directors don't mind doing such releases. In fact Miike found a video only release to offer more freedom than something that had to be more commercially viable. In the end Full Metal Yakuza did get a Japanese cinematic release thanks to an enthusiastic producer. What I liked most about this movie, was that to some degree it is a very different film to that of western hero style movies. The main example being the scene where Ken is just discovering his cyborg power, it rains heavily and he malfunctions because he cannot cope without his body shield in the rain. Immediately I though this was an obvious plot device, which would be used later - this was not the case. It's amazing how easy these sort of plot devices are to spot if you know what to look for, either the camera stays on something irrelevant for a longer than usual time or we get an out-of-place second unit closeup of something. It's one of the reason why I like a lot of non-English language movies, they tend to do things differently.

Artsmagic have presented Full Metal Yakuza in anamorphic widesceen. Being that this title was intended for the video market several years ago, it cannot ever fully compete visually with modern high budget productions. It does suffer from grain but this is only noticeable in the darkest scenes, whilst compression artifacts are noticeable and there is definitely a lack detail. The colour of the blood was intense!

With this Artsmagic release we get a Japanese Dolby Digital 2.0 soundtrack that works well. Most of the purchasers of this disc will be viewing the movie with subtitles (they are removable), so I don't really expect the soundtrack to be that special, as long as it is a reasonable attempt. Unlike the interviews there is no hissing noise and again unlike the commentary, voices can be clearly heard if not understood (in my non-understanding of Japanese case).

There are two interviews, one with director Takashi Miike, the other with editor Yasushi Shimamura. Both are presented in stereo, subtitled (burnt on), shot in a 4:3 aspect ratio, and suffer from heavy video compression with all the side effects associated with that.

Full Metal Yakuza
In Miike's interview he talks about the movie's low budget and target audience. The fact that it was a made-for-video release and how that differed to other formats. He mentions the Japanese movie and distribution system, how it has evolved over the decades and explains how it differs from other parts of the world. For example he states that the movie industry in Japan no longer invests in new talent as it once did, which has resulted in new creative talent heading off to the computer games industry. This is a worthwhile interview, if a little annoying listening to the hissing audio track and someone in the background coughing every now and again. It runs for approximately thirty minutes.

Yasushi Shimamura's interview covers his past work and long working relationship with Takashi Miike. He discusses the merits of the DVD format and talks a little about movie making style, such as those generally used in Yakuza movies. Also covers Miike's use of dark comedy in his films. This interview goes on for about fourteen minutes and doesn't feature the background cougher.

There's a commentary from Tom Mes who wrote a book titled Agitator: The Cinema of Takashi Miike. Very interesting if you want to know more about Miike. Tom is obviously watching the movie whilst commenting on it but it is very noticeable that the audio track is about a second behind what is going on visually. It is also slightly difficult to understand him towards the end of the film when the special effects kick in. Tom talks about such subjects as the straight-to-video culture in Japan, lots of background on the actors including the sorts of movies and characters they normally do, and more information of Miike's film making style. Overall a good commentary for those interested in the subject, talks consistently most of the way through and you'll gain a great understanding of Miike's use of disturbing scenes in his movies.

Other extras include detailed biographies and filmographies for: Takashi Miike, Tsuyoshi Ujiki, Tomorowo Taguchi, Shoko Nakahara and Ren Osugi. Previews of CG animated titles: Malice@Doll, A.LI.CE and Blue Remains. There's Artwork, which is a slide show of other Artsmagic titles and finally a section publicising Artsmagic's Eastern Cult Cinema site.

Full Metal Yakuza
To be totally honest when I first watched this movie, I wasn't fully involved in it. But after giving it another chance and listening to the informative commentary, plus taking in the interviews, I actually changed my mind. It's definitely a cult classic, I had the same reaction with both Bad Taste and Evil Dead when I first saw them. Being a Miike title, it is somewhat disturbing and that may be off-putting to some. If you are a fan of Miike directed movies then I would recommend this, there's lots of entertainment value to be had. The extras are very good and you'll probably learn more about the man himself.

For more Full Metal Yakuza infomation (including a trailer), Artsmagic have produced the following sites:The DVD is due to hit the streets in the US on May 25th 2004. The UK edition is already available.