Kyoto Nocturnes: Elegant Slaughter (2004) Movie Review

“Elegant Slaughter” is part one of a five-part anthology set in the Japanese underworld, aka the Yakuza. Part one concerns a Yakuza boss (Keishu Tsumagata) who flees to a late-night restaurant along with his lieutenant Uchida (Manabu Inoue) and a couple of foot soldiers after a rival gangster launch a successful surprise attack (not shown in the movie, but told via subtitles and some quick voiceover) that wiped out most of his brood. The Yakuza boss is desperate, angry, and going more than a little nuts.

At the restaurant, Uchida convinces his proud boss, who incidentally is seeing the ghosts of his dead soldiers everywhere, to call for the services of K (Rakendra Moore), an American hitwoman to help get back at the rival gang boss. The boss bucks, citing pride and ego as the chief reasons, but Uchida convinces him otherwise. The boss’ reluctance proves somewhat correct, as K turns out to be a rather indiscreet woman, flaunting her skills in front of the Yakuza with generous amounts of attitude and clich’d Ugly Americanism. Then again, considering just how easily she dispatches of the rival gangster, maybe K’s disregard for the Yakuza and their customs is warranted.

A short episode (it runs barely 20 minutes), “Elegant Slaughter” would no doubt work better as part of a larger film where it can be viewed as a piece of a larger whole, as is apparently the intention of its writer/director. “Kyoto Nocturnes” is supposed to be an anthology composed of five stories, all taking place in the Yakuza underworld, and loosely connected by something called “The Consortium”, an all-powerful, all-knowing criminal organization moving in on the Yakuza’s territory. No doubt the Consortium will be explored in later episodes, but here they’re mention only in passing.

As a standalone episode, one can’t help but think that Foster (an American living and making films in Japan) has elected to focus on too many of the wrong things, especially in light of the episode’s limited length. Why spend so much time with Uchida and the restaurant owner at the very beginning, for instance? Or the long, drawn out show by K that hammers home the notion she doesn’t care about basic courtesy when it comes to the Yakuza?

In contrast, K’s hit on the rival gang barely lasts a minute. Too bad, as the assassination makes up the film’s highlight, with K slicing her way through the gang’s numbers like knife through butter. Foster shoots the sequence with some flair, showing excellent technique when it comes to framing and executing action. The editing is crisp and inspiring, using a combination of freeze frames and quick cuts that delivers on the visceral intensity of the moment. But as mentioned, it’s too bad the whole thing barely lasts more than a minute. The swiftness and efficiency with which K deals with the rival gang also makes you question why she’s so cold and machine-like during the execution of her assignment, but is so uninterested in such professionalism when accepting the job at the restaurant.

Other elements of the film are hit and miss, including the dead Yakuza soldiers who return to haunt their boss. They’re made up to look like Romero zombies for some reason, with peeling flesh and hanging skin. If these guys were killed in a gunfight, why do they look like zombies took a bite out of them? In any case, since “Elegant Slaughter” is only 20 minutes, you have to wonder why Foster included this supernatural element at all. The appearance of ghosts doesn’t quite jive with the movie’s gangland premise, and the fact that the ghosts look like extras that got lost on their way to the set of a zombie movie doesn’t exactly help matters.

As a Yakuza story, “Elegant Slaughter” works well enough. If you’ve seen enough Japanese Yakuza films, all the elements of the genre are present, which makes you think transplanted American John Foster was watching one Yakuza film too many before applying for his Visa. K’s introduction is probably the episode’s weakest, coming across as clich’d and unbelievable (and why was she lugging a shotgun around at night, anyway?). The episode’s singular action sequence is the film’s best, which gives you confidence the rest of the anthology has potential. Then again, there does seem to be an awful lot of ghost elements in the remaining 4 episodes. One can only hope the ghosts won’t look like zombies when they’re not supposed to be zombies.

John Foster (director) / John Foster (screenplay)
CAST: Keishu Tsumagata, Manabu Inoue, Rakendra Moore, Hataro Jurokuhari, Kuniichi Takami