Monday, November 18, 2019

Revisiting “Shenmue: The Movie” from 2001!

Just in time to mark the release of Shenmue III, TIIIA takes a fond look back at the full-length feature movie that came with copies of the second game on the original Xbox!

By: Jimbo X

It seems almost impossibly surreal that we’re on the cusp of Shenmue III’s release. It feels like just yesterday, it was 2002, and I was anxiously awaiting the opportunity to jam that copy of Shenmue II into my big, bulky new Xbox console. It took me about three or four months to beat the game, and when I did, I couldn’t help but feel this pronounced sense of sadness. Considering Sega had just went belly up as a console manufacturer and the game sold about as well as Louie Anderson weight loss video cassettes, I simply figured that Yu Suzuki would never have the opportunity to wrap up his ambitious Shenmue saga. Rather, I’d be stuck playing the first two Shenmue games over and over again, spending the rest of my life wondering what could’ve been had Yu and the gang had one more opportunity to conclude the series and wrap up the tale of one Ryo Hazuki.

Yet 18 years later, the follow-up I’ve been dreaming of since I was 16 is finally on store shelves. Like seeing the Jon Gruden-led Raiders hunting a playoffs seed and Joe Bob Briggs hosting all-night monster movie marathons, it’s the kind of sight I NEVER imagined seeing in my lifetime again, but here we are in 2019 and all three are happening simultaneously. Really, all we’re missing now is a relaunch of Dunkaroos and the resurrection of Pride Fighting Championship and I’d say all is once more right in the cosmos.

Of course, there’s some irony here. For one, I don’t own any modern gaming consoles and I don’t think my PC is powerful enough to run the game, even if I deleted my 3 GB treasure trove of novelty snack cake JPEGs. Which means I either cajole my girlfriend into letting me buy a PS4 just to play Shenmue III over the holidays or I hit up the YouTubes and Twitches and vicariously experience the long-awaited third installment of the Ryo Hazuki saga as a spectator. Regardless, you better goddamn believe there’s going to be a considerable dip in productivity around the office, either way, as soon as this thing drops at Target.

The original Shenmue on the Dreamcast is easily one of my 10 favorite video games ever, probably top five, maybe even top three. When I did my countdown of the Top 100 Dreamcast Games of All-Time, it’s only fitting that it came in at the No. 1 slot, and pretty much everything I said seven years ago on the subject remains applicable today. Not only was Shenmue a game that was a good decade ahead of its time period, it’s the first video game I recall playing that made me feel genuine emotions towards the characters. Hell, even my mom got invested in the story and used to make me play the game as soon as I got in from school so she could “find out what happens to that Japanese boy next.” I’ve played through it about three or four times now, and all these years later, it hasn’t lost any of its charm.

While I’m not as crazy about Shenmue II (which, still, is an easy top 50 favorite video game of all time in my book), I nonetheless had a goddamn hoot with that one, as well. In fact, it’s the only reason I opted for an Xbox over a PS2, and one of my fondest high school memories is tag-teaming it with my cousin with about a month to go before we graduated. Hell, I’m pretty sure Shenmue II was in my Xbox the night I got my diploma — well, that, or one of the Sleepaway Camp movies on DVD, probably.

But there’s something else very noteworthy about the Xbox edition of Shenmue II. Not only did it contain the full-fledged Dreamcast port, it also included a 90-minute long bonus disc title Shenmue: The Movie, which was an ACTUAL theatrical release that came out in Japan to promote the DC title. 

I guess one may be inclined to call Shenmue: The Movie a piece of machinima, and while that’s true to a certain extent, it really plays out more like a condensed “greatest hits” assortment of cutscenes from the original game. I recalled watching it just once — while me and that aforementioned cousin was under the influence of about six or seven Old Milwaukees — and I vividly recall us laughing our asses off over just how cheesy the whole production was. Like, half the “movie,” it seemed, consisted of quick-time events (QTEs) from the game with the on-screen button prompts edited out, as well as this REALLY iffy forward-facing shots of Ryo walking around Dobuita Street like he was John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever or something. 

And that's just what it looks like when Ryo decides to mildly kick asses.

Well, I got curious and decided to see if the digest movie was on the Internets. Luckily for me, there are only about 48 high-definition copies uploaded to YouTube, so it didn’t take long to queue it up. 

While Shenmue: The Movie certainly has its moments of undiluted camp, all in all, I was flabbergasted by how well the damn thing held up. Yes, some of the voice acting was questionable and the 1999-era graphics had some fugly blockiness to them, but storywise, the thing felt like a rock solid 1980s B-karate movie, with editing, pacing and character development I’d put on par with such genre classics as Action Jackson and Pray For Death. Compared to the crap funneling through legitimate Hollywood theaters nowadays, Shenmue: The Movie almost feels like a work that’s TOO cerebral and sensitive for the mainstream movie-going masses — and needless to say, it DEFINITELY got me in a mood to fire up my old Dreamcast and give the game one more revisit before part three drops in retail.

So the "flick" begins with a quick panover of Dobuita Street, zeroing in on Nozomi and this little kid getting harassed by these greasers who threaten to punch her in the face. Of course, Ryo shows up, and that's our cue for a free-style fight, in which miscellaneous asses get kicked Virtua Fighter style. After the implied sexual assault, Ryo tells Nozumi to be more careful, noting that some people just can't be reasoned with. That ... might be foreshadowing, kids.

From there, we see Ryo running home in the snow (which, by this point, is kinda' like watching Spider-Man let the thief who wound up killing Uncle Ben go free in the first Raimi movie) and waltz into the Hazuki family dojo, where that no-good sonofabitch Lan Di has challenged Ryo's dad to a duel to the death for the Dragon Mirror. Ryo tries to save his father from the fatal beatdown, but he's dropped by one palm strike to the pancreas. Lan Di threatens to kill Ryo, and his dad reluctantly gives away the location of the mirror. Then Lan Di drops that immortal line about allowing Mr. Hazuki to die on his feet like a warrior, retrieves the mirror, and Ryo, cradling his father's corpse, emits a deafening (and indisputably iconic) cry of "NOOOOOOOO!" as the Shenmue saga officially gets underway.

After the title card, we cut to Ryo ambling around the Hazuki compound. We get some exposition on Lan Di, and Ryo vows vengeance on the man responsible for his father's death. So he walks around town for a little bit and visits Nozomi at her flower shop and asks her if she saw a black car the day of his dad's death. Which, naturally, leads Ryo to visiting Tom at Tom's Hot Dog Stand. He tells Ryo he saw somebody wearing a weird silk green shirt, noting his "cold stare." (By the way, “Hot Dog” Tom may very well be my favorite minor character in the entire franchise. I mean, who else in the original game was cool enough to let you borrow his boombox to play a couple of mix-tapes?)

Still the least offensive depiction of a Jamaican stereotype in the history of video games, mon.

From here, Ryo goes to the town barbershop and starts asking random questions about Chinese culture. So they point Ryo to this one really old Chinese dude who assumes Lan Di is a member of the Chinese mafia — which, of course, puts Ryo on an epic, meme-worthy quest to locate as many sailors as possible.

So Ryo hits up a jazz bar and starts bugging these two guys playing pool. As it turns out, they're a bunch of base workers, who tell Ryo to hit up the even scummier bar on the other side of town if he's after seamen. So Ryo quick time kung-fus a couple of men in uniform and the bartender tries to feed Ryo a glass of milk, and then Ryo has to fuckin' wreck an entire bar all by himself and it's awesome. So the bartender tells Ryo to find this guy named Charlie, who sleeps in a tattoo shop. He tries to stick Ryo with a switchblade, but our hero catches him, flips him around like a bitch and realizes he genuinely doesn't know shit about any Chinese cartels. Then Ryo has a heart-to-heart talk with Nozumi about college entrance exams, and Ryo says whichever college he goes to better have karate as an elective.

Ryo keeps having nightmares about Lan Di, adding that he can't believe his daddy actually killed somebody before (canonically, the guy’s name is Sunming Zhao, in case you were wondering.) So Ryo gets a hold of this one letter written in Chinese, so he gives it to this doctor who wants a Coke out of a vending machine, and he tells Ryo to go to this one old broad in an antique shop. Apparently, she's the grandmother of the little boy Ryo saved at the beginning of the movie, wouldn't you know it. So she shows Ryo how the letter is meant to be read backwards in a mirror. Long story short, the letter tells him to seek out "Master Chen," whoever the fuck that is, along with some cryptic stuff about "Father's heavens" and "nine dragons." And it has a phone number, too, so Ryo literally runs home like Forrest Gump to dial it on a rotary phone. A mysterious voice on the other end of the line tells Ryo to meet him at "Warehouse No. 8," so sure as sugar, that's where he's headed next.

So Ryo takes some public transit to the docks, where the first thing he sees is a bunch of ruffians threatening some random geek, which goads Ryo into declaring "don't you know that blackmail is wayyyyyyy uncool?" So Ryo, of course, kicks the shit out of all of them and has to sneak into the aforementioned warehouse late at night (old school Dreamcast purists ought to recognize this as the "Metal Gear Shenmue" portion of the original game.) So Ryo breaks a priceless dish as soon he steps foot in the building and this one guy in a suit and tie bearing an uncanny resemblance to Eric Bischoff (Guizhang, canonically) challenges him to a fistfight, then Master Chen descends from the staircase and tells them to knock it off. We get some more exposition about the Dragon Mirror and the Phoenix Mirror and Chen says Lan Di is the master of this one super deadly martial art. So Ryo goes home and he gets a phone call from Nozomi, who tells him to meet her at the local park. She says she can't hold in her feelings for Ryo anymore, and that she's about to leave the country with her father. Ryo tells her he doesn't really know how he feels himself, and he reminds her to not forget to say goodbye. Man, if you ain't getting some feelz right now, you're a goddamn heartless abomination.

Then Ryo goes to talk to this one old ass dude who keeps making references to "Madame Butterfly" and tells him he's sorry his daddy get karated to death. Then he gives him this weird antique that's handed down to each new generation of Hazuki as soon as he turns 18. So Ryo uses the emblem to unlock this one chest with a sword in it, which in turn allows him to unlock this secret compartment behind a scroll in the dojo. That leads to a secret underground passageway, which ultimately leads to a box with the Phoenix Mirror (cue that awesome "new item acquired" sound effect.)

Remember: all those creepy old geezers just hanging out by themselves at playgrounds aren't sex criminals — they're just waiting to show somebody their mad martial arts skills.

So Ryo takes the Phoenix Mirror back to the old antique shop owner and says some stuff about Chinese people thinking the north star is the lord of the sky. Then Ryo finds that one old-ass Chinese dude from earlier, who says he used to drink sake with Ryo's dad back in the day. Then he shows Ryo how to do this fucking awesome double palm strike move of death, but what is this? Apparently, there's some Gollum-looking motherfucker spying on them from the  rooftops above! Oh well, I'm sure that's just an aside, and something we definitely will not be revisiting in just a few moments.

After that, Ryo takes the Phoenix Mirror to Master Chen, who tells him that it's made out of Phantom River Stone, whatever the shit that is. He says when the two mirrors meet, the gates of heaven will open, and this ancient Chinese monster will come out of the earth and eat capitalism or something. Hey, what do you know, it's that one Gollum motherfucker again, who steals the mirror from Ryo. Thankfully, the kung fu critter drops the antique and Ryo easily retrieves it. Then Master Chen's son (that’s Guizhang, by the way) starts saying something about the Mad Angels gang, whom Master Chen assumes are the ones who led Lan Di to Ryo's father. At that point, Ryo learns that Lan Di has probably high-tailed it to Hong Kong, so of course, his new goal in life is to go to Hong Kong and kick his ass there. To which Chen replies to our hero, "you should not waste your life on revenge.” 

Now Ryo is having these weird dreams about a Chinese girl reciting poetry about cherry blossoms and dragons, telling him to "hurry" to ... someplace. So Ryo goes to a travel agency, and the bitch working behind the counter is no help at all. Apparently, it will take 170,000 yen to get to Hong Kong, per the in-house brochures. So Ryo decides to go down to the harbor and get a job to pay for the ticket. The greaser Ryo beat up earlier in the movie hooks him up with a foreman who teaches him how to operate a forklift. Then Ryo meets Mark, who has to be the chillest black dude of all-time. Come to think of it, there sure are a lot of black people in this part of Japan, especially for 1986. But that's none of my business, so I'll just keep pressing forward.

So Ryo is confronted by these ruffians (including one who looks like Pride FC fighter Josh Barnett) who demand he pay them "insurance monies."  Of course, Ryo has to kick the shit out of everybody, and he soon learns they're members of the Mad Angels gang.

From there, we cut to snow falling down on Dobuita and Nozumi crying on the park bench from earlier. She tells Ryo she doesn't want to be away from him, so he sits beside her on the bench while she naps on his shoulder.

Forget Nozomi and Joy — I was always hoping Ryo would end up with this THOT right here.

Ryo heads back to the dojo and spars with Fuku-San (who I can't remember if he's a cousin or a family friend or whatever), then the Mad Angels kick away the chill black dude's sushi while he's eating lunch and Ryo has to make the save again. Then the Mad Angels start fucking around with Ryo's forklift load and yep, it's a set-up for a pier-side brawl. Naturally, Ryo karate fucks everybody and the Josh Barnett-looking dude tells Ryo the Mad Angels are hanging out behind warehouse 17. Master Chen's son sneaks up behind Ryo and tells him he's going to teach him a new move called the "Swallow Dive." Which comes in real handy, because Ryo has ANOTHER brawl with the Mad Angels lined up next. There's some serious QTE fu and Ryo ends up cleaning house, then one of the goons accuses Ryo of being gay and threatens to go after his friends and family next.

So Ryo learns that the name of the Mad Angels leader is some guy named Terry, and when Ryo gets home, he finds out that Nozumi has BEEN KIDNAPPED BY THAT GOLLUM-LOOKING MOTHERFUCKER. "If you don't show, I'll make her cry," he says, giving Ryo four hours to go to the warehouse for the final battle.

Cue this AWESOMELY awful guitar music (apparently lifted from Ferrari F350 Challenge) while Ryo rides a motorcycle to the dock. I mean, it is fucking amazing. So naturally, when Ryo gets to the warehouse, he has to kung fu fight like 20 people, but he easily dispatches them. Then Terry shows up and he LITERALLY looks like some sort of bondage queen out of that one Al Pacino movie Cruisin'. Then Terry says he'll let Ryo go but only IF he cripples Master Chen's son. Then Ryo says he'll do it, but only if Terry takes him to Lan Di in Hong Kong. So he lets Ryo go without a fight, which is our cue for the “LOVE THEME FROM SHENMUE” (actual title: “Wish” by Hirota Yoshitaka) to play while Ryo gives Nozomi a ride back to the place on the bitch seat of the motorbike he borrowed from that one guy with the Members Only jacket. Holy shit, this really DOES feel like a great 1980s B-action movie, and Yu Suzuki ought to feel proud of himself.

The next morning (presumably), we cut to Ryo meditating in the dojo. He has a flashback to this one time his father admonished him for getting into a fight with another kid in school when he was like five (apparently, it was over this one girl he had a crush on, which is canonically why Ryo can’t express emotions to the opposite sex as an adult … no, for real.) He tells Ryo to treasure his friends, because they're going to be with him long after he dies. Which I guess is kinda' like reverse foreshadowing, in a way. Then Ryo heads back to the docks and runs into Master Chen's son. He says he wants to fight and they have an epic STAGED kung fu fight so Terry will take Ryo to see Lan Di. So they take turns head kicking the shit out of each other like it was a Kawada/Kobashi Triple Crown match from ‘95 for about five minutes and then we get the old Rocky II double knockdown finish. Then Terry shows up with a giant muffler (or is that a cement fence post?) and promulgates a MASSIVE 70-on-two battle with Ryo and Master Chen's son LITERALLY fighting the entire Yakuza by themselves (this was pretty much EVERYBODY's favorite moment in the original Dreamcast game, by the way.)

So Ryo breaks out a ton of new moves (including the old Hulk Hogan leg scissors trip up) and then Master Chen's son beats the FUCK out of Terry, even though he keeps fighting dirty as a motherfucker. Terry tells Ryo Lan Di has already left for Hong Kong, so Ryo does what any of us would do in that situation — he hits him with a mean spinning back fist, just out of sheer principle.

The more I think about it, the more I realize Drive is just a THINLY veiled remake of this video game (albeit, with considerably less Super Hang-On references.)

We cut to Lan Di jetting away on a speedboat, with Ryo kvetching over losing his trail. Master Chen's son then tells Ryo that he'll get his dad to help him pay for the trip to Hong Kong, but before he leaves, he gets a letter from Fuku-san while the elderly housekeeper Ine-san (or however you spell it) prays for him in the background.

Ryo walks through downtown Dobuita while his father's ghost cuts a monologue about what it takes to be a warrior (unfortunately, he doesn't stop by the Tomato convenience store one more time, because a good goddamn, do I love hearing that in-store jingle.)

So Ryo gets to the dock and Master Chen's son tells him he's going with him to Hong Kong. But oh shit, that Gollum-looking motherfucker drops a steel beam on Master Chen's leg, setting up our final karate fight to the death of the movie. Thankfully, Ryo manages to defeat him with a Mitsuharu Misawa elbow shot to the sternum, which presumably drowns that little de-skinned chicken nugget looking motherfucker for good.

Then Master Chen gives Ryo an envelope with the address to some kung fu master in Hong Kong on it, and Ryo thanks Chen and his son for their hospitality. Ryo hops aboard the freight liner, closes his eyes, and thinks of Nozumi one last time. She tells Ryo she's made a final wish for him and gives him an amulet. Then she tells him she's headed for Canada (there's more context in the game, I promise you) and tells him "I wish we had more time." Ryo then awakens from his daydream, the ship takes off and the snow continues to fall on Dobuita as that iconic "Shenmue" theme plays in the background. And from there, we cut to a promo from Shenhua, who talks about the prophecy of Ryo showing up in China and saving the world from a fate "fraught with adversity," which is an almost PERFECT segue to Shenmue III.

And on that note, it's time for the credits to roll, which also gives us super-fast recap of what happens in Shenmue II, and yeah, that’s pretty much the flick.

At this rate, I take it we'll get Shenmue IV fall of 2047, right?

Of course, in a game that’s like 40 hours long they had to cut a lot of stuff from the movie, but all in all, I think director Yu Suzuki (yep, THAT Yu Suzuki) did a pretty good job of boiling the Shenmue mythos into a nice, hour-and-a-half-long essence. Granted, there’s still a lot of parts from the game that I think should’ve been included in any cinematic adaptation of the source material — the part where Fuku-san gives Ryo his piggy bank savings, the part where Tom shows Ryo how to hurricane kick empty beer bottles, the part where Ryo finds the orphaned kitty cat behind his house, among others — and come on, how can you have ANY Shenmue movie without at least ONE trip to the arcade, and a couple of scenes of Ryo momentarily abandoning his quest for revenge to scoop up some capsule toys?

Still, this is a really charming little title that holds up WAY better than I anticipated. Shenmue: The Movie does a rather commendable job highlighting the many subtle things that makes the Dreamcast original one of the most beloved cult classics of all time, but what it really does for me is make me want to go back and play the game with a VMU controller in hand all over again. Just watching Ryo ambling around downtown Dobuita is like an automatic mega-dose of nostalgia, to the point it almost feels like I’m watching my disembodied self running around my childhood environs. Framerate issues aside, this thing is paced and structured pretty damn well, and if you don’t have a full 30 hours on your hands to watch a full walkthrough on YouTube, this is a pretty time-efficient means of getting the gist of the Shenmue experience.

Which, of course, brings us right back around to the latest entry in the series.

I have no problem acknowledging that when that shock Shenmue III announcement was made at E3 2015, I was among the MANY fans the world over that couldn’t help but weep tears of wistful joy. The first two games may have been commercial duds when originally released, but it’s clear that the series has earned a legion of admirers over the last two decades. Really, the mere fact that Shenmue III even exists is something of a miraculous marketplace triumph in and of itself. And as a long-time fan of the series, there’s just something so intrinsically endearing and captivating about resuming the Ryo Hazuki saga, and that we’re now just HOURS away from the third game in the franchise dropping is absolutely mind-blowing to me — and, to be totally honest with you, more than just a bit tear-jerking.
Now, here’s to hoping we just don’t have to wait another 19 years to get our hands on Shenmue IV, naturally …


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