The Yakuza franchise has definitely been one of the most popular video game properties in Japan for the last few years. Not only has there been at least one main series game every other year, but there have been several spin-off titles as well (not to mention a live-action movie). One of these titles is a PSP Yakuza game called Yakuza: Black Panther. But when starting off this new side story in the Yakuza universe, Sega did more than just make a PSP game: They made an eleven episode live-action TV series to go along with it. And Yakuza: Black Panther turned out to be the most action-packed Japanese drama I have ever seen.
Black Panther is the story of a young delinquent, Tatsuya, who lives with his sister. While trying to get a friend out of trouble with the local Yakuza-owned loan office, he instead ends up trying to fight them before eventually getting knocked out. When he awakens, he has a gun in his hand and everyone around him has been shot and killed.
As Tatsuya tries to evade the police and prove his innocence, he is picked up by the Yakuza and shown the security footage of him murdering the local gang. They offer him a deal: he can earn the money to buy the tape from them by fighting in an illegal fighting ring. There's just one catch: if he loses, he will be found as the victim of an unfortunate "suicide" the next morning.
That's all in the first episode and it never slows down from there.
From that point on, the plot rotates through several stories. Of course, the main plot revolves around each deathmatch—building up the hype and introducing the opponent and then finishing with the fight. Between fights Tatsuya looks for leads that will explain why the Yakuza at the loan office were killed and if he was truly responsible for the murders.
The other characters—villains, cage fighters, and allies have well-developed storylines as well. From the Yakuza princess trying to make a normal life for herself to Tatsuya's friend who is more handy when it comes to computers than fighting, everyone gets their time in the spotlight to prove they are more than one-dimensional characters.
Moreover, no character is safe in Black Panther, despite the time spent on developing each one. With deathmatches and an on-going murder mystery, well-developed characters can meet their deaths at a moment's notice—pulling you more and more into the story as there is simply no way to predict who will be the next to die.
Most Japanese dramas ham it up, to say the least. Every emotional moment is overplayed to the point of melodrama, with someone crying at least once per episode. Black Panther bucks this trend. While there are a few heart-breakingly emotional moments, none are overacted to the point where they lose their emotional resonance.
Black Panther focuses on the more serious side of the Yakuza games. There are no silly side jobs, playing ping-pong with hostesses, or hours of wasted time in a taxi. However, the crime plots, urban landscape of Japan, and massive amounts of street brawling are key to the setting of the drama.
And instead of taking the viewpoint of an older character returning to the Yakuza world after ten years in prison, Black Panther looks at that world through the eyes of someone being pulled into the criminal underworld for the first time—and not liking what he sees.
The camera work for the fight scenes is just plain terrible in the early episodes. The camera is constantly moving and is way too close to the action to see what's going on. It feels like each fight scene was filmed on a shaky handheld camera. And with the camera cutting to a new angle seemingly once a second, it's disorienting, to say the least.
The quality of the fight scenes does, however, get much better as the series moves on—especially with the excellent use of slow motion at key moments. You are finally able to see the fight choreography in all its glory—at least most of the time anyway.
Going into Yakuza: Black Panther, I was expecting a run-of-the-mill Japanese drama. What I got instead was a compelling plot with excellent, well-rounded characters. And while many dramas have more than a little padding to fill out their 11- or 12-episode runs, Black Panther never slows down. It is a show that never wastes a single moment and the series stands out from the pack because of it. If you like the more serious side of Yakuza, then Black Panther is definitely the show for you.
Yakuza: Black Panther is currently available on Japanese DVD without English subtitles (though fansubs do exist). There are no plans for an international release.