The Heart of Corruption in THE BLOOD OF WOLVES
*The following essay includes spoilers about The Blood of Wolves*
When we are first introduced to veteran detective Shogo Ogami (played by Kôji Yakusho) in The Blood of Wolves, it’s through the eyes of a straight-laced rookie, Shuichi Hioka (Tôri Matsuzaka). Ogami seems more concerned with fucking the sister of a missing person in the police interrogation room than actually finding the missing person. He provokes Hioka into picking a fight with an outsized yakuza, sets a building on fire to illegally gather evidence, taking bribes to look the other way from lesser criminal activity, and, in the film’s most iconic scene, holds a gangster down to bloodily extract his genital piercings when the gangster fails to provide information.
Shogo Ogami is the vision of a bad cop, a figure whose outlandish antics are played for laughs while acting as a direct refutation of the kind of ordered justice that Hioka stands for. You might end up rooting for Ogami because he’s likeable and this is a crime movie, but there’s no denying that he does not represent a by-the-book style of policing, as his devotion to investigation by any means necessary looks more chaotic than what could possibly sustain a case in court.
We eventually come to realize that this is part of why a greenhorn like Hioka has been paired with Ogami in the first place. He’s there to report to the higher-ups about Ogami’s misdeeds and provide a foundation for action to be taken against him. You recognize Hioka thinks of himself as the good guy because he abides by the rules of an orderly society, designed to protect the rights of the accused while still bringing justice for the victimized.
That’s where the hidden depths of this yakuza crime thriller start to shine through, revealing a surprisingly complex morality for a film that spends the majority of its first half playing for violent goofs and laid-back retro atmosphere. As the investigation reveals to Hioka the complex machinations of a turf war between two rival yakuza factions, it becomes clear that Ogami doesn’t have the liberty of being a neutral arbiter of justice. He has been the main peacekeeping force between the yakuza gangs, using his power as an officer to beat them into line hard enough to maintain respect, but not so hard as to invite retribution on himself. As he says, working his beat is like walking a tightrope, and the only way out is to keep moving forward.
And in the end, that’s what kills him. When the yakuza gang war kicks into full gear, Ogami is one of the first casualties, found dead in the water with pig shit in his stomach. At first, this would seem to be a tragedy of a life lived poorly, as not even Ogami’s immense skill as a detective was enough insulation against the violence of those he bumped elbows with. But as the violence escalates and a new order in the gangland landscape asserts itself, Hioka starts to suspect that there might be more to Ogami than just his blunt force attitude to keeping the peace.
For Ogami, being police was not about power over the lawless, but about the protection of civilians. Hioka’s conversations with Ogami’s informants reveals a depth of concern for those caught in the crossfire of the yakuza, the collateral damage of violence, and the unchecked extortion that a lack of police presence would invite. But even more concerning to Ogami was his lack of faith that the police would do anything at all if he were not present to keep the yakuza in line.
The Blood of Wolves paints a portrait of the police as bureaucrats concerned with their own power, and that the ideal of protecting and serving is an anomaly that only Ogami was up to the task of effectuating. But in order to do that, he needed to get dirty. He needed to become a thug himself. And he needed to get dirt on the police as insurance against his termination, all so that he could keep protecting civilians.
In the end, there is no justice for Ogami. There are no convictions for his murder, no assurances that his life did anything more than delay the inevitable. The justice system is corrupted by the corruptible, and the yakuza continue to spill blood in the streets. The only hope for the future is a newly jaded Hioka, armed with the same blackmail Ogami had before him and a newfound recognition of the lengths necessary to live up to his own ideals of justice. He may have entered Ogami’s unknowing tutelage with a naïve belief that the institution he had entered was there to protect and serve more than its officers’ desire to advance their own careers. But in the end, he recognizes that despite Ogami’s persistent role as a bad cop, he was the most incorruptible of them all.
Ogami had the noble blood of wolves in his veins. Perhaps now Hioka has the same.
You can watch The Blood of Wolves streaming now on Shudder.
Leigh Monson is a non-binary film and television critic from St. Paul, Minnesota. They’re passionate about genre movies, LGBTQ things, LGBTQ things in genre movies, and the LGBTQ folks who love genre movies. Read their work on What to Watch.