This week is a time for families to come together and try to avoid excessive conflicts. So, here is a movie about organized crime.
It is 1999 and…where is this guy going?
Jesus. The dude dressed like that to his own father’s funeral? What happened? That guy who sits next to him says that his father died due to a drug addiction. Or because he could afford to feed his addiction. I guess that he could not hack it in the downward economy.
This is Yamamoto Kenji, or Lil Ken. He meets up with his buddies, Ohara Kohei and Hosono Ryuta. The three of them go riding through the city.
Kenji stops when he sees someone in a car who is obviously selling drugs. He goes over and asks to buy some. The guy says that new customers need a referral. So, Kenji says the name Yamamoto Masaru. And that is enough for the dealer. That is all the confirmation that Kenji needed: this is the guy who sold his father the drugs. So, Kenji assaults the guy, steals his drugs, steals his money, and drives off to rejoin his bewildered friends. The guy tries to drive after them, but doesn’t catch them.
That evening, the three go to the waterfront where they count the money and look at the drugs. Kenji takes the drugs (and maybe the money) and tosses it all into the water.
The trio go to a restaurant called OMONI. The owner, Aiko, knows the boys well, and offers to help out Kenji with whatever he needs.
In comes Mr. Shibazaki and a few his men. He is the head of the Shibazaki-gumi. What is he doing in a modest place like this? Well, Aiko seems to know him well enough. Is he a regular? Kenji cannot help but stare.
Four guys enter the restaurant and attack Mr. Shibazaki, one of them carrying a sword. His men intervene and a brawl breaks out. Shibazaki shields Aiko. The other customers flee. Kenji’s friends curl up against the wall. But Kenji stays seated, just taking it all in.
Shibazaki’s men seem to have largely subdued the attackers until one of them pulls out a gun. Then Kenji approaches him from behind and knocks him the fuck out. Then he quietly says that they were all making too much noise. Shibazaki looks impressed, but is unable to respond before Kenji’s friends pull him out of there to avoid the cops.
Kenji goes home and…wow, his place is messier than mine. And I don’t have a box containing my father’s ashes.
Shibazaki’s underling, Nakamura, somehow gets into Kenji’s home and brings him to the Shibazaki-gumi office. Shibazaki tries to think Kenji for his help back at the restaurant, but Kenji interrupts him, saying that his intention was not to save Shibazaki. Shibazaki keeps going, saying that Aiko’s husband was one of his lieutenants. He starts to tell a story when Kenji tells him to get to the point. Another underling, Makoto, gets angry at Kenji’s disrespect, but Shibazaki brushes it off. When asked what he does for a job, Kenji states that he will not join the yakuza. Shibazaki wonders if it is because of Kenji’s father, but Kenji says he doesn’t care about that. Shibazaki says that his group doesn’t touch drugs. So, what do they do? Shibazaki tells Nakamura to…I guess recite some sort of oath: yakuza respect duty and honor, strive to be gentlemen, and pursue the path of becoming true men. And with that it is time to eat. It is unclear whether Kenji actually eats. He does leave with a business card, though. Shibazaki Hiroshi.
Kenji is just walking aimlessly through wherever when his friend calls him up yelling at him to run. He notices four guys approaching him and he runs off. They give chase. Also, there is a guy in a car trying to get him. He manages to evade them and fight them off, even after getting hit by that car. But they eventually catch up to him.
Kenji wakes up in some building and…erm…well, I will not show it, but there are signs that a lot of violence happened, both to him and to his two friends. A man walks over and introduces himself as Kato, lieutenant of the Kyoyo-kai. He seems to recognize Kenji as Masaru’s kid, and then mocks the guy for drowning himself due to being unable to afford drugs. Another guy, Kawayama, kicks Kenji. Kenji spits blood in his face and threatens to kill him. The other guy laughs and then kicks him some more. Kato asks about the stolen drugs and Kenji feigns ignorance. So, Kawayama goes over to one of Kenji’s friends and starts to break his fingers. The guy, who has been beaten already, almost immediately shouts out that the drugs are in the ocean.
Speaking of the ocean, there is a boat arriving from Hong Kong. I am not entirely sure what goes on that boat, but Kato says that they have three potential organ donors right here. So, the Kyoyo-kai guys take Kenji and his friends out to the water. Theoretically, they could try to retrieve the drugs while they are there, since they were still in the baggie, but whatever. They put the three guys on the boat and then go through their pockets, to get rid of any identifying evidence. Kawayama finds the card from Shibazaki. Somehow, that stops everything. Kato says that he the Kyoyo-kai had a deal with the Shibazaki-gumi before. Kenji says that he has nothing to do with the Shibazaki-gumi, but Kato makes a phone call anyways.
At some point, Nakamura goes to pick up Kenji and his friends. He brings Kenji to the Shibazaki-gumi office. Shibazaki sees Kenji covered in blood and jokes that he must have given them hell. He gently asks if Kenji has anywhere to go. Having been stoic and silent up to this point, Kenji bursts into tears.
Some time later, Kenji takes part in the familial cup ceremony. He drinks from the cup and Shibazaki tells him that they are family now. Kenji, speaking more crisply than he has since the beginning of the movie, responds that he is honored. The other men applaud. Kenji is family now.
It is 2005 and the economy is doing just fine. And…that is quite the tattoo there.
Is…is this seriously Kenji? Well, I guess that six years would really change someone, though I guess that he still likes to wear his hair over his eyes.
Anyways, Kenji, Ohara, and Hosono are all in the Shibazaki-gumi. Currently, Kenji is hosting a little party at a club to celebrate Nakamura becoming a lieutenant. Nakamura claims that Kenji didn’t need to do this, but…I would like to believe that he appreciated it a little bit. Kenji also gives him a wristwatch and…it’s a wristwatch.
Well, this looks nicer than his old place. Or less cluttered, at least.
Some cops are discussing the redevelopment of the Kitaguchi area. The guy who had been at the funeral for Kenji’s father is the lead detective here. There is talk of dismantling the Red Light District, as well as three bar and restaurant areas over the course of three years. The detective notes that the Kyoyo-kai controls the north and the Shibazaki controls the south. They have not been at war in eight years, but this move might push them together, causing them to fight over scraps. Instead of calling this move a bad idea, he considers it an opportunity to nab a bunch of yakuza members. I suppose that provoking a yakuza war may help to ensure the safety of the community in the long term, but I am not sure that that is how cops should operate.
Shibazaki is doing that thing where you hit golf balls off of a building and into who knows where? I am sure that any complaints don’t reach him. Kenji tells him about the party, which he didn’t attend due to disliking clubs. Shibazaki then asks how Kenji is doing. Kenji says that income is steadily rising despite constant pressure from the cops. He says that he will someday make Shibazaki the head of Shouou-kai, the syndicate of which the Shibazaki-gumi is part. That’s very nice, but not what Shibazaki meant. He asks if Kenji has a girl. Kenji gets flustered and inarticulate. Shibazaki tells him that he needs a girl. Shibazaki seems to have resigned to his fate of being old alone and dying without anyone noticing, but he doesn’t want that for Kenji. Kenji says that Shibazaki has the Shibazaki-gumi. Shibazaki quietly smirks. Nakamura has been watching much of this and grimacing.
Kenji and his two pre-yakuza buddies walk down the street. Apparently, he is the “boss” of some of these establishments. He and the boys go to Aiko’s. She still calls him Lil Ken, and dismisses his request for her to stop. He sees Tsubasa studying. Tsubasa was just a little baby when Kenji first met Shibazaki. And now he is in school. Kenji commends him for studying and gives him some cash. Aiko tells her son to keep it; people always need more money. Tsubasa thanks his “Uncle” Ken.
Ohara tells Tsubasa that he will join the family when he gets older. Aiko gives Ohara a little slap and a reprimand. I guess that she would rather her son not end up like his father. So, Hosono gives Tsubasa the opposite advice: don’t become like them. Tsubasa says okay. Hosono laughs as Kenji takes a phone call. They have to leave, and apologize to Aiko. Tsubasa stares at them as they go in a manner that hints that maybe he favored Ohara over Hosono.
The trio enter a hostess club and “Mama” tells Kenji that a customer suddenly got mad about the bill. It looks like it is Kawayama and some of his buddies. Kenji tells him that he is disturbing the other customers and should leave. Kawayama jokes about the time that he abducted Kenji and beat him up. He then brings up the redevelopment, saying that this whole place will change in ten years. He says that Shibazaki should resign and get out of the south in exchange for twenty percent. And with that, Kawayama starts to leave.
Kenji smashes a bottle over Kawayama’s head and punches out a goon who tries to retaliate. Kenji’s buddies hold him back before he goes too far. A bloodied Kawayama gets up and says that he will have to tell his boss. This might be war. Now he and his goons leave. Did they pay?
Well, since Kenji and his boys did not have time to finish their drinks from Aiko, they ask Mama for drinks here. So, they get drinks as well as company. The hostess accompanying Kenji notices some pieces of glass in his hand, and picks them out.
As the trio are leaving, Hosono pulls Mama aside. He gives her a message for the hostess who had sat next to Kenji along with some cash for the incident.
The hostess, Miyuki, takes a taxi to Kenji’s apartment. She is nervous, but she is here, as he had requested. He doesn’t seem to appreciate how apprehensive she is about being here when he…um…pushes her onto the sofa. She protests and slaps him in the face. He gets angry and more aggressive, so she hits him on the head several times. Eventually he gets the hint and gets away. He is still confused. Is she a virgin? No. So, then what was the problem? Did she not know what it meant to come here? Miyuki says that she came only because Mama had told her to. Kenji insists that this was part of the instructions, and gets upset at the implication that he needs to spell it out. Then he denies that he would ever mess around with Miyuki, and she tells him that he just tried to. Again, he says that he would never do such a thing. What in the hell?
Kenji drives Miyuki home…or as close as she is comfortable with. Before she can leave, he takes out his phone and demands her phone number. She puts in her phone number…or a number. Kenji drives off without checking if it is genuine.
As Shibazaki speaks with Kato over the phone, Nakamura scolds Kenji for starting a fight. Kenji insists that he could not let Kawayama disrespect them. Makoto and the others seem to get where he is coming from. Kenji offers to talk with Kato himself, as he is the one who messed up. Nakamura says no. He seems less angry about the fight itself and more at the thought that Kenji is trying to show him up despite being a subordinate. The others seem to notice this as well. In any case, Shibazaki ends his phone call and tells everyone that he is going to meet with Kato.
That evening, Shibazaki and Nakamura sit down with Kato and Kawayama. Kato notes that Kenji is absent. Shibazaki apologizes for what he says is a fight between children. Kato asks how Shibazaki will fix this. Fix what? Kato calls him senile, saying that the assault on a lieutenant cannot go unanswered. Shibazaki says that the family told him to agree to that deal eight years ago, but has not forgotten about Kimura. Oh…was that Aiko’s husband? Anyways, Kato responds by saying that the Shibazaki-gumi had killed his last boss, and killing Kimura was hardly a fair trade. So, Shibazaki dares Kato to take him out. And then he throws his drink at Kato while he is trying to light a cigarette. At least it didn’t exacerbate the fire, right? Shibazaki calls Kato a thug and…I suppose that the meeting is adjourned.
Kenji tries calling up Miyuki, but gets no answer, so he goes to the hostess club and waits outside. Or, maybe she did answer his call, because she comes out and goes to his car even though she is technically still working. He tells her to get in and has no patience for her excuses. What a charmer.
On the drive to…wherever, Kenji asks Miyuki…erm…Yuka. Kenji asks Yuka why she is working at the club. She is evasive at first, but eventually says that she could not pay tuition. Kenji is surprised, saying that she looked a little old to be a student. Yuka opens the door of the MOVING CAR. Kenji tries to stop her, but she demands that he apologize. Instead, he speeds up the car, fast enough I guess to get the door to close on its own. What a charmer.
Kenji takes Yuka to the ocean. She tells him that she has not seen the ocean since she first arrived to this place. She then asks Kenji why he is in the yakuza. He says that it is none of her business. She then asks how the yakuza live…and why they wear sunglasses at night. Why do they call each other “boss” and “brother” like that? He pushes her towards the water and threatens to drown her. She screams and yells at him not to touch her, and he denies having touched her. What a charmer. Well…at least she laughs this time.
Yuka says that she had never thought that she would meet the real thing…A real what? A real yakuza? At a hostess bar? She asks Kenji again why he is in the yakuza. He tells her that they are his family; no reasons are needed. What about his “real” family? He doesn’t have one. She stands a little closer and says that she doesn’t have one either. Kenji looks at her…and then walks back to the car. Yuka runs after him and jokes about the sunglasses again.
Shibazaki is going to go…fishing? I guess that he wants Kenji to come along, although Kenji says that he is terrible at fishing. Shibazaki mentions breaking the deal with Kato. Kenji apologizes for causing trouble, but Shibazaki tells him not to worry. He does say, though, that if anything happens to him, then Kenji’s generation will have its time to shine. Kenji insists that he will protect Shibazaki with his life. This amuses Shibazaki. Ohara, who is driving, promises to protect the both of them. Kenji says that Ohara couldn’t protect an ant.
Kenji is about to tell Shibazaki about Yuka, but Shibazaki kind of figures it out. Kenji says that he is not quite sure yet, as she is stubborn, but Shibazaki says that he is glad for him anyways. Ohara is overjoyed. Shibazaki tells Kenji to take OH FUCK!
Kenji shields Shibazaki and gets hit in the shoulder. Ohara gets shot and crashes the car. The motorcycle speeds away. Kenji limps out of the car and sees that his best friend Ohara Kohei is dead.
Kenji cannot attend Ohara’s funeral, as he is in the hospital. That detective can, though, and meets with Shibazaki. He insinuates that Shibazaki should have been the one to die, not Ohara…not Kimura back before the deal. He promises to take care of the incident, as long as the Shibazaki-gumi doesn’t make any moves. Nakamura protests, but the detective warns that any escalation would blow back on the Shibazaki-gumi and the Shouou-kai. Nakamura protests again, and the detectives says that everyone in the family will be lost. He warns that it is not just the law and the police; the whole world will come to exterminate the yakuza.
Shibazaki and Hosono go to visit Kenji. Though it is clear that Kenji has not fully recovered, he claims that he is well enough to…do it. Shibazaki says that he has decided to let the police handle it. Kenji says that he started it, and so he should finish it, but Shibazaki tells him that it is over. A news report says that someone has been arrested for the attack, but he has refused to cooperate. Will that be enough for Kenji? Of course not.
One night, Hosono notices Kato and Kawayama walking down the street and makes a phone call. Coincidentally, Kenji has escaped from the hospital and is limping down the street. He makes it to the club where Hosono is waiting for him. Hosono gives him a gun and tells him where the two are headed. He finds Kawayama…erm…most likely raping a woman. He is about to shoot Kawayama when Nakamura runs up past him and stabs Kawayama with a rather large knife.
The woman runs off and Nakamura tells Kenji to take good care of the boss. Kenji doesn’t leave, saying that Nakamura is also needed to support the boss. He pulls Nakamura up and pushes him away. He then goes over to Kawayama and stabs him a bunch more times. And then runs off before Kato arrives with…oh, that detective. He and Kato had been in cahoots the entire time.
Kenji stumbles over to Yuka’s place. He is breathing too erratically to speak, and she stays silent as well. He embraces her, not romantically, but like a child in need. In need of a family. In need of…oh, okay, so he wants sex.
Kenji is gone by the time Yuka wakes up. He has left three bundles of cash.
Kenji is waiting in the office when Shibazaki and Nakamura arrive. Shibazaki embraces Kenji and says that he makes a father proud. The cops arrive not long afterwards and take Kenji away. His arrest makes the news. Yuka sees it. Aiko and Tsubasa see it. Kenji will spend over twice the amount of time in prison as he had spent in the Shibazaki-gumi before his arrest. And when 2019 arrives, Yamamato Kenji will be released into a world that he barely recognizes.
I have summarized what is basically the first half of this movie. And the first half was fine. It shows how a troubled young man was gently…and then not-quite-as-gently…inducted into the yakuza. Then it skips ahead six years to when he is fully entrenched in the organization, and just before a conflict with a rival group leads to his fall. Sure. That’s fine. I liked it. But that is not the real story.
The real meat of the movie comes in the second half. And…in all honesty, I kind of struggled with this write-up. There have been a few times where I have summarized an entire movie, but I would like to keep that to a minimum. Yet, I am very tempted to make this one of the exceptions, especially since that seems to be the main point of discussion for people who have seen the movie.
The movie is your standard story of someone in organized crime. It shows how he joined (actually, I am still not sure who those people were who initially attacked Shibazaki at the restaurant), how he fell, and his attempts to live after having fallen. This movie, though, adds a little wrinkle to that last part. Japanese law in the past had treated the yakuza in a manner that outsiders may have judged to be tolerant to a bizarre, but that has become less the case in recent times. As an example of this major shift, the movie spotlights the Yakuza Exclusion Ordinances, which had been in effect for years by the time that Kenji is released from prison.
The Shibazak-gumi has been experiencing hard times, so while they welcome him back, they have little ability or desire to keep him if he chooses to leave. So, the life of crime is not really trying to tempt or force him back in. Instead, society and the law itself push him away. Laws preventing ex-yakuza members from associating with each other for five years is difficult enough. But then nearly no one else wants to associate with them, and those who do risk ostracism. Jobs are difficult to get and harder to keep. Bank accounts, insurance, and housing can all be denied. It is as if the system is designed to send them back to prison. One does not need to necessarily sympathize with a man like that to get that such restrictions kind of limit his pathways towards a legal lifestyle. And, yet, the movie kind of does.
To be sure, Kenji is not portrayed as some sort of good guy. He is violent, easily angered, and controlling. And his treatment of Yuka leaves a lot to be desired. We see all of that in the first half. Yet, the movie gives him and a few of the other Yakuza characters a few outs. For one, there is the issue of drugs. Kenji seems to hate drugs because his father got addicted and had a fatal overdose, but it seems to go beyond the personal. Shibazaki also forbids his group to deal in drugs for…whatever reason. To sell drugs is considered shameful, and it is only the other wicked rival groups that do so, giving the yakuza a bad name.
There is also something a little old-fashioned about the depiction of the Shibazaki-gumi. Honor and loyalty are paramount to the group. Not only that, it goes both ways. Shibazaki may disapprove of some of the things that his underlings do, but he will go to bat for them every time. Some of his underlings may try to keep things from him, but they would never outright work against him or move against him; that would be shameful. They are loyal to a member who is in need even when they are all struggling. This depiction of yakuza members struggling to live with duty and honor may seem a little quaint after the Outrage trilogy. Heck, the Battles Without Honor and Humanity series that came out almost fifty years ago treated all that talk of loyalty and masculinity with utter contempt. Yet, here it is again.
The Shbazaki-gumi members are a family. A chosen family. So, this is not simply a crime movie, but a family drama. Shibazaki has no wife or children, so the men under him become his sons. Kenji’s mother is nonexistent, and his father lost himself in drugs until he committed suicide. So, Shibazaki became his father. I find it interesting that other translations of the title are The Family or Yakuza and the Family. It goes beyond Kenji as well. We see the allure of the yakuza to young Tsubasa, who is surrounded by yakuza members, but kept in the dark about his father. We also see it in the lonely Yuka, who seems enthralled by her connection to the yakuza, even though her actual relation to it is not necessarily great.
The movie may not necessarily depict the yakuza as all glamorous all the time, but it adds a healthy dollop of sentimentality. That has, understandably, rubbed some people the wrong way. Especially those who had just seen the 2020 movie Under an Open Sky that approached the life of an ex-yakuza member in a more emotionally subdued manner. I will get to that movie eventually, but I feel like there is enough room for both movies. And besides, this movie is trying to say something about the yakuza exclusion ordinances, something that Under the Open Sky did not address. Did the movie sacrifice subtlety for the sake of advocacy? Perhaps. That doesn’t really bother me as much as it may bother others. And if it was manipulative, then it worked on me, because I got emotional about it.
So, yeah, I liked this one.
WTF ASIA 241: Bodyguards and Assassins (Hong Kong: 2009, approx. 139 minutes)
WTF ASIA 242: My Way (South Korea: 2011, approx. 143 minutes)