Yakuza and the Family (2020) by Michihito Fujii

A poignant story of a young man’s involvement in a crime family told over two decades. In 1999, Kenji Yamamoto (Go Ayano) attends the funeral of his father, who died through drug abuse. Shortly after he finds a surrogate parent in the figure of Hiroshi Shibazaki (Hiroshi Tachi), who recruits him into his yakuza organization. 6 years later Kenji has risen to be one of the most respected members of the gang, and a personal favourite of the boss. He falls for a club hostess named Yuka (Machiko Ono) and looks out for the son of a murdered yakuza member, Tsubasa. Following a lengthy jail sentence for murder, Ken returns to the outside world in 2019 to find things much changed for those around him, discovering that Tsubasa (Hayato Isomura) has become tangentially involved in the same world as his father.

Writer-Director Michihito Fujii creates a stylish crime thriller in “Yakuza and the Family”, an emotional character-driven drama punctuated by flashes of violence. Languid shots of sunsets and cityscapes give way to creative handheld camerawork as we are plunged into the viscerally brutal realities of gang life. The sleek visuals of Keisuke Imamura’s cinematography don’t overpower the drama, but allow the story to slip in and out of the romanticised aesthetic of the Yakuza genre. Taro Iwashiro’s score also compliments the story perfectly, capturing the harsh exterior and underlying fragility of the characters. The large and impressive cast give a captivating ensemble performance. Go Ayano’s “Ken” is a deeply vulnerable and conflicted character, circumstance having driven him into a life of crime. There is a childlike aspect to him to, most obvious in his faltering relationship with Machiko Ono’s Yuka. Ono gives a powerful performance as Yuka, dragged into the orbit of the yakuza largely against her will, defined by her relationships with Ken and her daughter, but with a strong sense of self preservation and steely resolve. Ryutaro Ninomiya (director of “Sweating the Small Stuff”) also features in a small yet important role as Ohara. Hayato Isomura, as the older Tsubasa, is one of the most sympathetic characters, as we see him falling into the same trap as Ken while searching for a father figure.

“Yakuza and the Family” is a film about the paternal and fraternal bonds of organized crime families, but also about the need of young men for father figures. Both Ken and Tsubasa both appear as drifting, directionless, characters, lacking a role model or figure to turn to for support or comfort. Their search for acceptance, perhaps even love, drives them to the overemphasis of their masculine aggression and pride, Ken through becoming a vicious Yakuza member, and Tsubasa becoming a fighter. The yakuza are often referred to as a ‘family’, but we see here that it is a twisted, house-of-mirrors version of family, providing the members with only a poor simulacrum of a genuine parent-child relationship. The film ends on a bittersweet note, highlighting both the dark side of crime, yet also the importance of kindness and charity and the impact it can have on others. A superb character-driven Yakuza drama with an excellent cast that is well worth a watch.

Ride or Die (2021) by Ryuichi Hiroki

Two women go on the run in this stylish romanctic thriller. Rei (Kiko Mizuhara) has had a crush on her former highschool classmate Nanae (Honami Sato) for years. When Nanae turns up out of the blue and reveals that she is in an abusive relationship, Rei takes matters into her own hands. After killing Nanae’s violent husband, Rei goes on the run from the police. Deciding she can’t let her go alone, Nanae joins her and the two make their escape from the city. While attempting to outrun the inevitable, the two women reassess their relationship.

Based on the manga “Gunjo” by Ching Nakamura and directed by Ryuichi Hiroki from a screenplay by Nami Sakawa, “Ride or Die” has all the elements of an exciting crime drama, sex, murder and two troubled protagonists. What begins as a stylish thriller soon morphs into a romantic road trip movie, with the two leads cruising around Japan, largely unphased by what has happened. The inciting incident of the crime is merely a means to get these two characters back together after a long separation; with the main focus being on Rei’s attempt to win Nanae’s heart. The direction, with many long hand held takes, demands the best of its actors and both Mizuhara and Sato deliver in their performances with many emotionally charged moments between them. Both are struggling with their sense of self, their worth and identities, which they hide beneath an outwardly upbeat persona. Their chemistry together is believable and you can sense the halting confusion of two people who are working out exactly what their relationship is. One of the weaker elements of the story is the relationship of Rei and her girlfriend Maki which is broken off unceremoniously and undermines some of the sympathy we might have for Rei. The cinematography and aforementioned style of long takes draws us in to the drama completely, as the omnipresent camera follows them through environments smoothly, allowing the action to unfold in a naturalistic way. Occasionally, the film can be a little indulgent with its long tracking shots of cars, but they always look stunning. The film shifts gears several times from being a stylish crime thriller and an light-hearted romantic drama, with explicit sex scenes and unflinching violence on the one hand, and on the other a pop soundtrack as the two women laugh and enjoy each other’s company.

“Ride or Die” is about two women rediscovering who they are, unrequited love, domestic violence and the trap of not being able to express yourself. Rei’s infatuation with the girl from her highschool is a passionate love that pushes her to the extremes of behaviour. She is tragic in her one-sided passion for Nanae. The two are separated not only by their sexuality, but by their wealth and status, with Nanae feeling indebted to Rei. We feel this tension throughout, the tugging of various impulses and obligations that drive the two characters. One of the most heartbreaking moments in the film is reserved for Maki, a supporting character, whose relationship with Rei touches on themes of one-sided love and being comfortable with your sexuality. The domestic violence faced by Nanae is depicted starkly, her body covered in bruises, and the catharsis of her husband’s death is something the audience will sympathise with. However, issues of male violence are brushed over to allow for the flourishing of Rei and Nanae’s relationship on their own terms. A film that occasionally obscures its more meaningful themes with its stylish veneer, it nevertheless is an exciting romantic crime adventure with two outstanding performances from its leads.

Snakes and Earrings (2008) by Yukio Ninagawa

A young woman becomes fascinated by the idea of body modification after a chance encounter at a club. Lui (Yuriko Yoshitaka) meets Ama (Kengo Kora) at a nightclub and is immediately intrigued by his punk style, dyed hair, piercings, tattoos, but most of all his split tongue. He offers to take her to his friend Shiba (Arata Iura) who runs a tattoo and piercing parlour. Lui decides that she will get her tongue pierced, with the intention of achieving a split tongue (a painful process involving increasingly large tongue studs), and also a tattoo. On their first meeting, Shiba tells her that her innocent appearance turns him on as he is slightly sadistic. Lui says that she is masochistic and it is not long before the two are involved in a sexual affair that they keep secret from Ama. Things are further complicated when Ama beats up a gangster who harasses them in the street and Lui decides to protect him from the law.

Based on the novel by Hitomi Kanehara, with a  screenplay by Takuya Miyawaki and director Yukio Ninagawa, “Snakes and Earrings” gives us a look at disaffected youth in Tokyo and the subculture of those who enjoy body modification. The plot takes a back seat to the emotional themes, that of a young woman trying to find some meaning in her life. Yuriko Yoshitaka’s Lui is a woman who seems completely numb to the world around her, distant from her parents and with few friends, lost in a sea of banal corporate culture. Kengo Kora’s Ama is easily the most sympathetic character, his rough punk appearance hiding a kind-hearted soul. Arata Iura’s mysterious Shiba appears as the agent of chaos between the two, seen largely in his denlike studio where he is the master of his domain. The small supporting cast features an appearance from Tatsuya Fujiwara as the yakuza, but the focus is on the three leads and their tortuous love triangle. The film’s guerrilla style filmmaking, shot on the streets of Shibuya help give the sense of a living world, pulling us in to the bustling city teeming with life. The majority of the story takes place in a limited number of sets, including the tattoo parlour and Ama’s apartment, which helps to keep the story focussed. There is not much of a plot, but the relationships between the three leads are intriguing and exciting enough, the sex scenes are not explicit but get across the power relationship and mix of brutality and sensualism in their lovemaking. The melancholic score of piano and strings resonates with this downbeat, nihilistic atmosphere.

“Snakes and Earrings” begins and ends with Lui in Shibuya, the camera whirling around to look at the various billboards and company logos, all the while in absolute silence. It is the perfect way to express her complete disillusionment with the world. This is a young woman who has completely checked out, nothing excites or motivates her. The sado-masochism and body piercing is the perfect metaphor for that desire to simply feel something, anything in the world, even if it is painful. The pain she experiences helps her to connect with people for the first time in a long time. We learn that she is not in contact with her family and her relationship with her friend seems superficial.  Not all of the film is as easy to analyse as the central theme of finding a sense of self expression and fulfilment in a meaningless culture that strips us of our humanity. There are themes of sex and violence, as you may expect, but also ideas of death that are harder to reconcile with Lui’s story. It is a downbeat story with a compelling portrayal of someone who seems to have hit rock bottom attempting to feel something for the first time in a long time.

A Girl Missing (2019) by Koji Fukada

A woman is tortured by regrets in this mysterious thriller from Harmonium director Koji Fukada. Ichiko Shirakawa (Mariko Tsutsui) works as a home care nurse. As well as looking after the elderly Toko Oishi (Hisako Okata) she also tutors her two grandchildren, Motoko (Mikako Ichikawa) and Saki (Miyu Ozawa). When Saki is kidnapped and later returns, Ichiko is shocked to learn that the kidnapper was somebody close to her. Deciding not to tell Saki’s mother, she later comes to regret the secrets she has kept as she is harassed by the media, forcing her out of her job. Ichiko later begins a relationship with a man named Yoneda (Sosuke Ikematsu) who may also have a connection to the Oishi family.

Writer and director Koji Fukada (Harmonium) again creates a unique crime drama in which the focus is not on the crime itself, but on the lives it impacts. We learn little about the kidnapping, the motivation behind it, or exactly what happened to Saki. Ichiko is drawn into the emotional vortex caused by the incident, a scapegoat for everyone’s anger and confusion; and it is her struggle that we bear witness too. The film begins with Ichiko having changed her appearance and beginning a friendship with a Yoneda, who works as a hairdresser. As the story moves back and forth between the present and the past, the mystery is built up layer on layer, with more unanswered questions arising with each twist. It seems that we are always just on the cusp of some major revelation that remains out of reach. The film is understated, creating a slow burn tension as we see the characters spark off each other. Fukada is a writer who is comfortable to let things go unsaid or wrap them in metaphor and mystery. “A Girl Missing” pulls the rug out from under us by providing a crime set-up and then turning the camera away from the facts surrounding the case to instead focus on a character who has little direct involvement with the crime. This may prove frustrating to some, but works beautifully as a complex character study. The excellent performances, especially from Mariko Tsutsui and Mikako Ichikawa help to bring the film to life, both giving engaging performances as women dealing with difficult situations. Tsutsui shows us the slow deterioration of a woman who feels resentful at being unfairly targeted by those looking for someone to blame. Mikako Ichikawa is a sphinx-like in her portrayal of Motoko, harbouring her own secrets and shame. Fukada’s direction manages to create drama from a film that is largely comprised of dialogues. There are several stylish touches, such as the smoke rising early in the film, or the empty house towards the end, that show a knack for visual storytelling, capturing tone and theme simply yet effectively. While the film is largely realist, the occasional moments of avante garde expressionism fit perfectly in this world that seems slightly out of the ordinary, like looking at our society through a distorted mirror.

“A Girl Missing” is an unsettling watch, detailing the descent into paranoia and anxiety of an innocent woman beset by feelings of unnecessary guilt. It speaks to a society where shame and opprobrium are often levelled at those least deserving. The discussion between Ichiko and Motoko, sharing their tales of covert sexual behaviour provides perhaps the clearest key to understanding what the film is about. Society tells people to hide their shame regarding sex, causing later subconscious traumas for those who repress their feelings and instincts. There is discussion of the possible rape of Saki which highlights the dangers associated with a society where these behaviours are rarely discussed. Saki is unwilling to share what happened to her and this fear of speaking out, often through shame, is just one danger of a society which rarely wants to confront its own nature. The film shows us a media who are desperate for an easy answer, to wrap the case up, perhaps unaware that there is genuine suffering and emotional pain that cannot be so easily dealt with. The film’s major strength is that we never learn what happened to Saki; and we never learn the truth about Ichiko’s story. It leaves us with the uncomfortable realisation that humans will continue to mistreat one another; and that we will never fully understand each other or human psychology unless we are truly open to examining it without prejudice. The focus on the details of these cases blind us to the truth that we are all capable of causing pain. The immaterial specifics often distract us from dealing with our own sense of shame, guilt, and fear that drives these harmful behaviours.

Tokyo Tribe (2014) by Sion Sono

A hip-hop musical action comedy with lashings of ultra-violence, drawing on martial arts, gangster and exploitation cinema. “Tokyo Tribe” begins by introducing us to a fantastical fictionalized Tokyo run by gangs who have carved the megalopolis up into various districts. These include the Bukuro Wu-Ronz, Nerimathafuckers, the Gira Gira Girls in Kabukicho, and the laid-back Musashino gang. The leader of the Bukuro gang is Mera (Ryohei Suzuki), a sadistic gangster who answers only to Buppa (Riki Takeuchi), a crazy crime-boss with a reputation for violence. Mera has a grudge against Kai (Young Dais) from the Musashino group and plans to lure him into a conflict. Kai manages to call on the other gang leaders to back him up in his fight against Mera and Buppa. A young woman known as Sunmi (Nana Seino) who is kidnapped by Buppa’s gang later turns out to be the daughter of an important ally from Wong Kong, who sends his kung-fu enforcers to bring her back.  

With a relatively straightforward plot the film is able to spend most of its time on the cartoonish violence and creating a vibrant, chaotic alternate Tokyo; everything from the sets and costumes to the acting is dialled right up to deliver a sensory assault in keeping with the aggressive and anarchic tone.

Sion Sono is a director who is not afraid of creating works that are both shocking and humorous, seeming to relish the juxtaposition of various genres and elements. This film is no exception. You are never quite sure what to expect as things only get more extreme as they proceed, with the ending being a spectacular rap musical fight sequence that caps the increasing tension building to it. It is certainly unusual to see a hip-hop musical, but by leaning in to the wildness and comedy Sono makes it work. The music is enjoyable and there are a few great hooks and bars throughout.  Many of the cast are rappers so are able to sell the lyrics and bring their own swagger to the roles. Together with the non-rapper actors, including Shota Sometani who acts as a participant narrator, they do a great job of bringing this colourful world to life, playing outrageous stereotypes of ‘gangster rappers’ with a sense of fun. Sono has an incredible eye for visuals and the set design and costumes gives him a chance to really push the boat out, drawing inspiration from various places. With the white-painted human statues reminiscent of the Korova Milk Bar in “A Clockwork Orange”; references to Bruce Lee’s yellow tracksuit as seen on Uma Thurman in “Kill Bill”; the set dressing, pink and red balloons and wallpapers, in various rooms of the red-light district of Saga town are all highly suggestive, using the environment to full effect in creating tone. Slightly less overt are Erika’s virginal white underwear underwear and the seemingly bizarre phallic ornament that Buppa both displays and uses as a substitute for his own member at times; both of which have subtextual significance. All of the gangs have a unique style that make them instantly recognizable and say a lot about them without needing to explain it.

“Tokyo Tribe” is an unusual film, both in its blend of genres and in its themes. It is a film that seems to indulge absolutely male fantasies of sex and violence; with sadistic and chauvinistic criminals, pimps and prostitutes, powerful kung-fu masters, all wrapped in gangster rap bravado. However, the film largely seems to be poking fun at many of these things. There is a distancing effect to having the film be a musical, including Shota Sometani’s role as MC Show. This fourth-wall breaking helps to recast the misogynistic overtones as a criticism of misogyny and male-violence. While the stakes are high, the over-the-top performances from Riki Takeuchi in particular, mean it is hard to take any of it too seriously. In this sense the film can be seen as an attempt to puncture the grandiosity and violent posturing of hip-hop, with an unsubtle dig at the male fixation on sex and violence. We later discover that Mera has an unhealthy obsession with penis size as a measure of a man’s worth and this is the source of his envy and hatred for Kai. The film is essentially ridiculing popular ideas of what masculinity is. The character of Erika, who has come to Tokyo to escape being a virgin sacrifice for her father, further shows the horrors of a male-dominated world. In the Musashino crew we have a group who from the beginning espouse a philosophy of love and peace, and it is this that finally wins the day, against the meaningless violence that seems to characterise the other gangs in Tokyo.

Drawing on various influences, from hip-hop to gangster films, Hong Kong action cinema, the outrageous villains of Japanese teen manga, the filmmakers and actors create a fun alternate reality, with amusing caricatures and a great soundtrack, that can be enjoyed as a tongue-in-cheek dig at much of the culture.