Hard Days (2023) by Michihito Fujii

An all-star cast chase after a hidden fortune in this slick crime thriller based on a Korean original. Detective Kudo (Junichi Okada) drives through the rainy streets, dealing with a call from his wife, Misako (Ryoko Hirosue), who is planning to separate along with his child Mina. Another call from his section chief tells him there is an ongoing investigation into corruption, possibly centering on Kudo’s connection with the Senba yakuza family. Things only get worse when Kudo hits a pedestrian who has stumbled into the road. While trying to hide the body, Senba (Akira Emoto) tells him that there is a hidden fortune in a vault protected by a large temple, whose shady dealings with top-rank politicians includes money laundering. Kudo is not the only one after the stash, with Internal Affairs officer Yazaki (Go Ayano) also keen to get to the money.

“Hard Times”, directed by Michihito Fujii (“Yakuza and the Family”) is a fast-paced crime thriller, with a far-fetched plot and plenty of darkly comic moments. Kudo’s attempts to dispose of the corpse could be straight out of a slapstick comedy and the whole film tests suspension of disbelief to the limit. The plot is farcical, in the sense that every misstep by Kudo simply pushes him further into trouble, all the while he is simply trying to do his best for himself, his wife and daughter. He is a sympathetic character, stressed to the eyeballs, fallible and resourceful. Yazaki is starkly contrasted with Kudo, consumed by status and his job, with his marriage to the boss’s daughter being simply another step on the ladder, lacking any emotional content. There are plenty of shock moments too as the story plays out, constantly keeping a step ahead of the audience.

The film’s opening as Kudo’s colleagues fret about a potential corruption investigation into their section is a perfect set-up for what is to follow. Throughout Kudo is presented with a series of moral choices, both large and small: whether to lie at a traffic stop about drinking, or to hide a dead body in his recently deceased mother’s coffin. He doesn’t alway do the right thing, but the film suggests that at heart his chief desire is to protect and support his family. When he says to his wife that he’s truly sorry he couldn’t make her happy, we see that all his behaviour and misbehaviour is underlined by his love for his family. Meanwhile, Yazaki and Senba are cynical, money-minded, living either lonely existences or in relationships characterised by a lack of connection and warmth. Senba makes reference to lizards that hop in a desert to prevent burning on the hot sand. Kudo is a hostage to the vissicitudes of fate, his misfortune leading him to some dark junctions, but the one thing he is able to decide his what he’s fighting for.

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.

Homunculus (2021) by Takashi Shimizu

Susumu Nakoshi (Go Ayano) is suffering from amnesia, homeless and living out of his car, when a strange man named Ito Manabu Ito (Ryo Narita) taps on his window. Ito asks Nakoshi for seven days in which to change his life and give him something to live for. Nakoshi goes along with Ito, who tells him his plan to conduct an experiment: to drill a small hole in the front of his skull and see if he experiences any supernatural abilities. Nakoshi agrees to the trepanation and soon finds himself able to see the inner form of people, their deepest traumas. These take the form of a homunculus, which can appear in any shape relative to the trauma the person has experienced, from bizarre monster-lie figures, to more abstract manifestations. Nakoshi sets out with his newfound ability and manages to help some individuals, but things take a dark turn when he is forced to confront a trauma from his own past.

“Homunculus” is based on a manga by Hideo Yamamoto (Ichi the Killer) and directed by Takashi Shimizu (Reincarnation). A dark fantasy, toying with elements of psychological horror and traditional monsters in the form of the homunculus, it is an intriguing premise and the scenes where Nakoshi wanders the streets of Kabukicho seeing the various representations of inner turmoil, with some very inventive designs, is fun to watch. It would have been great to delve into more character’s psyches, but with the constraints of a film’s running time we are limited to only a handful of problems for Nakoshi to solve. The special effects on the homunculi are mostly good, showcasing a variety of creative designs. The homunculus comprised entirely of an ever shifting torrent of jewellery charms was particularly unique. The film touches on a number of dark issues, in particular violence and sexual violence. It is a film that also has a number of uncomfortable moments that will no doubt spark debate or contemplation, mostly concerning the schoolgirl character, where the film leaves perhaps a little too much unsaid about the intended message. The acting by Ayano and Narita is exceptional, giving themselves over to the weirdness of the premise and making it as believable as it can be. Shimizu’s stylish modern direction, using text message overlays for example, brings us right into the story in visually interesting way.

The film offers a unique look at psychological trauma, by turning it into something tangible in order to tackle it. We see that behaviours are conditioned by past actions and how these inner sufferings are often hidden from the rest of the world. While it deals with difficult subjects of mental health, sexual abuse, violence, neglect, suicide, miscarriage, death, and other issues, it smuggles these things in to a story that on the surface is a straightforward supernatural mystery. The blend of supernatural and psychological is an interesting one, drawing comparisons between ancient belief systems of spirits and modern science around neuropathy. The film touches also on ideas of ethics in science. A fun adventure drawing on mythology and psychology to deliver a fascinating look at the inner-workings of the human mind.

Mukoku (2017)

Kengo Yatabe (Go Ayano) is a young man battling several demons. His father, strict to the point of psychologically abusive, trained him in the art of kendo. After an incident in which Kengo struck him across the head with a bokuto, his father is now comatose and Kengo feels the guilt of his actions, knowing that he has as good as killed his own father. He has retreated into the bottle, given up kendo, and now works as a security guard. His days consist of routine punctuated by heavy drinking, a far cry from the young focussed athlete he once was. Tooru (Nijiro Murakami) is a teenager who likewise seems frustrated and alienated from the world. His passion is rap and specifically writing lyrics which help him express his pent up rage and emotions. After a run-in with a group of kendo players, he is dragged along to their training session. Showing himself to be full of aggression, though untrained, the tutor takes an interest in him. The teacher is also trying to bring Kengo round from his stupor and arranges for the two men to cross paths. This fateful meeting puts both on a collision course, with Tooru now dedicated to the sport that Kengo is attempting to run from.

From the opening scenes of the film it is clear that this is something special. We see a young Kengo and his father training, while the mother calls them for dinner. The transition to the inciting incident of Kengo injuring his father is perfect in putting the audience off-guard. It is not immediately clear what has happened, as the early scenes could be straight from a samurai film, suddenly interrupted by the appearance of a university student. This perfectly captures one of the film’s themes as we see the ancient traditions coming right down to the present. This confusion also puts us in a similar position to Kengo himself as he is unable to fully come to terms or understand what happened, whether it was an accident or purposeful attack. Throughout he is haunted by visions and recriminations of that event, and it is not at first clear exactly what happened. Likewise, the way the film shows Tooru’s sense of isolation with an opening shot with him out of frame and imagery of an underwater crowd at his concert, shows the skill and confidence of the director Kazuyoshi Kumakiri to tell this story in an interesting visual way. The script is written by Ryo Takada, based on the book by Shu Fujisawa. Both Go Ayano and Nijiro Murakami give exceptional performances. The director is not afraid of long takes and even in lengthy scenes both are entirely believable in their roles. The supporting cast, most notably Akira Emoto as the kendo instructor help to bring this world to life. There is a small part for Atsuko Maeda as Kengo’s girlfriend. The story is well paced and the occasional flashbacks and lapses into Kengo’s traumatic recollections keep you guessing what has happened and what will happen. It is not a typical sports story, though there are occasional training montages, but everything is tied more particularly into the psychology of Kengo, and to a lesser extend Tooru. The cinematography is beautiful, including some standout moments, such as the fight in the rain.

Mukoku is nominally a sports story, with a great insight into the art of kendo and scenes of practice and combat. This only acts as a support for the emotional drama of the main characters. It would not have worked with another sport. The traditionalism and values of kendo are of special significance in this story. In an early scene we see a giant statue of Kannon, a buddhist deity, on a hillside behind Kengo as he shares a beer with a homeless drunk. Themes of religion and tradition become more apparent as the film goes along. The film stresses the importance of having a strong moral code and more importantly something to focus on to prevent becoming wayward. The will to survive in the battle-practice of kendo can be seen as a basis for a healthy life and averting a descent into melancholy and despair. It is clear that Kengo is directionless, drifting through a life of alcohol and regret, with his former master attempting to set him back on the right path. Tooru is by contrast inspired by the strict training regime and dedication required for Kendo. The philosophy of kendo plays a central role in the story, with many of the lessons of this art becoming guiding principles for the characters. The ideas of sin and righteousness, displayed by Kengo’s straying from the path and Tooru’s adherence to it, is characterised well. A highly entertaining film dealing with several issues and coming at them from a peculiarly Japanese angle. Definitely recommended for those with an interest in kendo, its practice and philosophy.