Bad Lands (2023) by Masato Harada

Sakura Ando and Ryosuke Yamada star as step-siblings who become involved in the violent underworld in this crime drama. Neri (Ando) works as part of a gang defrauding vulnerable people, under the auspices of the ex-Yakuza Takagi (Namase Katsuhisa). She lives a rough life in a slum in Osaka, surrounded by fellow homeless and societal drop-outs, after leaving Tokyo many years before. When her brother Yashiro (Yamada) is released from jail, she asks Tamaki to give him a position in the organization. Tamaki has plans of his own, taking on a hit job and accumulating gambling debts with disreputable individuals. Nira is drawn into this while also facing the prospect of a violent billionaire (Yasushi Fuchikami) who is tracking her down. All the while the police are on the trail, attempting to piece together evidence to take down the fraud ring.

“Bad Lands”, based on Hiroyuki Kurokawa’s 2015 novel “Keiso” (“Weeds”) and directed by Masato Harada (Hell Dogs) is a complex crime thriller with a large cast of characters and several plot threads twisted together. At its heart is Sakura Ando’s Neri, whose criminal work comes more through necessity than choice. Ando is excellent in the role, with her acerbic retorts to her male accomplices and her simmering resentment and trauma that has pushed her to this point. It is clear that the film is based on a novel with the interconnecting stories often feeling a little shoehorned in, the main plot following Neri and Yashiro, while sub-plots involving Neri’s past and the ongoing police investigation could have formed whole films by themselves. However, this large canvas approach does create a real-world feel that the film capitalises on, particularly early on as we see the gang attempt to take down a score in public, with every extra a potential witnesses, co-conspirator, or police officers. The whole supporting cast do a great job, with scene stealers such as Ryudo Uzaki’s Mandala, an ex-Yakuza who now spends his days drinking and gambling. A classical soundtrack and allusions to Dostoevsky and Hegel give the film an air of sophistication amongst the low-lifes and thugs who populate its world.

In an over two-hour run-time the film manages to cram in so many characters and stories that it is hard to pick out a single overarching message. Neri and Yashiro are understandably made somewhat sympathetic despite their actions, while the rest of the people around them are variously depicted as despicable leeches who attempt to profit off the misery of others, or those unfortunates who society has let fall off at the lower end. The most reprehensible charater is without doubt Yasushi Fuchikami’s sadistic CEO, who abuses women physically and sexually and lacks any moral compass. In a world in which such an individual can become an ultra-wealthy and highly-respected company boss, is it any wonder that brutality and avariciousness typify the lower orders as well. The moral choices presented to the characters may be black and white to many, but the film offers shades of grey too. The police investigation is hindered by higher-ups wishing to protect certain connections they have with the gang bosses they are there to keep in check; while those at the bottom show certain values of trust, loyalty and compassion that are admirable and notably absent from the people society asks us to respect. A fun, complex crime drama with a superb cast of characters that gives an insight into the increasingly stratified society of modern Japan.

Hell Dogs (2022) by Masato Harada

Goro Idezaki (Junichi Okada) is working his first shift as a patrol officer when five people are gunned down in an armed robbery. Believing he was to blame he sets out to kill the members of the Chinese gang responsible. He is later picked up by the chief of the undercover crime squad and asked to infiltrate the Toshokai yakuza group. Under the name of Kanetaka he pairs with another yakuza hitman called Muroka (Kentaro Sakaguchi). The two are assigned to protect the new head of the family, Toake (Miyavi). As he gets closer to bringing down the group, Kentaro must ensure that his cover is not blown.

Based on a comic book by Akio Fukamachi and directed by Masato Harada, who also wrote the script, “Hell Dogs” is a stylish crime thriller with flashes of nihilistic violence. The story will be familiar to fans of the genre, with an undercover cop; various double-crosses; sexual liaisons that threaten to undermine the operation; and gangster in sharp suits. The array of characters creates a sense of realism, with bosses and capos, enforcers, the mob wife, the police chief, the love interest, an assassin, call girls, and more enlivening the world, although due to the constrictions of film many are little more than plot drivers. The central relationship between Kanetaka and Muroka is well-done, although there is never any real sense that Kanetaka has conflicted loyalties, which seems like a missed opportunity to create some tension. Several side characters, in particular Noriko (Shinobu Otake) suffer from this lack of time, with their backstories largely brushed over. That being said the star-studded cast is firing on all cylinders, bringing these archetypes to life with charisma to spare. The action sequences are well-done, leaving no doubt about the brutality of these criminal regimes, though they occasionally tip into the ludicrous, such as when two people miss each other several times from point-blank range. These moments occur often enough to be considered the film’s ironic humour, or a sideways comment on genre conventions, as when a character comments on never having seen a female assassin before.

Idezaki’s redemption arc sets him on a hero’s path, journeying through hell to make amends for his past mistakes. Although he is not personally to blame for the initial crime, his determination to set things rights displays a lex talionis sense of justice. A question arises as to whether Idezaki is driven by a sense of justice, or something darker, hate, drive to dominate, or pure aggression. Bosses on both sides of the criminal divide point Idezaki at a target, which begs the question of how different they are and whether Idezaki’s life is guided more by luck than free will. This comparison is brought up again, when Muroka relates Idezaki’s story, not knowing who he is, suggesting that ideas of honour, loyalty and justice are mirrored in the police and the yakuza. One side story that is given short shrift is that of Muroka’s ex-girlfriend, who has begun a survivors group for people who have lost loved ones to gang violence. It is one of several curious ideas thrown into the mix, another being the various undercover agents who are revealed throughout and the police force’s negligence in taking care of them. A complex crime thriller with enough interesting characters to breathe life into the well-worn story of a cop going undercover in the yakuza.

Bounce Ko Gal (1997) by Masato Harada

A group of teenage girls spend a wild, dangerous night on the streets of Tokyo, earning money through the seedy world of ‘compensated dating’. Maru (Shin Yazawa), who has recently had an abortion for an unwanted pregnancy, goes to meet a male client. The man (Koji Yakusho) turns out to be a Yakuza and takes her ID and phone, telling her he’ll give them back when she pays him. Her friend, Jonko (Hitomi Sato), heads to the Yakuza to negotiate getting Maru’s phone and ID back. Meanwhile, Risa (Yukiko Okamoto), is hoping to make enough money to set herself up in New York, with her flight leaving in less than 48 hours. After selling her underwear and being directed to a softcore porn shoot, she meets up with Raku (Yasue Sato) and the two form a friendship. Risa has also captured the attentions of Sap (Jun Murakami) who works as a scout for young girls.

“Bounce Ko Gals”, written and directed by Masato Harada, does an incredible job of capturing the fashions and trends of the period, while shining a light on the dark underbelly of society. The early scenes with the schoolgirls, with their famous roll-down white socks, fake-tan, and relatable obsessions, set the scene for a film that, despite an apparently exploitative story, firmly establishes things from their perspective. The cast all do a great job with a script that exudes believability, with coarse, unguarded conversations alongside moments of emotional candour between the friends. They are smart, funny, worldly wise and cynical, while also being victims of a society that sees female value only in terms of appearance and sex. The camera wends its way through crowds, plunging us right into the throngs of people, creating a palpable sense of energy and movement. Told across a single day, scenes often cross-over, with the camera following one group then catching sight of another protagonist and switching to them. This all goes to help the sense of a living, breathing city and real characters.

The film is an incredible social document, offering a window to this specific period in time, the world of ‘compensated dating’ and the sexualisation of young girls. We see various aspects of this, including girls selling their underwear and school uniforms; ‘talent’ scouts picking up girls on the street to sell to hostess clubs or pornography companies; and older men paying for dates with teen girls, usually with a sexual motive. The film steers clear of moralising, but rather questions the type of society where these behaviours are prevalent and, to an extent, normalised. It is a society where women and girls are considered second-class and existing only for the amusement of men. Also one where youth is fetishized. As the teens state at one point, high-schoolers (Japan has middle and high school), are already considered old ladies. However, this film empowers its protagonists, showing them as savvy and self-sufficient in the warped economy where money rules all and girls can be easily exploited. It shows the dangers of what they are doing too, with brief indications of brutal violence, but also there is a sense of fun and camaraderie between the girls that shines through. One important moment near the end of the film sees the trio of Risa, Raku and Jonko conversing while a group of priestesses perform their rituals nearby. It gives agency to them, and suggests that the choices women make are entirely their own and that it is possible to find strength through companionship in a world that seems determined to keep them down.