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.

The Village (2023) by Michihito Fujii

Yu (Ryusei Yokohama) works at the local recycling plant that has been constructed above the rural village of Kamon. At night he is coerced into working for gangsters who are illegally dumping hazardous waste at the site. Unhappy, yet forced to continue with the job to pay off his mother’s gambling debts, Yu is given a chance at turning things around when his old friend Misaki (Haru Kuroki) returns to the village. Misaki starts work at the plant and soon recruits Yu to provide tours for school children and take part in a documentary. Not everyone is happy as Yu’s father, who was opposed to the site, carried out an arson attack 10 years earlier.

“The Village”, written and directed by Michihito Fujii, is a sleek thriller centred around the activities of the waste processing plant in this rural community. The plant, which looms over the quaint village as a grey monolithic monstrosity pumping out toxic fumes, comes to symbolise the loss of innocence of the characters and the village itself. This community, now a dumping ground for all kinds of waste, some of which is buried illicitly causing water contamination, represents the duality of the human experience, capable of both hope and beauty and at the same time greed and corruption. Yu is a sympathetic protagonist, a tragic hero who is attempting to keep his head down and do the right thing, forced by circumstance into a Sisyphean struggle to support his mother, constantly berated for his father’s actions, and working for the bully Toru (Wataru Ichinose), the son of the mayor (Arata Furuta), who is also involved in the illegal dumping activity. Misaki, in contrast, returns to the village as a naive, uncontaminated soul, at first unaware of Yu’s misery. Unfortunately, the two of them are unable to escape the darkness that pervades this community, being dragged into it themselves. The film references Noh theatre, with a quote from a Noh play prefacing the drama that speaks of life as a dream; one that people are unable to wake from. The cinematography captures the elegance and simplicity of theatre, and the story itself is a timeless tale of good versus evil updated with modern concerns about environmentalism, corruption, gambling and gangsterism.

This modern tragedy is underscored by the incredible visuals, the contrast between the quiet traditional village setting, surrounded by verdant countryside, and the desolate ground of garbage with its insatiable concrete god belching fumes beside it. After Yu’s father’s failed attempt to stop construction of the plant, Yu appears to have simply given in, resigning himself to the daily drudge and hypocrisy of his work for the mayor and the local gang leader. In one scene we see Yu crouch down and listen to the sound coming from a mysterious hole in the waste site. This dark pit symbolises the darkness in himself, calling to him in his despair. It is this struggle against his own will, an attempt to supress the desire for revenge or to stand up for what’s right that makes him a tragic hero. It is one of several elements that are left to interpretation, such as the silent grandmother who bears witness to the village’s decent, and the enigmatic final shot. A stunning film with incredible cinematography and score by Taro Iwashiro; and a story that manages to weave together modern anxieties with traditional fears.

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.