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.

Smoking (2018)

An unlikely group of assassins work together to give various petty gangsters their come-uppance in this blackly comic crime series. Sabe (Ryo Ishibashi), Hifumin (Kaito Yoshimura), Goro (Tomomi Maruyama) and Haccho (Nobuaki Kaneko) are four homeless individuals who provide a service to those with the money to pay; namely killing gangsters and other ne’er-do-wells. Their gimmick is that Sabe, who has some medical training, flays the tattoos off their victims backs, delivering them as grisly proof that they have eliminated their target. As the series progresses we learn that Sabe was formerly employed by a shady organization known as The Cleaner, who also specialised in underworld killings. The other three members of his team, the mute teen Hirofumin, intelligent and kind; the heavyweight prize-fighter Goro, whose terrifying proportions strike fear in their victims; and the sharply dressed Haccho, each have their own tragic backstory that brought them together one by one to form this team known as “Smoking”.

The story is based on a manga by Iwaki Hiroshi and its origins show in the colourful characters and outrageous set-ups for each episode. The four leads are almost heroic archetypes, a sort of super team all bringing their unique skills to the mix. The series is twelve episodes, each under a half an hour, in which they are usually presented with a new job to undertake. As the series progresses we learn more about each character, and the over-arching story of The Cleaner and Sabe’s past bring some unity to the story as they are all drawn into a violent showdown with this gang. There is plenty to enjoy in “Smoking” if you don’t take things too seriously. The set-ups are ridiculous, taking real world criminal activity and exaggerating it into something more fantastical. Examples of this include a gang that has an entire hospital full of elderly people who they have hooked on drugs; or an underground martial arts betting ring, where the fighters are also pumped full of narcotics before beating each other to death. The idea of peeling off the tattoos of each victim is a unique touch, showing that our protagonists are just as brutal as the irredeemable gangsters they take down. The four leads are perfect in their roles. Ryo Ishibashi (Suicide Club, Audition) lends an air of credibility to the outlandish story. Kaito Yoshimura (Love and Other Cults) does a good job as the largely silent and sympathetic Hifumin. Tomomi Maruyama and Nobuaki Kaneko are no stranger to television dramas and do a great job with the roles of Haccho and Goro, offering much of the comedy in their bickering and both excelling when their stories take a dark and tragic turn.

“Smoking” occasionally suffers from certain limitations of television drama and budget constraints. The pacing is uneven at times; perhaps unsurprising since each episode has to be wrapped up in such a short time. This could perhaps have been helped by running some of the stories over multiple episodes. It certainly helps build tension later in the series when we begin to get recurring characters and the semblance of an over-arching plot. Often there will be little discussion of what their plan is, which makes things seem matter-of-course and again does little to provide a sense of threat. Often the characters will put themselves in dangerous situations that draws their intelligence into question. These are clearly televisual shortcuts to ramp up a sense of danger, or bring all the required characters together in a particular place, but again it undermines any real sense of threat. This is not always the case and there are episodes that work very well in the short episodic format, such as the MMA betting ring episode. The direction and look of the show can also be hit and miss, with stylish shots and moments reminiscent of heroic crime dramas followed by very mundane scenes of the characters in their makeshift home, or out on the streets. It excels when it strives for a manga aesthetic and this is definitely something that could have been more prominent. The series is clearly set in a hyper-stylised version of reality, so trips itself up in going for a more believable look at times.

Crime thrillers usually follow either the cops or the criminals, whereas “Smoking” follows a group who are somewhere on the border between good and evil. On the surface their actions are horrific, killing and skinning their victims, but they are doing it for the greater good by ridding the city of violent gangsters. As Sabe flays his victims he usually delivers a short speech about peeling away their skin to reveal the monster within. It is a show that asks us to question our understanding of crime and society. The tattoos that mark these individuals are a sign of their criminality, but their sins cannot be so easily stripped away as their flesh. As things progress our natural sympathy with the protagonists is strengthened as we learn about what brought them together, each having had dealings with some criminal element. The central premise, of a group who are paid to kill gangsters, suggests an interesting irony in how we deal with crime in society. By doing this work, dealing out this punishment, that may be deemed good or even necessary, they are lowering themselves into the mud along with their victims, becoming the very monsters they are trying to eliminate. “Smoking” is well worth a watch for fans of crime dramas, with an excellent cast and a story that is fast-paced and packed with melodrama.

Ichi the Killer (2001) by Takashi Miike

A masochistic mobster and a sadistic assassin are pitted against one another in this gory crime story from Takashi Miike. When a yakuza boss goes missing, his chief enforcer Kakihara (Tadanobu Asano) goes in search of clues. Kakihara has violent sado-masochistic tendencies, as we can see from the numerous scars across his face, his mouth being a wide slit held together with piercings. Kakihara comes to learn that the killer of his boss was one Ichi (Nao Omori), a man who has been brainwashed into being a heartless killer, with sadistic inclinations. As they draw closer to a confrontation, we are given a series of gruesome, violent, stomach churning scenes in one of the finest examples of Japanese exploitation cinema.

Not a film for the faint-hearted or those easily repulsed by gory special effects, the director Takashi Miike blends cartoonish violence, horror, pitch black comedy, along with realism in an unsettling portrayal of the darker drivers of human behaviour. The film is based on a manga by Hideo Yamamoto and the characters feel very much like comic book heroes and villains that have landed in a gritty, crime-infested Tokyo familiar from many yakuza films. This sense of the fantastical is emphasised in the use of colour, Ichi’s superhero-like costume, and helps make the content more palatable. The direction moves from fast paced action to more sedate scenes of character interaction. There is definitely a chaotic punk feel early on, with jarring cuts and music, and a handheld camera racing through the neon-washed streets swarming with people. We also see high-angled framing and off-kilter action that brings out the comic-book feel and helps bring the audience into this anarchic world where anything goes and the only certainty is pain and violence. The film pushes the boundaries of good taste at times, with infamous scenes involving a severed tongue, reference to rape, domestic abuse, and scenes of torture. However, the film holds together as a solid crime drama, with the central narrative being easy to follow. A fantastic supporting cast includes Alien Sun, a Chinese prostitute; Shinya Tsukamoto as Ichi’s mysterious handler Jijii, and various gang members played by Sabu, Shun Sugata, Kiyohiko Shibukawa, and Suzuki Matsuo who plays twins Jiro and Saburo.

It would be easy to dismiss this film as a violent, gory thriller, made with the intention of pushing the audience to the limit of what is acceptable. For those willing to examine the film carefully, there are deeper meanings here. Ichi could almost be considered the Id, driven solely by violent and sexual urges, confused, struggling to establish some kind of morality in his disordered existence. Kakihara also appears as a metaphor for human desire for violence and suffering; he is a comment on viewers of this film, who wish to sit through something so uncomfortable, to be shown the absolute lowest, most grotesque imagery, in order for some kind of spiritual gratification. There are also numerous allusions to the relationship between violence and sex, familial relationships and the abuse of power that can occur within them. Both Ichi and Kakihara are products of their environment, deeply disturbed individuals who typify the dog-eat-dog mentality of society. Worth watching for the creative scenes of carnage, but also worthy of consideration at a deeper level.

Battles without Honour and Humanity (1973) by Kinji Fukasaku

1949. Hiroshima. The devastation of the atomic bomb and the harsh economic conditions of post-war Japan are apparent in the shanty town that has been erected amongst the rubble. We are introduced in quick succession to a number of people who are later to become important players in the Japanese underworld: Yakuza bosses and captains. A young ex-soldier, Shozo Hirono (Bunta Sugawara), is sent to prison for killing a gangster. Inside he meets Hiroshi Wakasugi (Tatsuo Umemiya), a member of the Doi Family. The two become blood-brothers and Hirono is inducted into the chaotic world of crime. What follows is an unpredictable, bloody, violent, telling of the various power struggles in the decades following the war. 

Based on newspaper articles of the time by Koichi Iiboshi, the film has a style that is almost documentary-like in places, going so far as to present on screen the names and dates of death of the gangsters who are killed. It requires some concentration to keep in mind all the characters and their allegiances throughout, but this helps add to the sense of realism. The opening scenes of the film, set in the ramshackle streets of Hiroshima, perfectly set up the brutal chaos that is to follow, as we are pushed through noisy crowds, and see a series of gruesome events taking place simultaneously. It is a masterclass in setting up numerous characters and establishing a tone for the film. The film never lets up this relentless pace, with scene after scene adding to the confusion and devastation that the Yakuza leave in their wake. Directed by Kinji Fukasaku, who later went on to helm the Battle Royale adaptation, this film abounds with his style: frenetic, gory, and with a good eye for framing a scene and telling a multiple character story. The actors all do a good job. The music by Toshiaki Tsushima suits the film well, setting the feel for the period.

I would highly recommend this film to fans of the Yakuza genre as one of its finest examples. Although the film does have great flair and stylishness, it does not necessarily glorify the violence. The killings are instead shown to be a mundane affair, taking place so regularly that you become almost desensitized to them. It is a great look at post-war Japanese society from the perspective of the Yakuza.

Agitator (2001) by Takashi Miike

An underground rivalry spirals out of control in this thrilling yakuza tale from a master of the genre. Two rival gangs, the Shirane and Yokomizo groups find themselves locked in a tit-for-tat struggle following the death of one of their members. Things escalate when the heads of the groups are targeted. All of this is part of an audacious plot to take over the groups and see them affiliated with the larger Tenseikai syndicate.

With his “Black Society” and “Dead or Alive” trilogies of the nineties, Miike established himself as a director with a unique style, with often bloodspattered and extreme stories of violence. “Agitator” owes more of a debt to the former than the latter, something akin to a modern day “Yakuza Papers” in its complex hierarchies and increasingly dangerous vendettas, albeit with fictionalised Yakuza families. At the heart of the film is the rivalry between Shirane and Yokomizo gang members, that gives the audience larger forces to split up the large cast of characters. Much of the narrative involves plotting and manipulation by the higher-ups of the yakuza, punctuted by the violence carried out by their underlings. A few characters do fall by the wayside and there are relationships that are underdeveloped. Miike has a fantastic eye for blocking and framing scenes, using inventive camerawork to enliven what would otherwise be tedious scenes of exposition.

“Agitator” deals with themes familiar to many yakuza films: the shifting line between honour and duty; the cycle of violence engendered by revenge; and the hierarchical nature of criminal gangs, and by extension society, that sees people suffering at the whims of their superiors. The film is a sprawling gangster epic with excellent performances and a plot that keeps upping the ante with every twist and turn.