Genre: Love Tale amidst Dismal Street Realism
review in one breath
When an innocent young country girl falls for a low level yakuza, she enters a completely different world in which the line between good and evil are quickly blurred. Through great ups and downs their love will be tested, but the ultimate test lies in whether or not they will survive the downward pull of the lifestyle they have chosen.
This is the last film in what director Mochizuki Rokuro refers to as his "No Good Middle-Aged Yakuza Trilogy". These three films, Another Lonely Hitman (1995), Onibi (1997) and A Yakuza in Love all express a rather cynical realism regarding the yakuza lifestyle. Thus rather than glamorized heroes and great acts of valor, Mochizuki's protagonists are mediocre, even dim-witted, and stumble quite aimlessly through their days in a world filled with violence and tough-guy antics.
In a recent interview Mochizuki confessed that he has never been interested in the classic all-male yakuza genre. He prefers to add strong female characters to his narratives, and this comes through in each of the three films in this trilogy. But only in A Yakuza in Love does the relationship become the primary focus in the film. Here, nearly all the plot elements revolve around or interact with the very intense love relationship between the lead characters.
There has been an obvious evolution in Yakuza-genre films over the past few decades. In the 1960's yakuza were drawn with classic old-school, almost legendary strokes where tradition, honor and self-sacrifice were the unbreakable codes of yakuza behavior. These films often made or viewed their lead roles as honorable heroes. By the late 1970's, however, this hero-motif gave way to films which often depicted yakuza as greedy and petulant bullies nearly stumbling over each other as their plots against rivals unfold. This trajectory of near ridicule of the yakuza continued up to the early 1990s and perhaps reached its climax in the infamous incident following the 1992 release of Itami Juzo's Mimbo no Onna. Itami's film focused intensely upon the methods of extortion employed by contemporary yakuza and showed that with some courage and clever strategy such techniques can be completely overthrown. This film and its depiction of the yakuza as conniving and utterly lacking morals so infuriated actual yakuza groups that they orchestrated a knife attack upon Itami which nearly killed him. But rather than instill fear, the attack was seen by the public at large as evidence that Itami had indeed struck a nerve within the yakuza organizations by demonstrating how vulnerable and empty their otherwise boisterous threats can truly be.
In the 1990s there emerged a "street-level realism" within yakuza films wherein the harsh realities of criminal life are viewed as the determining factors in a characters survival and direction. In this period you'll find, amongst many others, all of Miike Takashi's serious yakuza films, Toyoda Toshiaki's uber-realist Pornostar and the yakuza films of director Mochizuki Rokuro. Here the emphasis lies upon characters' survival and demise within an almost karmic spiral fueled by a subculture of crime, violence and sin. Thus lead characters here, despite even a potentially noble character, are depicted as swimming in a violently surging river, bouncing from one jutting rock to the next but unable to set a true course for themselves. As mentioned earlier, it is Mochizuki's characteristic style to throw into this mix a strong female role which usually serves to deepen and complicate the lead character's struggle against the tide of his reality.
The current film is based on the novel "Ukonshi Kujira" by author Yamanouchi Yukio. Yamanouchi has written quite extensively in the "street-level realist" yakuza/hitman genre and director Mochizuki has used his work in several of his films including both Another Lonely Hitman and Onibi. Although I do not have any personal familiarity with the written works, Mochizuki refers to both Onibi and A Yakuza in Love as being based on "real" events (I'm sure the correlation to reality is quite loose), though he admits adding some of the more bizarre elements within A Yakuza in Love based on situations he has personally encountered in the past.
The cast here is quite decent. The lead character of Kinichi is played by Okuda Eiji who has appeared in several of Mochizuki's films including Onibi. Okuda has won several "best actor" awards during his career and has directed two of his own films. He conveys a very unique and believable "good-natured bad guy" persona in A Yakuza in Love. Kinichi's younger sidekick is played by Matsuoka Shunsuke who, in addition to starring in the lead role in Mochizuki's next yakuza film, Mobsters' Confessions (1998), will go on to appear in several films familiar to readers here such as Freeze Me (2000) and Kakashi (2001). And finally, the lead female character Yoko is played by Natsuo Yuna who you will recognize as Rie in Wild Life (1997) and the unfortunate girl near the oven in Suicide Circle (2001).
While in Tokyo for a "hit job" on a rival yakuza boss, the low-level yakuza Kinichi and his side-kick Hamaoka spend their days peering out the window of their second-story apartment waiting for their target to show up at the address across the street. Its from there that Kinichi catches a glimpse of a young waitress at the coffee shop across the way and immediately decides to become acquainted.
Yoko is an innocent girl who recently moved to Tokyo from her hometown in order to attend a university. Kinichi, who originates from Osaka and has quickly grown to despise what he sees as the rudeness of Tokyo, immediately recognizes the rural-esque charm and sincerity of this young girl. Through some time, diligence and the secret aid of narcotics, Kinichi and Yoko are soon exploring each other's bodies in a nearby hotel. And it is there that Yoko finally sees the massive yakuza tattoo on Kinichi's back.
Though now thoroughly in love with the kindness and sincerity of Kinichi, Yoko must decide whether to forsake the safety of the socially conventional path she has been pursuing in order to follow Kinichi. By the time she decides, she is already living in Osaka with a small band of low-level characters led by Kinichi as he tries to establish some form of survival for them all.
Regarding the specific genre of this film, there is indeed a lot of apparent complexity in the narrative which simultaneously compelled and ultimately confused me. As mentioned earlier, the foremost element in this narrative is its romance theme between Kinichi and Yoko, and yet viewers will immediately intuit that this is not a normal romance. Kinichi's use of (basically date-rape) drugs to initially snare Yoko, to her subsequent kidnap and employment of her by him in illegal endeavours, to the ridicule and violence he puts her through, all present an unconventional tale of love amidst great hardship.
The yakuza theme, though present, can hardly describe this narrative as the character Kinichi seems to have no directive whatsoever from a higher authority. In fact, the scenes in which Kinichi's "boss" appears are nearly comedic due to the boss's utter lack of real power and authority. And speaking of comedy, Mochizuki intentionally interjects throughout this film comedic elements which often undermine a serious depiction of the yakuza figures.
This complete intermingling of romance, yakuza and comedy genre without a clear adherence to the rules of any particular one causes well-respected j-film commentator Tom Mes of Midnight Eye to declare this film as "in a class by itself". And while I may disagree with Mes' assessment and don't personally feel this film really distinguishes itself to the point of meriting its own class, it is undeniable that there are several balls of equal weight all in the air here as Mochizuki juggles this narrative's plot.
But there is in fact a fourth ball to this film which seems clearly out of balance with the other three. In an interview regarding the production of this film Mochizuki discusses his insertion of the bizarre "mother's voice" scene wherein the potentially most violent scene between Kinichi and Yoko is replaced by a scene wherein Kinichi seems to unconsciously "channel" his deceased mother who speaks directly to Yoko. In the interview Mochizuki explains that he once met a guy like that, who heard his mother's voice, etc, and he thought it would be an interesting addition to the film at this point. The scene itself is quite inconsequential plot-wise though undoubtedly memorable for its emotional impact upon Yoko and viewers.
What I cannot help but notice is how this oddly inserted ball seems to have eclipsed the other three in the juggler's mind as he decided on his grand finale. To be less abstract... the ending of this film is wholly inexplicable in terms of any of the three predominant genre-themes and can exist solely in terms of Mochizuki's quirky idea of the "mother's voice".
And so I suggest the ending of this film is only as strong as the viewer's willingness to invest themselves in the films most (intellectually) controversial scene.
Version reviewed: Region 1 subtitled DVD available at all mainstream venues.
|No cultural elements here.||Far more boisterous threats than action. However beatings (of and by males and females) as well as gunshot wounds (sometimes fatal) are thoroughly depicted.||Some raucous and vocal copulation. Who knew that a little ear-wax could induce such an orgasm??||Actor Okuda does an excellent job here and this proves to be a rather compelling story (until you begin thinking about the ending...)|