More Than “A Family”

A Review of Netflix’s First Yakuza Film

By Jude Jiang, Guest Author

The Japanese movie sector is never lacking for serious gangster movies nor delicate family dramas that are sure to bring audiences to tears. It is rare to see a work that can balance a good combination of these genres.

The 2021 Japanese crime drama movie, A Family (ヤクザと家族 ), played a pioneering role by exploring a fresh narrative upon the well-travelled yakuza theme. It was the follow-up to director Michihito Fujii’s successful The Brightest Roof in the Universe (2020) and The Journalist (2019) which was adapted to a TV series this year.

The three acts of this narrative tale were divided across 20 years with chapters based in 1999, 2005 and 2019, against the backdrop of the yakuza’s decline over that period.

Unlike the old-school yakuza tales, the storytelling in this movie took a close look at a single person’s struggle of adherence to his code of honor and family, despite the police’s increasing crackdown upon yakuza.

More than a yakuza drama, this is a tale of an orphan who tried to create family ties in the complicated networks defining the dark underbelly of Aichi Province in the city of Nagoya. What we find is the cold reality that everything Kenji strove for turned to dust. However, even in Kenji’s tragedy, there is sown seeds of hope in the next generation.

Kenji agreed to join Shibasaki’s gang. Courtesy of Netflix.

Synopsis

Following the death of his drug-addicted father, the closest thing young Kenji Yamamoto (Go Ayano) had to family was his two fellow street thugs that he called brothers.

The rakish teen intervened in a turf war between yakuza syndicates and saved the life of yakuza leader, Hiroshi Shibasaki (Hiroshi Tachi). Shibasaki ran his syndicate in strict adherence to the traditional yakuza code of honor and prohibited drug trade. Kenji found meaning and a sense of belonging in the gang “family.”

Kenji forged a strong commitment to the yakuza code and eventually took on the role of Shibasaki’s foster son. In the search to form a family of his own, Kenji fell for the spirited bar girl Yuka Kudo (Machiko Ono) who was a strong-minded orphan working hard to pay off college tuition. Sharing the same isolation, she shared a bond with Kenji and succumbed to his rough charms. Meanwhile, the owner of Kenji’s favorite restaurant, a single mother, had a child Tsubasa Kimura (Hayato Isomura) who grew up admiring Kenji and treating him as a surrogate father and idol.

The heart-warming development of intimate connections broke off once a yakuza territorial dispute infringed on the life Kenji was developing. After a bloody attack on Shibasaki, Kenji sought to defend the gang’s honor in a petty gangland vengeance which sent him to jail on a murder charge for 14 years.

Upon his return to the society, Kenji found the people in his life and the world he knew had faced earthshaking changes. He realized that it would be impossible for him to restart the life as a normal person. With no hopes remained, he decided to fight once again for the code of family.

Kenji became a pawn in a yakuza territorial dispute. Courtesy of Netflix.

The Proper Mix of Blood and Tears

Alternatively titled Yakuza and the Family, the story was not limited in portraying only Kenji’s yakuza family. It unfolded the narrative upon a variety of relations, tinged with Asian sentiment and sentimentality.

Whether it’s about honor-bound Yakuza family bonds, his lifelong “brothers”, the spiritual son Tsubasa, or Yuka who bore Kenji’s daughter, the narrative drew a wide spectrum of family ties within Kenji’s life. Their relationships with Kenji shaped the family drama themes of departure, reunion and continuity of generations, which added layers of colors to an otherwise dark and cold yakuza story.

In this sense, the movie can be regarded as an unconventional family drama even though it did delve into serious crime elements such as drug-dealing, assassination and revenge.

Kenji with his teen friends were regular customers of a yakuza-frequented restaurant. Courtesy of Netflix.

The story was a narrative breakthrough that gave it a more international appeal and, although the cinematography was not groundbreaking, the movie adopted an internationally industry-standard cinematic language, which may have broadened the film to reach more international audience. It certainly attracted Netflix to take a chance on this very Japanese genre.

However, being too industry standard has brought criticism that the movie lacks a cinematic signature in terms of director’s visual style and some reviewers have noted that, to a western audience, the story may seem melodramatic.

Still, it is a strong and personal account exploring the social implications of the realistic crackdown on Yakuza and the powerful performances of the actor ensemble make this a worthwhile watch.

A Family (Japanese: ヤクザと家族 The Family; alternate English title: Yakuza and the Family)—Japan. Directed by Michihito Fujii. First released January 29, 2021 in Japan. Running time 2hr 16min. Starring Go Ayano, Hiroshi Tachi, Machiko Ono.

By Jude Jiang

Jude Jiang is a bilingual writer based in China. She has a strong interest in bridging the understanding between western and eastern worlds through storytelling.

Osaka ain’t no party, It ain’t no disco, It ain’t no foolin’ around

By Richard Trombly

Osaka, 13 October 2019 – I was strolling through Nishinari Ward near DoubutsenMae (the zoo area), my neighborhood in Osaka, tonight enjoying the autumn scent encroaching into the air mixed with the rich smells coming from the many small restaurants in the close-packed store fronts. Admittedly, this is the low budget end of town despite being just blocks from the tallest building in Japan and the brand malls and boutiques of the prosperous Tennoji area, it is home to a notorious area of prostitution and dubious karaoke bars where 100 yen (USD $1) gets you one song and a bar maiden to be your audience, as well as homeless elderly folks camped under the eaves of a warehouse across from the Shin Imamiya railway station. So amidst the din of mealtime conversation spilling from these restaurants and the alcohol-fueled warbling rising out of these KTV, I came across and incredible, yet very common, find. It was a concert hall of about 12 square meters with a jamming guitar playing acoustic solo and heart-felt lyrics being belted out in a rich voice, gravelly with too many cigarettes and lost hopes. The lyrics of “Life During Wartime” by The Talking Heads came to mind.

This ain’t no party, this ain’t no disco,
This ain’t no fooling around
This ain’t no Mudd Club, or C. B. G. B.,
I ain’t got time for that now.”

Earth Music Cafe in Nishinari, Osaka

Osaka actually does have time for that, though, I thought. It really runs at a different pace than other places, especially compared to fast-paced Shanghai, where I have spend most of my past two decades, or Tokyo. As the second-largest city in the island nation, it is the very antithesis of the capital. There is very little outdoor advertising here because people here are hard to market to. They seem to have little use for status symbols of consumerism. And there is an underground culture and art movement here that is quiet yet pervasive.

A concert hall? Not really, but it is a music cafe called EARTH that barely functions as a business. It is a gathering point for the proprietor, Daichi Terakawa’s friends, for music makers, and perhaps a dozen music lovers at a time. But that does not matter, because it is a place to perform. Here, art matters. It reminded me of that club CBGB in the Bowery, a rather impoverished area of New York City, or at least it was back in the day that bands like The Talking Heads,The Ramones, Patti Smith, The Police, and other bands got a chance to be heard in an ever-narrowing music industry.

CBGB was a pioneering music club in the Bowery, New York City

I am not saying that this bar is going to launch stars like Hilly Kristol did, but CBGB was created for performance, not for fame. This hole-in-the-wall is just that, a performance space. It is a place free of the studio-perfect meter and pitch and recorded perfection that destroys the very sense of the concert experience today, as most bands perform to a pre-canned music track and just do a stage performance, perfectly choreographed to death of any art.

It is so much more rewarding to see an earnest artist perform an imperfect and beautifully raw and flawed performance in a venue like this, or the famed Iron Horse performance space in the old stomping grounds of my youth in the western end of Massachusetts. The experience to see bands in a venue where you are one of less than 100 people packed into a venue is priceless. The performance there is genuine and the energy of the performers is powerful.

traditional Rakugo performers are “sit-down comedians”

Osaka is rich with this sort of art sensibility. Currently the city ward is in the midst of the Shin Imamiya Festival featuring traditional folk drama in non-traditional venues, concerts on the street, and even Rakugo, (literally “fallen words”), but it means a “sit-down” comedian, performing folk comic routines dressed in traditional attire. Osaka just hosted a citywide vibrant month-long celebration of this art that pushes the edge with the Fringe Festival https://osakafringe.com/home-english/. Venues across the city and even parks held a wide variety or concerts, stage plays and performance art but the energy and feel of this underground art culture is there year-round.

Richard Trombly is a writer living in Osaka and Shanghai. Email Richard@trombly.com